Studies have shown that students who use an approach known as RULER are less anxious, better behaved, more attentive and more independent — with greater leadership skills.

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The Tuesday she got back a recent math test, 11-year-old Angellie Turcios zeroed in on a decimal problem that she had struggled to answer.

She got it wrong.

Her face flushed and her stomach knotted.

In the past, her chin would sink to the desk and she’d worry all day that missing that answer and others might hurt her report card.

Then she remembered something else she’d learned at Lake Hills Elementary in Bellevue this year — an emotional skill rather than an academic one.

Angellie took a deep breath, told herself to calm down, and it worked: She felt better and was able to concentrate on the day’s new math lesson.

Across Bellevue, elementary-school teachers report similar successes this year, as they’ve started to teach students about feelings as explicitly as they teach math and reading. Students aren’t letting bullies on the bus or playground ruin their days, for example, and they’re dialing back the snarky put-downs that can make classrooms toxic for learning.

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to some of the most persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network, a New York-based nonprofit that works to spread the practice of solutions-oriented journalism. Education Lab is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Emotions once were considered separate from thinking, bubbling up from the ancient depths of our brain — distractions to be squelched, not studied.

But the past three decades of brain research have shown that thinking and feeling are intertwined in complex ways affecting attention, memory and judgment.

Bellevue is among a growing number of districts around the country putting that research to work, which is already helping keep many children out of the principal’s office.

“When a child doesn’t read well, we teach. When a child doesn’t do math well, we teach. When a child doesn’t behave well, we what? Often, it’s discipline,” said Stephanie Wright, the district’s curriculum developer for social-emotional learning.

Bellevue is using an approach created at Yale, called RULER, aimed at teaching students — and teachers — how to Recognize, Understand, Label, Express and Regulate emotions. It’s based on the work of two psychologists who launched the scientific study of “emotional intelligence” a quarter-century ago.

Studies have shown that students in RULER schools are less anxious, better behaved, more attentive and more independent — with greater leadership skills.

The results have been similar in all types of schools — public and private, rich and poor.

Dan Sakaue, a teacher at Cherry Crest Elementary School in Bellevue, works through a RULER program with his fifth-grade students. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
Dan Sakaue, a teacher at Cherry Crest Elementary School in Bellevue, works through a RULER program with his fifth-grade students. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

“We’ve shown that in the most tough districts … and even in special-education schools, we were able to bring suspension rates and office visits down by as much as 50 percent,” said Marc Brackett, one of RULER’s creators.

There have been some academic gains, too — a boost in language-arts scores after 30 weeks in a 2012 study — and researchers expect that improving the classroom environment eventually will boost overall academic achievement, too.

Such results — from RULER and other social-emotional programs — inspired a bipartisan group of Washington legislators to propose a bill this session that would make social-emotional training part of every child’s school day.

More than 800 schools across the country are using RULER, including about two dozen in Seattle.

And while Bellevue is just in its second year of RULER, teachers say the approach already has helped them focus more on teaching and less on misbehavior.

The district will pilot RULER in middle schools next year — and high-school teachers are clamoring for it, too, in part to help high-performing students stressed about getting into top colleges.

“We are getting begged by high-school teachers who don’t have anything right now,” Wright said.

RULER lessons are taught in Dan Sakaue’s fifth grade classroom at Cherry Crest Elementary School in Bellevue. (Mike Siegel & Katie G. Cotterill / The Seattle Times)

Scientific argument

Talking about feelings in an era obsessed with test scores can come across sounding soft, squishy, and well, a little hokey — like something a self-help guru might peddle on late-night cable.

That’s why Brackett, who directs the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, always starts with the science.

“That to me is the way you get people to take this work seriously,” he said.

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Click upper-right corner to expand.

RULER draws on more than two decades of research by psychologists John Mayer and Peter Salovey, who first proposed in 1990 that some people are naturally better at reading and managing their emotions (and the emotions of others) to solve problems — an ability they called “emotional intelligence.”

In 1995, science journalist Daniel Goleman cited their work in a best-selling book called “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.”

The book sparked huge interest, but the hype quickly outpaced the science and led some critics to write off the whole idea as a fad.

Yet researchers have not thrown the baby out with the bath water and many, including Brackett, have continued to study how emotional intelligence can be used to prevent negative behaviors, such as bullying, and to enhance learning.

While the science is far from settled, it’s clear that feelings influence thinking and vice versa in many ways relevant to education.

Emotions direct our attention, for example, which helps if a tiger suddenly appears, but not when a student worries more about bullies than algebra.

Emotions also may subconsciously bias judgment.

Brackett and his colleagues, for example, found that middle-school teachers asked to remember a negative experience just before grading essays gave lower marks than teachers prompted to recall a positive one.

RULER, which has been in schools since 2005, starts with a tool called a “mood meter” — a sheet of graph paper divided into four colored quadrants — designed to build students’ vocabularies about emotion beyond happy, mad and sad.

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Click upper-right corner to expand.

On a recent Wednesday morning, Angellie’s teacher, Steve Gritton, handed out mood meters to help his students analyze a fictional character’s feelings and actions — piggybacking on literacy skills they’re already required to learn.

As Gritton read the story of a fourth-grade boy who works up the nerve to talk to a cute girl in the cafeteria, he asked students to identify what the boy was feeling.

His students pegged him in the yellow quadrant — pleasantly energetic — when he thinks the girl likes him, then dropped him to the lower left blue square — low energy, unpleasant — when she rejects him and a bully yanks out his chair.

When the boy then smashes cake in the face of a third-grader laughing at him, Gritton’s students yelled “Red” (energetically unpleasant).

Gritton then asked them to imagine how they would react in the same situation, and they debated whether simply apologizing would be enough.

“It’s a good place to start,” Gritton said.

Teacher Steve Gritton works with fifth-grader Patrick Chojnacki at Lake Hills Elementary School in Bellevue. The class is discussing the book “Fourth Grade Rats” in an effort to help students recognize, name and manage their emotions. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
Teacher Steve Gritton works with fifth-grader Patrick Chojnacki at Lake Hills Elementary School in Bellevue. The class is discussing the book “Fourth Grade Rats” in an effort to help students recognize, name and manage their emotions. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

Modern-day skills

Another Bellevue fifth-grade teacher, Dan Sakaue, said RULER embodies ideals he always has embraced during 28 years in education.

“Now it just has a name,” said Sakaue, who teaches gifted students at Bellevue’s Cherry Crest Elementary — a school with little poverty where nearly all students pass state exams.

He’s seen how RULER helps his students think more carefully about classmates’ feelings and perspectives — an important skill in the modern workplace.

“You cannot do anything if you have smarts and you don’t have the social skills to pull it off,” he said.

Last fall, his students wrote a class charter — another key RULER tool — outlining how they want to feel in class, and how they will achieve it.

They’ve also learned how to use two other RULER tools.

One is the “meta-moment” — how to use the few seconds after a flash of anger to take a deep breath before acting and imagine what your “best self” would do.

The other is the “blueprint,” a procedure to resolve more serious disputes.

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Over this school year, Sakaue says, his students have become fiercely committed to their charter, holding each other — and themselves — responsible for upholding it.

One girl did both at a recent class meeting the students run themselves.

“I have noticed a few situations where one person is telling the other person what to do sometimes,” she said, referring to the charter, which calls for mutual respect.

“Were you the one being unrespected?” a classmate asked.

“I think I’ve probably done it both ways, a few times,” the girl conceded.

His students speak up if they feel they’re not getting enough math-skill practice, but Sakaue said he gets no grief about the time spent on RULER activities — which can take up to almost two hours each Wednesday.

“The downfall is that sometimes it takes too much time,” Sakaue said, but he thinks it’s worth it and students balk if he cuts it short.

Parents haven’t complained, either.

“Their kids are coming home more responsible,” he said, “they’re coming out as more powerful people.”

Fifth-grade students Mira Chew and Sharon Chang (in foreground) take part in a RULER-designed lesson in teacher Dan Sakaue’s fifth-grade class at Cherry Crest Elementary School in Bellevue. Each student is asked to say something supportive to a fellow student. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
Fifth-grade students Mira Chew and Sharon Chang (in foreground) take part in a RULER-designed lesson in teacher Dan Sakaue’s fifth-grade class at Cherry Crest Elementary School in Bellevue. Each student is asked to say something supportive to a fellow student. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

Growth of RULER

RULER isn’t Bellevue’s first attempt at teaching social and emotional skills.

After the state Legislature told Washington school districts to do something about bullying in 2010, Bellevue quickly purchased an off-the-shelf set of lessons that didn’t achieve all that they’d hoped.

Elementary teachers reported that kids in the upper grades learned to say all the right words, but their behavior didn’t change, so the district searched for another approach.

Teachers liked RULER because they said it gave them more flexibility, didn’t just target problem behaviors and worked in a wide range of schools, from affluent Cherry Crest to Lake Hills, Angellie’s school, where 65 percent of families qualify for the federal lunch program.

District officials also visited Seattle’s South Shore PreK-8, the first school in the state to use RULER, which experienced a dramatic drop in the number of kids sent to the office for behavior problems. And Bellevue is working with the University of Washington’s 3DL Partnership to implement RULER well.

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Click upper-right corner to expand.

Seattle now is using RULER extensively, too, in 23 schools this school year and an additional 25 planned for next.

Some private schools are using it, too, including Seattle’s Bush School, which will start RULER training this fall.

RULER isn’t as expensive as some alternatives — Bellevue has spent around $50,000 during the three-year phase-in period to pay for teachers’ manuals and training.

Adults learn, too

Brackett and Yale psychologist Susan Rivers initially tried RULER with students only but discovered that it wasn’t effective unless all the adults in a school learned how to use it first.

They found that while some teachers have always understood that emotions matter in learning, others struggle with that idea — and ignore it if they don’t get the proper training.

“You need to embody these skills and believe in it, because otherwise you’re going to sound like a used-car salesman,” said Bellevue’s Wright.

For adults and students, RULER’s tools take practice, and no one strategy works for everyone.

“It’s not something that’s going to come in and cure everything,” said Gritton, Angellie’s teacher at Lake Hills.

But when students learn to express their feelings, they convey much more about their thinking than teachers can decipher from a test score.

A recent parent conference brought that home for Gritton as he told one mother that he couldn’t understand why her son’s scores on class math tests were so much lower than on a separate, diagnostic exam.

He turned to the boy and asked him why.

The boy thought about it for a moment, then explained that he feels really stressed when he has to explain his answers in writing on the class tests. The diagnostic test was mostly multiple-choice.

Gritton nodded, saying, “I can work with that.”

The next time he sees that student staring off into space during a test, he’ll ask him if he’s stuck, try to quell his anxiety and help get him back on track.