Michael Eggleton, Head of School, Charles Dickens Primary School, Nursery and Research School, UK
Five years ago, I had been newly appointed as a deputy headteacher. I soon realised that we had little in place to support the mental wellbeing of children in our school. What we did have was a private education psychologist who intervened when a child was in a crisis. However, this wasn’t a long-term solution and certainly wasn’t proactive. I wanted to develop something in the school that levelled the playing field for all and supported everyone’s mental wellbeing in the same way that PE lessons supported everyone’s physical health. During the summer term of 2015, I read about an evidence-based approach called RULER in the New Scientist. At the time, RULER had been around for about 10 years, had strong impact evidence and had been implemented in thousands of schools across the US. RULER was created at Yale University, led by Dr Marc Brackett, Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. RULER stands for the five skills of emotional intelligence: Recognising, Understanding, Labelling, Expressing and Regulating emotions. RULER uses four main tools to help children and the adults in their lives build these skills of emotional intelligence: a class or school Charter, a Mood Meter (Figure 1), tools to manage emotions called Meta-Moments and a restorative justice approach called the Blueprint. RULER is underpinned by the vigorous and explicit teaching of emotional vocabulary used to identify and regulate emotions, supporting long-term wellbeing.
Rivers and Brackett’s (2010) study found that children in preschool RULER classrooms demonstrated greater emotion recognition and improved emotion labelling, while a longitudinal RULER study (Brackett et al., 2012) demonstrated that children who acquired RULER skills experienced improved attainment and employment outcomes, empathy, social competence and leadership skills.
Our introduction of RULER drew on the best practice ideas from the sixth recommendation of the EEF report ‘Improving social and emotional learning in primary schools’ (2019). These included having a shared vision, careful planning implementation, enabling all class teachers to teach RULER, providing professional development and monitoring the quality of implementation.
Adapting RULER to the UK
We found that tweaks were needed to make RULER more user-friendly for UK teachers, such as changing some of the taught language. We produced an adapted language progression list, relatively short but used systemically throughout the school. The emphasis is on thoroughly teaching a handful of words each year and exploring subtle differences between them.We were also conscious of the workload implications of introducing a new approach to teaching social and emotional learning. To this end, and based upon the RULER tools, we created a scheme of work, assessment tools and booklets for the children. The booklets include long-term well-practised strategies to support wellbeing and have ensured that teachers do not spend hours planning lessons. The supporting materials also enable all staff to teach RULER lessons to a high standard.
The implementation challenge
Naturally, introducing something new to a large, successful school created some challenges. We wanted teachers to be able to choose when they taught the lessons but, despite the skill and enthusiasm of teachers for emotional wellbeing, teaching this was completely new to them. Some staff saw the lessons as an ‘add-on’. As a result, wellbeing lessons were often dropped in a busy timetable and sometimes lessons reverted back to the more familiar circle time. To combat this, we raised the lessons’ profile by increasing training and embedding RULER throughout the whole school, not just during stand-alone lessons. After just one year, lessons were being taught successfully across the school.
Since introducing RULER, our tracking has showed that almost all children can articulate and accurately describe their emotions. By the time children leave our school in Year 6, they are adept at using a range of emotional vocabulary to describe how they are feeling. There are fewer barriers to learning within the class and behaviour has improved substantially. Teachers report that children now know how to regulate their emotions and can explain how to live a healthy and happy life. As teachers and staff, we feel that we know the children far better than before and have solid strategies to help their wellbeing.
Whilst stuck at home during lockdown, we found that children were struggling with their emotions more than ever, and were grappling with emotions that they had not felt before. Children struggled with feeling connected to others, their sense of purpose had gone, some felt lonely, anxious and many bored. Our wellbeing lessons adjusted to meet this need and we created wellbeing animations which focused on a different emotion each week. The animations were important as we didn’t want children to feel as though it was just another lesson. We wanted these lessons to be accessible for all, quick and very engaging. In these animations, we explored different regulation strategies to help children in their new normal. For example, what do you do when you are feeling bored? Children and parents alike found these lessons hugely valuable and a stimulus to start meaningful conversations in the home.
We are now working with schools across the country to support mental health and wellbeing, with a particular focus on adapting RULER to a UK context. (See rulerapproach.org)
Brackett MA, Rivers SE, Reyes CR et al. (2012) Enhancing academic performance and social and emotional competence with RULER feeling words curriculum. Learning and Individual Differences 22(2): 218–224.
Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) (2019) Improving social and emotional learning in primary schools. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Publications/SEL/EEF_Social_and_Emotional_Learning.pdf (accessed 5 August 2020).
Rivers S and Brackett M (2010) Achieving standards in the English language arts using the RULER approach to social and emotional learning. Reading and Writing Quarterly 27(1): 75–100.