Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, the critical role of schools and educators as sources of support, connectedness, and stability has never been more visible. And, as students, families, and educators face the uncertainties and disruptions that have arrived with the pandemic, social and emotional learning (SEL) has never been more important.

“The simplest way to think about it is that, when all our emotions are even and life is good and there’s nobody triggering you, there are no stressors in your environment—there’s a lesser need for SEL skills,” says Marc Brackett, the lead developer of RULER, the evidence-based approach to SEL developed at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Brackett is founding director of the center, professor in the Child Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine, and author of Permission to Feel (Celadon, 2019).

“You always need [the skills], because life has its ups and downs,” he adds. “I always say, if you’re lucky enough to go on vacation and you’re lying on the beach chatting with your friends and reading a book, you don’t really need emotional intelligence in that moment. But when somebody walks by and kicks the sand in your face, that’s when you need these skills.” Connecting that example to current events, Brackett says, “I equate the coronavirus and also the racial injustice with this idea that the sand has been stirred, and we’re activated right now for legitimate reasons. There’s real anxiety around the coronavirus; there’s real anger around racial injustice. And so now is when we have to really put our emotional intelligence to the test to achieve the outcomes that we want.”

RULER is an acronym referring to five principles of emotional intelligence: recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing, and regulating emotions. The RULER approach ranks among the highly regarded models designated by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning as CASEL SELect programs, and it has deep roots in Brackett’s life experience.

Brackett recalls a difficult childhood marked by abuse and “horrific” bullying, and credits his uncle, educator Marvin Maurer, with offering him a true lifeline. “When I was 10 or 11, my uncle was developing a program to teach kids about feelings,” Brackett says. “He literally sat with me and talked to me about my emotions, and that led to us 10 years later starting to write a curriculum together. The whole RULER model really came out of my uncle being this amazing middle school teacher in the Catskill Mountains of New York State.” In 2003, Brackett brought the beginnings of RULER to his studies as a postdoctoral fellow with noted emotional intelligence pioneer Peter Salovey, who is now president of Yale University.

RULER is labeled an “approach” as opposed to a “program,” Brackett notes, because “there is no toolkit to develop SEL. It really needs to be a systemic approach—the way leaders lead, teachers teach, students learn, and families parent. And so we address all those people in our teaching of RULER.” Many other SEL models are classroom programs more heavily focused on specific lessons. Though RULER does have a curricular component, Brackett says, “What we find is very important is that the adults who are raising and teaching kids, they have to be the role models for children, so they have to learn the skills themselves and use them in their interactions. If adults are incapable of talking about what makes them feel alienated or anxious, then they will never be comfortable having those conversations with kids.”

As a result, RULER training begins with adults—often one leader and two educators or mental health professionals from a school—who attend the RULER Institute in person or online. That team then helps train the school’s staff, well before implementing RULER in classroom instruction and adding family engagement and education. RULER has been adopted by more than 2,000 schools across the U.S. and around the world, including the New York City public school system, the largest in the country, with 1.1 million students.

In the view of Dawn Brooks-DeCosta, principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School in New York City, “RULER builds a common language. It helps build community, empathy, compassion, and an avenue that allows for student agency, voice, and expression,” she says. “It promotes teacher and parent self-care and strategies to manage stress levels. These are all important, now more than ever, in helping to create a supportive, caring environment where students can learn, teachers can teach, and parents feel a part of the school community—acknowledged and supported.”

Though RULER training and implementation may look a bit different in a distance-learning climate, Brackett believes it’s important not to lose sight of the skills. The global situation today “is crazy, but we have to learn to live with that crazy,” Brackett says. “Relationships are relationships whether they’re in person or online. How I feel as a student is how I feel as a student, whether I’m sitting in my home on my computer or in my classroom. While there are different strategies that we might need to use to teach these skills, the skills are the skills, and they matter. As one RULER school principal says, ‘The school is not the climate, the people are the climate.’ I really appreciate that, because school is about people interacting and how we make them feel and how they make us feel and how we infuse these principles into learning. So, I feel strongly that you can do RULER just as well in a virtual world.”

In addition to shifting all RULER Institute trainings for educators online due to the pandemic, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence has created a “School Resources for Navigating Emotional Times” page that links to numerous resource guides, tips, articles, and free webinars to address the emotional needs of educators, students, and families.

CASEL has also stepped up to provide support and resources via its CASEL CARES initiative. Visitors to CASEL’s website and social media channels will be connected to a curated guide of free SEL resources related to Covid-19 and school closures for educators, parents, and caregivers. And, each Friday, CASEL features a new free webinar given by experts on SEL topics.

To read about the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence's free SEL course for Connecticut school staff, click here.

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