Stories and Social and Emotional Learning
Stories are integral to the RULER program at Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. As Dr. Craig Bailey the Director of the Pre-School RULER program explains:
‘Literacy and stories are important to RULER, and by extension, SEL, for three reasons. First, storybooks are ubiquitous in early childhood, and teachers often use storybooks in their teaching. Second, storybooks are a tool to show children what emotions look and sound like in others, how emotions impact peoples lives, and how emotions can be used to solve problems, which are all core components of social and emotional skills. Third, we encourage teachers to use best practices when reading stories to children, which include connecting the stories to their own personal lives and to the lives of the children. This technique promotes engagement, facilitates knowledge integration, and most importantly to children’s SEL, normalizes emotional experiences and talking about feelings. With a supportive emotional climate, sharing emotionally-laden stories is validating and begins the process of empathy.’
RULER is an acronym that stands for Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing and Regulating emotions. RULER is entering social and emotional learning into every fibre of the school day and this was clearly evident in my visit to The Friends Center Pre-School. Surrounded by trees, vibrant with displays and classrooms decked out with every possible resource a pre-school could need, this pre-school may just be the most beautiful place of education I have ever seen. Despite being a private pre-school, it is committed to having a school population that represents the diverse community in New Haven that it serves, therefore it provides a sliding fee system. The pre-school takes social and emotional learning very seriously and it is one of RULER’s flagship schools.
RULER in action
It was evident why as soon as I stepped through the door, as I was greeted by a mood meter. People have placed their names and their different moods onto the graph, which can be seen in the photo below.
There are mood meters in every classroom, but this meter at the entrance of the school is for staff to record their mood. This helps to model that social and emotional learning is not just for the children. Resources such as the mood meter, help staff and students to relate to each other, helping to form stronger relationships. Therese Luetzgendorf, a researcher at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence who previously taught at the pre-school, explained that tools such as the mood meter ensured that social and emotional learning was at the front of everyone's mind.
Applying RULER to different contexts
However, reflecting on my own experiences in the UK, I could imagine that it wouldn’t always be easy to implement something such as the mood meter. In some places I have worked, having the honest mood of the staff reflected at the entry of the school, might create a very dismal entrance, and I can imagine that some staff would find it uncomfortable to be open with their emotions in such a public way. However, when I discussed this with Dr. Craig Bailey, he explained that each school uses these tools differently. He wouldn’t expect each school to reach the stage of the Friends Center from the offset. Some schools may have the mood meter in a more private place to begin with, or teachers could start of by accessing the mood meter from their phones using an app, so it is a private record of their emotions. In fact all aspects of their program can be adapted to suit the individual school, but the friends of the earth school was a fantastic example of how it could be used in the best possible way.
RULER in the classroom
If I was impressed by the entrance way, I was blown away by what I saw in the classroom. I walked into a pre-school class and was soon greeted by a group of curious pre-schoolers who showed me their own classroom mood meter. Soon after I came in they sat down in a circle for story time. I was now able to witness the use of story that Dr. Bailey described. We read a book about Mrs McNosh and the Great Big Squash, by Sarah Weeks. The book made the children laugh and they were totally engaged, but what interested me was the questions that the teachers asked as they read. How do you think the cat felt, when he was squashed by that giant squash?’ When the children weren’t sure, they were encouraged to look at the cat's facial expression and think how they would feel. This is the recognising emotions stage of the RULER process and I was able to see this process being applied to a real life situation when one of the children tipped a basket of plastic fruit on the floor. Another child became very distressed by this and started crying big screwed-up-face tears. When the teacher came over to rectify the situation, she asked the child who had tipped out the fruit to look at the child who was crying’s face and to tell her how she thinks her friend is feeling because the fruit was tipped out. The child was able to see that he had made his friend sad and decided that he should probably pick up the fruit.
Recognising emotions is the start of the RULER process and RULER provides guidance on the types of books that could be used to teach each emotion, but it does not prescribe and teachers can choose other books if they prefer. Once a book has been chosen and read with questions about the feelings involved, the children are then encouraged to think of times they have felt that way and their teachers too of course! Children are also encouraged to ask their parents or a trusted person at home to share their stories regarding the emotions. Then the emotions are integrated into other areas of the school day, maybe through drama or play time. This consistent repetition and application gives the children the chance to understand, label and express these emotions.
Then there is one more stage of the RULER process left and that is regulating emotions. One example of how the RULER program helps children and their teachers to regulate their emotions, is through the meta-moment. The meta-moment teaches children to take a small opportunity to assess their emotions before they react. This is not taught when the children are experiencing the emotion, instead they are encouraged to consider when they might need a meta-moment before it arrives. Everyone can benefit from a meta-moment and like all the skills taught by the RULER programme, staff are made to reflect on their own triggers that might require meta-moments during their RULER training.
These simple changes in the way that social and emotional learning is applied in the classroom have been proven to make a big difference. In a clustered randomized control trial, classrooms in RULER schools were rated as having higher degrees of warmth and connectedness between teachers and students, more autonomy and leadership among students, and teachers who focused more on students’ interests and motivations. These findings suggest that RULER enhances classrooms in ways that can promote positive youth development.
Their are many other studies that demonstrate the programs effectiveness and the added prestige of the program being developed by Yale means that the program is being implemented by schools across the U.S. and the world. Despite the popularity of the program Dr. Bailey did explain that not all schools are convinced of the need for Social and Emotional Learning in the classroom. He mentioned one educator who told him he wouldn’t be implementing RULER because he ‘just didn’t believe in social and emotional learning’. I had to take a meta-moment after hearing this. After having spent the last two weeks talking to people who are all so passionate about and convinced of the importance of social and emotional learning, it was a bit of a crash down to earth to remember that in lots of ways social and emotional learning is still treated with suspicion by many educators. However, after taking my meta-moment and dealing with that disappointing thought, I was able to rally myself and remind myself that, that makes it even more important to collect all this positive information and proof of impact to help convince even the most sceptical of educators of it’s importance! They might be the teachers who could benefit the most from this type of program themselves!