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Reading, writing, empathy: Schools try 'Social Emotional Learning'

Yale researcher Mark Brackett says helping students to develop empathy can make teachers more effective and students more successful.

By Courtney MartinDowser.org / November 1, 2011

Anna Hsu, 5, (second from right) mimics teacher Kennis Wong as children sing a Chinese song at Broadway Elementary School in Venice, Calif. More schools are teaching 'social emotional learning' along with traditional academics, with some evidence suggesting that it raises grades and helps problem students.

REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/FIle

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Marc Brackett never liked school. “I was always bored,” he says, “and I never felt like any of my teachers really cared. I can’t think of anybody that made me feel inspired.”

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It’s a surprising complaint coming from a 42-year-old Yale research scientist with a 27-page CV and nearly $4 million in career funding. But Dr. Brackett knows that many kids feel the way he does about school, and he wants to do a complete emotional makeover of the nation’s schools.

At a time of contentious debate over how to reform schools to make teachers more effective and students more successful, “social emotional learning” (SEL) may be a key part of the solution. An outgrowth of the emotional intelligence framework, popularized by Daniel Goleman, SEL teaches children how to identify and manage emotions and interactions. One of the central considerations of an evolved EQ – as proponents call an “emotional quotient” – is promoting empathy, a critical and often neglected quality in our increasingly interconnected, multicultural world.

Brackett quickly learned that developing empathy in kids requires working on their teachers first. Ten years ago, he and his colleagues introduced a curriculum about emotions in schools, asking teachers to implement it in their own classrooms. When he observed the lessons, he was struck by the discomfort many of the instructors showed in talking about emotion.

“There was one teacher who took the list of feelings we had provided and crossed out all of what she perceived of as ‘negative’ emotions before asking the students to identify what they were feeling,” Brackett says. “We realized that if the teachers didn’t get it, the kids never would.”

So in 2005, Brackett and his team at the Health, Emotion, and Behavior Lab at Yale University developed a training program – now called RULER – that instructs teachers in the skills, knowledge, and attitudes necessary for emotional health, then helps them shift the focus to children.

The program focuses on five key skills: recognizing emotions in oneself and others, understanding the causes and consequences of emotions, labeling the full range of emotions, expressing emotions appropriately in different contexts, and regulating emotions effectively to foster relationships and achieve goals. Classrooms adopt “emotional literacy charters” – agreements that the whole community agrees to concerning interpersonal interactions – and kids use “mood meters” to identify the nature and intensity of their feelings and “blueprints” to chart out past experiences they might learn from.

But the curriculum doesn’t just exist as a separate subject. Teachers are trained to integrate lessons in emotion into other subjects. A discussion about the protagonist in a young adult novel can be an opportunity for students to practice reading emotional cues. History becomes not just a lesson about dates and battles, but a study in the ways in human emotion can be inspired or manipulated by charismatic leaders.

Now in use in hundreds of schools around the country, RULER has been measurably successful. Research indicates that the average student in a RULER-enriched classroom has 11 percent better grades and 17 percent fewer problems in school.

Now, Brackett’s group is embarking on a 10-year study of the longer-term effects of the RULER curriculum on 200 students in New York City and New Hampshire high schools.

In one New York City school that serves a high number of special needs students, administrators attribute a 60 percent reduction in behavioral problems to the RULER approach.

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