The Emotions of Learning: Q&A with Marc Brackett, PhD
Education research and education study are at the forefront today. The National Survey of Children’s Health reports that almost 50 percent of American children have suffered from “at least one type of severe childhood trauma.” This can make it difficult for students to learn. One group (Kautz. Heckman. Diris. Bas ter Weel. & Borghans. 2014) found social-emotional learning (SEL), “increases high-school graduation rates, postsecondary enrollment and completion, employment rates and average wages.”
We met with Marc Brackett to discuss the emotional aspect of learning. He is the founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and a professor at Yale University’s Child Study Center. He also developed RULER which is an evidence-based approach for social and emotional learning.
Dr. Brackett studies the role of emotions in learning, decision making, relationship quality, and mental health. He also studies best practices for teaching emotional intelligence. InspirED is an open-source resource center that supports high school students in leading positive changes in their schools.
Let’s begin with the basics. What can emotions do to students at school?
Research and programming at Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence are based on the idea that emotions matter. RULER is based on a fundamental insight gained from the research: Emotions influence attention, memory and learning, decision making, health, creativity, and even our ability to remember things. They are essential to our mental and physical well-being. They also open up opportunities for us to be successful at school, work, and elsewhere.
Emotions can either help or hinder us. Our brains are more open to curiosity and motivated when we are satisfied with our basic needs. These emotions support cognitive functions, allowing us to pay attention, absorb information, and learn. If we become engulfed by strong emotions, particularly those of anger and despair, our minds drift to the source or cause of our fear or pain. This was helpful for our primitive ancestors as they hunted a bear or ran from a snake. However, it is not useful for us to sit in a classroom trying in vain to absorb information.
Teaching-learning is also affected by emotions. Teachers must be able to keep students’ attention and engage them in learning. Teachers must be sensitive to the emotions of their students and themselves to do this effectively. Students should pay attention to the things they are passionate about. Our goal as educators is to provide content and present it in a way that matters to students. Skilled educators use the emotions of their students to improve learning. They can even shift moods as necessary.
Are RULER programs only for students? Or can adults also benefit from it?
RULER is different from other school-based programs in that it focuses on the development of adults at the school. This allows them to be role models and skilled implementers of skill-based instruction for students. Research has shown that leaders and educators with higher emotional intelligence have higher levels of empathy and sensitivity for others, are more effective in developing teams, and receive higher performance ratings. They also experience lower stress and burnout and create a more supportive environment. Positive school climates are created when both students and adults develop emotional intelligence. These skills can be learned and practiced using the RULER approach. It starts with educators and leaders but then expands to students and their families.
Let’s get started. Can you please explain the RULER approach to business?
RULER stands for the five skills that make up emotional intelligence.
- Understanding emotions within oneself and in others
- Understanding The causes and consequences for emotions
- Labeling emotions using a nuanced vocabulary
- Expression of emotions according to cultural norms and the social context
- Helpful strategies for regulating emotions
These five skills are associated with higher academic and work performance, better relationships, improved leadership skills, less anxiety, depression, conflict resolution skills, and better overall wellbeing.
RULER is also the name of our evidence-based approach to emotional and social learning that supports the whole school community.
- Understanding the value and importance of emotions
- The development of emotional intelligence
- Positive emotional climates: Creating and maintaining them
RULER helps school leaders, staff, students, and family members to manage their emotions so they can make better decisions, have mutually supportive relationships, grow and thrive, and be successful in academic and personal life.
Does the RULER program apply only to schools?
RULER was introduced in more than 2000 public, charter, and private schools in 2005. It has reached more than a million students from rural and suburban areas. We offer training for families to support the RULER school rollout, as well as standalone resources to help siblings, parents, and children manage the emotional difficulties they face.
RULER training is based on four core anchor tools: the Charter and Meta-Moment, Blueprint, and Mood Meter. These are presented to all stakeholders (school leaders, teachers, students, staff, parents, and families) with appropriate content. The Charter is simple for young children, while the Blueprint is more complex for older children. As cognitive, emotional, or social skills develop, the complexity will increase for those in the higher grades and adults. This model creates a common language that is shared by the school community and allows for multiple transmissions (e.g. adults modeling the skills they teach their students).
What have you seen in schools where staff and students do this work?
Research shows that RULER encourages positive student development by fostering a variety of adult and student behaviors as well as shifts in school culture. After just one year, RULER was implemented in two studies. One showed a 10% improvement in academic performance and the other showed a 12% improvement in classroom climate. Here are some examples of specific outcomes:
- Develop emotional intelligence skills
- Learning problems and attention issues that are less common
- Demonstrate greater leadership and social skills
- Be less anxious and depressed
- Improve your skills in solving conflicts
- Academically, you will perform better and be more engaged
Education leaders and educators
- Be more positive in your relationships
- Warmer emotional climates
- Reduce stress and burnout
- Get healthier mentally and physically
- Enhance your instructional practices
How can schools get involved in this work?
This six-page laminate is available for educators and schools. It provides an overview of emotional and social learning including RULER. The Mood Meter App is another resource.
Formal RULER adoption occurs when a group of school staff are trained at Yale or elsewhere to bring the tools and strategies for emotional intelligence back to their school. Our Center provides coaching and online resources.
To get started, schools can register for RULER Institute for Creating Emotionally Intelligent School. In the fall of 2019, an online version will be available. If 25 or more schools in a region or district are interested in adopting RULER, regional training may also be offered. email ROLLER to discuss the possibility to bring training to your region or district.
This interview was conducted by email and edited for clarity and length.
Jennifer L.M. Gunn worked for 10 years in magazine and newspaper publishing before she moved to public education. Gunn is a teacher coach, a curriculum designer, and a high school teacher in New York City. She co-founded the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference for teacher-led innovations and frequently presents at conferences on topics such as adolescent literacy and leadership.