Building Emotional Intelligence Through RULER

In classrooms a generation or two ago, it is unlikely that “emotional intelligence” topped the list of subjects most teachers prioritized for their students. But today, learning how to recognize, express, and explore feelings is a central part of the CEE curriculum as students develop the agility, creativity, and empathy required in the modern world.
After several years of pilot programs at The Center, the RULER approach to social-emotional learning—developed at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence—is now being integrated at CEE across the school, for students of all ages.

What is RULER? RULER stands for five areas of emotional intelligence: Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing and Regulating emotions

Why? Studies show that students in RULER programs are less anxious and depressed, manage their emotions more effectively, are better problem solvers, have greater social and leadership skills, experience fewer attention, learning, and conduct problems, and perform better academically.

RULER students learn a diverse range of feeling words, which allow them to articulate feelings and access emotions in a new way. Feelings that may have been previously suppressed or confused can be expressed and acknowledged, promoting stronger communication between children, teachers, and parents. Teachers integrate RULER into the academic curriculum in creative ways so students continue to practice the concepts throughout the school day.

What does RULER look like?

The Classroom Charter

At the beginning of the school year, each class creates a unique Classroom Charter as an expression of values and norms unique to the class, intended to make all feel safe, welcome, and heard.

Second grade teacher Shoshana Ross is the 2018-19 Leadership Fellow on RULER, along with a task force of teachers from Early Childhood through Upper Elementary helping teachers across divisions implement the approach and build upon their practices. She describes the Charter as a deliberate process that “builds positive emotional climates by creating agreed-upon norms for how we want to feel and how we can help each other experience these feelings. Instead of typical classroom rules that are teacher-directed, the Charter is an agreement that is based in feelings. We start with the question ‘How do we want to feel at school?’ then, ‘How will we make sure to feel these feelings?’ and finally, ‘What will we do when there is conflict or unwanted feelings?’”

Each class works together to build their own Charter which is then signed by all students and teachers, who share equal ownership in its values. Since the Charter is created completely by the students, and rooted in their feelings, they feel bound to it in an authentic way.

The Mood Meter

The Mood Meter is a tool that allows students to recognize their feelings and learn how to move between them. It helps enhance self-awareness, supporting the development of a nuanced emotion vocabulary and the ability to self-regulate. You will find Mood Meters of all kinds across the CEE campus!

The axes on the Mood Meter represent two components of emotions: energy and pleasantness. The x-axis describes the degree of pleasantness a person feels (from unpleasant to pleasant) and the y-axis represents a person’s energy (low to high). Every emotion can be plotted onto the Mood Meter, which teachers and students rely on in numerous ways during the school day.

Emotions in the RED (high energy and unpleasant) include anger, frustration and anxiety. Emotions in the BLUE (unpleasant and lower in energy) include boredom, sadness and despair. Emotions in the GREEN (pleasant and lower in energy) include tranquility, satisfaction and calm. Emotions in the YELLOW (pleasant and high energy) include excitement, joy and elation.

Each classroom uses Mood Meters differently. Some teachers and students start their days plotting how they are feeling, discussing why they are feeling that way, and thinking about how their feelings might affect their learning. Others conduct this activity in a private way (at each desk, or in a journal). It is not uncommon to overhear “I am in the green today!” on campus; Mood Meters provide a concrete tool students and teachers draw upon throughout the week.

Curriculum Integrations

RULER provides a framework to support social-emotional learning within the academic curriculum, too. Last year, 4th grade literature groups read Rules and Swallowed the Key, two novels which feature characters who go through many highs and lows, providing a number of emotional scenes to draw from. Rules features a girl who has a brother with special needs, as she faces friendship challenges and grapples with finding her identity, while the protagonist of Swallowed the Key is a boy who is diagnosed with ADHD and struggles with impulsive behaviors and trouble at home.

For some students, discussing a character’s feelings can come a bit easier than sharing their own feelings; the student can view a situation from one step back as a reader and writer. As Upper Elementary Learning Specialist Adam Koneman describes, the takeaways of breaking down emotional scenes with RULER “will often translate when they are ready to talk about their own situation.”

Studying literature through the lens of RULER can be an effective way to identify evidence around a character’s thoughts, words, or actions that can support a claim of an emotional feeling. Adam guides the students to root their arguments in concrete specifics; how do they know that someone is feeling something? If a character was “in the red” or “in the blue”—what advice would they give them to move out of that state? What would that look like in their own experience? Exercises like these allow students to practice identifying and expressing emotions throughout the daily academic program.

Finding a Common Language

Teachers reveal that the development of a common language around emotions is key to RULER’s success. Students feel at liberty to connect with RULER concepts at any point in the day. Shoshana describes how these tools can help children with times of transition or when conflict arises.

She explains how in one instance, “a student was struggling to regulate his excitement. We used the Mood Meter to talk him through his feelings, ‘moving from yellow to green,’ helping him practice strategies to help him self-regulate and grow from the experience. It turns what could have been a negative conversation about appropriate behavior into a positive learning experience."

In Early Childhood classrooms, individual glitter jars provide a means for children to pause and calm their emotions in a moment of excitement, stress, or conflict. When shaken, the glitter swirls slowly around the jar. Taking a moment to watch the glitter settle, children have an opportunity to begin to self-regulate and calm the mind. By the time the glitter reaches the bottom of the jar, many children can redirect or shift to a more neutral emotion.

Studies show that the higher emotional intelligence cultivated by RULER can predict future success in academics, healthy relationships, physical health, and overall quality of life. As students and teachers at CEE explore ways to bring RULER into the school day, they see how the little moments add up. The magic happens when an EC2 student finds the words to relate to her pen pal at PATH, a Kindergartener connects with a friend who is new to CEE, and a sixth grader comes to a deeper understanding of an important moment in history. These new perspectives help us all see each other for who we are, fostering better connections, well-supported students, and a strong community, this year and in the future.

This article was originally published in March 2019.
The Center for Early Education, a socio-economically and culturally diverse independent school for children, toddlers through grade six, strives to graduate students who are joyful, resilient, lifelong learners. The Center embraces a philosophy of education that combines a nurturing, inclusive learning environment with an increasingly challenging academic program that addresses the developmental needs of each child.