Using RULER As A Framework For Intentional Social and Emotional Learning
by Joey Feith
There’s a lot of talk about social and emotional learning (SEL) these days, and rightfully so.
After 12+ months of life in a global pandemic, students report that their intellectual, emotional, and social well-being is less than good.
And that’s only part of the problem: between 2012 and 2018, self-reported depressive symptoms in teenagers aged 13-18 years in the US increased by 20%. Over the past two decades, suicide rates among 15-19-year-olds have gone up by 47%. Between 40%-60% of students become chronically disengaged by school by the time they reach high school, and 30% of high school students engage in multiple high-risk behaviours.
Social and emotional learning is “the process of acquiring core competencies to recognize and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, appreciate the perspectives of others, establish and maintain positive relationships, make responsible decisions, and handle interpersonal situations constructively” (Elias et al., 1997). In turn, these competencies provide a foundation for better adjustment (Durlak et al., 2011).
The benefits of intentional, school-wide SEL instruction are increases in positive social behaviour, fewer conduct problems, less emotional distress, and improved test scores and grades (Greenberg et al., 2003).
When it comes to SEL, the question many teachers struggle with is “where do I start?”
Given its importance, the demands placed on teachers, and the incredible amount of available SEL resources, getting started with social and emotional learning can feel overwhelming.
That being said, I believe that the best way to approach something new (and slightly scary) is by using a framework to guide your thinking.
The RULER Approach
RULER is an evidence-based approach to social and emotional learning developed by the Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence.
As an approach, RULER has four main aims:
- To enhance the mindset of all stakeholders (e.g. emotions matter).
- To deepen social and emotional skills.
- To support healthier emotional climates in schools and homes.
- Promote SEL-infused pedagogy, practices, and school-wide policies.
Evidence supports the claim that RULER helps create a positive shift in school climate, enhance academic performance, improve student connectedness, and reduce bullying and aggressive behaviour.
The approach’s name is an acronym for the five steps that it represents:
• 👀 Recognizing
• 🧠 Understanding
• 🏷 Labelling
• 🗣 Expressing
• 🗺 Regulating
Helping students develop competence towards these five skills can provide them with the foundation they need to successfully self-regulate and navigate life’s different social and emotional challenges.
The RULER Tools
The foundation of RULER is a set of four core tools: The Charter, The Meta-Moment, The Blueprint and The Mood Meter.
Let’s take a look at each of these individually:
The Classroom Charter
The charter is an agreement that represents the students’ expression of values and norms unique to the class. Its purpose is to make all students feel safe, welcome, and heard.
Here’s how it works:
Each classroom creates its own charter through discussion, negotiation, and compromise. The goal is to answer the following three questions:
- As a class, how do we want to feel?
- To ensure that we all feel that way, what do we promise to do?
- When we encounter conflict or unwanted feelings, what will we do?
Once the charter is finalized, each student and teacher must sign it, and it remains on display in class. It becomes a reminder of the commitment the members of the classroom community made to each other.
The Meta-Moment is a procedure for responding to emotional moments with strategies that align with one’s “best self.”
It is a six-step process that helps students regulate their emotions. The process is based on our desire to act in ways that are aligned with our best selves.
Here are the steps of the Meta-Moment:
- Identify what has triggered you.
- Sense the changes that trigger has caused in your body and the changes it caused in the way you think about yourself and others.
- Take a pause.
- Reflect on your “best self”: how would your ideal self respond to this situation in a way that would make you feel proud about that response later?
- Decide which strategy you want to use to move forward.
- Successfully apply your strategy to the situation.
Over time, the goal is for students to internalize the process so that they can apply it when needed.
The Blueprint is a guided reflection to help students develop empathy & conflict resolution skills.
It uses questions anchored in emotional intelligence to support perspective-taking. By understanding the perspectives of others, students can develop empathy. The RULER steps are embedded into the Blueprint’s framework for reflection:
The Blueprint can be used as a self-reflection tool or as a framework for discussion.
The Mood Meter
The Mood Meter is a tool to help students label their emotions, make sense of their causes, and self-regulate.
It invites students to begin their reflection by asking themselves which quadrant they are in:
• Blue: Low Energy, Unpleasant
• Green: Low Energy, Pleasant
• Yellow: High Energy, Pleasant
• Red: High Energy, Unpleasant
From there, students then reflect on the level of energy and pleasantness the emotion is causing. Each variable is rated on a scale from one to five (-1 to -5 for emotions identified as “low energy” or “unpleasant,” +1 to +5 for emotions identified as “high energy” or “pleasant.”)
Using the quadrant and the energy/pleasantness ratings they’ve identified as coordinates, students then locate the emotion they are experiencing on the Mood Meter’s grid of over 100 emotional labels.
The goal here is to help students label their emotions with a nuanced vocabulary by identifying how those emotions are affecting their bodies and mind.
Bringing The RULER Tools To Your Teaching
I wanted to create a set of resources that would help me bring the RULER tools into my teaching in an intentional way.
Knowing how I present procedures to my students and how they like to use them, I designed a set of printable visuals that would help RULER live in my teaching.
The Classroom Charter Template
As a physical education teacher, I teach multiple classes. Knowing this, I wanted a simple template that would allow me to a) create a Classroom Charter with my classes and b) efficiently display each class’ charter.
I already use pocket sleeves to hold multiple printouts of my What/Why/How statements (and now Emotional Lens Cards) on my whiteboard. I keep all of the What/Why/How sheets in their assigned pocket sleeve and rotate through them to display the correct statements for each lesson I teach.
The system is efficient and straightforward, so I decided to do the same with the Classroom Charter. I designed a minimalistic Classroom Charter as a letter-sized template to complete it with each class and then leave them all in a pocket sleeve on my whiteboard.
Given how uncertain everything is these days, I also made a Google Slides version of the template to be shared/completed in a virtual teaching setting.
The Breather Space Poster
Although I really love the Meta-Moment procedure, I wanted to use language that my students might be more accepting of.
That’s why I made this colourful “Breather Space” poster. I just felt that it was more natural for me to invite a student to “take a breather” than to say, “do you need a Meta-Moment?”
The Breather Space poster is an illustrated version of the Meta-Moment procedure that I would teach to my students as I would any other routine in class. Similar to the Conflict Corner, it is a tool that I will need to remember to invite them to use before it becomes automatic for them. That being said, I know that it will eventually become second nature for my students to “take a breather” when they feel themselves being triggered (just as the students started using the Conflict Corner independently over time).
The “My Best Self” Reflection Sheet
Part of the Meta-Moment process is to reflect on one’s best self. However, students are rarely given an opportunity to articulate who their best selves are.
I recently [wrote an essay] on the power of a “best self” reflection. In the essay, I had a student write down on a piece of paper how they wanted to feel and how they wished for others to think of them.
When I was putting “The Breather Space” poster together, I knew that I wanted to have a more thorough “best self” reflection for the fourth step of the Meta-Moment Process.
I made this “My Best Self” reflection sheet (in both PDF and as a Google Classroom-friendly Google Slides version) to help my students answer the four following questions:
• How does my best self feel?
• What do others think of my best self?
• How does my best self treat others?
• How does my best self solve problems?
I’ll have my students fill out this reflection sheet at the start of the school year so that they have a concrete idea of who their best self is whenever they need to use the Breather Space.
Having this work completed at the start of the year also means that I’m using it proactively instead of reactively with my students. It gives us an opportunity to check-in, set goals, and adjust our sails as the year goes on.
The Blueprint Poster & Self-Reflection Sheet
As I mentioned earlier, The Blueprint can be used as either a guided discussion or self-reflection. To acknowledge this, I created two different resources to bring The Blueprint into my teaching:
The first is a poster that highlights the different steps of the Blueprint reflection. I wanted to have this as a visual in my gym so that – when needed – I could sit down with a student to talk things out and remind them that the Blueprint is a tool that is there to help them.
The second piece is a self-reflection sheet that students can use when they opt to use the Blueprint independently.
To make sure that the tool is always accessible to students, I created both a printable PDF version and a Google Slides version so that you can share it via Google Classroom and students can access it when needed.
The Mood Meter Poster
Finally, I wanted a version of The Mood Meter that guided students through the tool’s process.
At first glance, the Mood Meter is an intimidating document: over 100 emotional labels, organized across ten columns and ten rows, and sorted into four quadrants. It’s a lot.
To help students master the tool, I provided a step-by-step process directly on the poster with student-friendly visuals and language.
The poster starts off by inviting students to determine which quadrant (which I call “zone” to match with our previous SEL tools) they believe they are in.
From there, students determine how the level of energy and pleasantness the emotions is causing them to experience. This step requires the most practice, and you will need to really work with your students to help them hone their skills here.
With the quadrant identified and the energy/pleasantness levels rated, students now move to the Mood Meter’s emotions chart to plot how they are feeling on the graph.
To help with this, I added energy (lightning bolt) and pleasantness (heart) ratings underneath each emotional label.
Finally, once students have labelled their emotions with the nuanced vocabulary that the Mood Meter provides, it’s time to decide what to do next.
The fourth and final step on the poster provides two options: “Stay Here” or “Shift Gears” (I like things that rhyme).
“Stay Here” provides students with an opportunity to sit with their emotions. Sometimes, that’s what we need, and young people (and teachers) need to acknowledge that.
“Shift Gears” invites students to apply one of the emotional self-regulation strategies we’ve explored in class. This can include the Meta-Moment (“take a breather”) or the Blueprint, but it can also include [one of the other tools that we’ve learned in previous years].
Download The Intentional SEL Tools!
If you’re interested in accessing the RULER-based resources that I made for my teaching, you can do so by downloading the Intentional SEL Tools.
The download includes:
• The Classroom Charter Template (PDF + Google Slides Version)*
• The Blueprint Poster (PDF)
• The Blueprint Self-Reflection Sheet (PDF + Google Slides Version)*
• The Breather Space Poster (PDF)
• The “My Best Self” Self-Reflection Sheet (PDF + Google Slides Version)*
• The Mood Meter Poster (PDF)
- Add the Google Slides template to your Google Drive using the download’s README file links.
If you’re interested in having me work with your teachers to help them build their capacity to deliver intentional, meaningful social and emotional learning experiences to their students, I’d love to work with you!
99.8% of attendees report that they would be extremely likely to recommend my “Social & Emotional Learning: Baking It Into Your Program’s DNA” to a friend or colleague!
Check out this Twitter thread in which I share some of the most recent feedback I received from teachers who attended this session:
Interested in starting a conversation? Head on over to my Speaking Page and fill out the contact form there!
I hope that this blog post has helped you better understand the RULER approach and how it can be used as a framework to guide your SEL teaching.
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Thanks for reading! Happy Teaching!
Joey Feith is the founder of ThePhysicalEducator.com. Having taught elementary physical education for 10 years, Joey is now focused on helping physical educators grow their confidence and competence as teachers.
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