RULER: A Comprehensive Approach to Emotional Intelligence

Students in classroom

Success in school is something that has long been evaluated. When it comes to achieving academically, we continue to consider various instructional pedagogies, assessments and accountability models, technology and new curriculum. But more and more, many practitioners and researchers are turning to a foundational idea: academic performance is directly related to social and emotional intelligence.

This is not a new idea. Indeed, Abraham Maslow introduced his Hierarchy of Needs over 70 years ago as a way to explain how all of us can achieve or maximize our own self-actualization. Essentially, Maslow argued that unless our basic needs—including social and emotional well being—are met and optimized, we cannot achieve success in all areas of our human pursuits.

In an era of increased school violence, bullying, mental health challenges and record numbers of teen suicides, emotional intelligence is getting more attention than ever. And although many educators agree that it is important, not much has been developed regarding how we teach it, practice it or even master this for all students. Until now…

Thousands of educators have embraced the practice laid out by RULER, an evidence-based approach for integrating social and emotional learning into schools, developed at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.

But don’t be fooled. This is not just another program waiting to be piloted or added to a long list of cursory curricular drive-bys. Indeed, according to Jennifer Allen, Director of School Relations and Implementation at the Yale University Center for Emotional Intelligence, RULER is the exact opposite of a program, curriculum or packaged set of lessons.

“We call it, approach. It’s who you are. It’s more a way of being,” said Allen. “This is a way to value and address overall school climate. “Recognize each emotion that people feel, name it and understand it better.”

Allen suggests that the work and intent behind RULER is really a way to value and address overall school climate by recognizing each emotion that all of us feel, while also naming it and working to collectively understand it better.

“That’s why this is not a program,” said Allen. “This is not something to add on, but something to integrate in everything you do. Once you understand it, it becomes part of your daily pedagogy.”

Allen and her colleagues at the Yale University Center for Emotional Intelligence are dedicating themselves to this work. They realized early on that most educators see value in emotional intelligence, but are not sure how to embrace, integrate and incorporate it.

“It’s not uncommon to understand the importance of emotional intelligence, but not know how to operationalize it,” said Allen. “It gives them tools and skills and builds the language.”

For those that are working to connect this work in emotional intelligence to our personalized instructional approaches, Allen suggests this is really a continuation of empowering students.

“Teaching everyone to understand their emotions gives them the ultimate responsibility for their actions, decisions and lives,” added Allen. “It helps students, and all of us for that matter, to be more empathetic to others, as well as reflective.”

Allen and her team at Yale acknowledge that although we have always known that emotional intelligence was important, and maybe struggled on the how to teach or implement, that the current cultural and societal forces are driving educators to work to understand EI more. All of the stressors that we see manifested—mental health challenges, suicide, drug abuse and addiction, violence, accessing and paying for college—informing an increased awareness and connection between EI and all aspects of success. We are also at a very contentious time where people are struggling to have civil dialogue.

“We’re trying to get each other to recognize the differences, appreciate them and name them, she said. “If we’re not acknowledging our emotions, we’re limited the academic growth.”

If some remain skeptical, RULER emphasizes that EI is not about being happy all the time. “This is really about how to hone in on one’s emotional intelligence and emotions and showing the relationship to our success,” said Allen

Ultimately, RULER aims at getting students, as well as educators, to have agency over their emotions. Allen and her team see this is a necessary core skill set for today’s world and our future. “This is really a rethinking,” adds Allen. “What’s our conversation? Whether its behaviors, discipline, collaborating, communicating and being successful, this is making us better students and better teachers, but really better people overall.”

For those interested in learning more and considering adopting RULER, Allen and her team want you to know that this is aimed truly developing a more positive culture and climate at school and having that extend to our home lives and communities. The RULER team is ready to train a school or district implementation team who will ultimately train the entire staff. They offer online follow up support as well.

But if you’re still not convinced that RULER is different. Allen wants to let you know that this is different compared to other work. The staff prescribes that the first year of implementation is adults or staff only.

“The staff has to internalize it and model it before trying to do this with students,” she said. “This is not a new lesson to teach, but a new way to be.”

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Michael Niehoff

Michael Niehoff is a Getting Smart Columnist. He is a teacher, leader, blogger, and student advocate.

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