Highline Public Schools has joined the Seattle and Bellevue districts in adopting an approach to social and emotional learning called RULER.

Share story

Kids at Southern Heights Elementary School in Burien are learning this month what to do in those few seconds after they feel a flash of anger, but before they act in a way that could land them in the principal’s office.

Instead of lashing out, you take a deep breath and imagine how your “best self” would handle it.

It’s called a “meta-moment,” part of a new effort this year to teach emotional smarts alongside academics.  The school is using an approach called RULER, one of many programs being used by schools around the country to promote social and emotional learning.

RULER was developed at Yale University to show students — and their teachers and principals— how to Recognize, Understand, Label, Express and Regulate emotions.

Highline Public Schools is the third district in Washington state to use RULER, joining Bellevue and Seattle.  Nationally, RULER is used in a total of about 800 schools.

“Just as we are teaching 5- and 6-year-olds how to read, how do we think about ways to encourage them to reflect on their emotional state of mind,” said Jenniffer Reinig, who oversees Highline’s elementary school principals.

Seven of Highline’s 18 elementary schools are using RULER this year, from preschool through sixth grade.

The district plans to add six more elementary schools next year, and the final group the year after that, depending on the budget. The district spent about $30,000 this year for training and materials for the first seven schools.

Researchers have found that students in RULER schools are less anxious, better behaved, more attentive,  more independent and have greater leadership skills.

Seattle’s South Shore PreK-8 was the first in Washington state to use RULER, and experienced a dramatic drop in the number of kids sent to the office for behavior problems. Now RULER is used in 50 of Seattle’s elementary and middle schools.

This year, Bellevue is piloting RULER in middle schools, along with another social and emotional learning program called MindUP, from the Hawn Foundation.

School officials from Bellevue and Highline have visited South Shore to see how children and teachers use RULER skills to prevent negative behaviors such as bullying, and to enhance learning.

“A day at South Shore is enough to convince anybody,” Reinig said.

And it’s not just for the kids. Teachers, principals and other adults at RULER schools also learn how to identify and talk about their feelings so that everyone in the building speaks about emotions using the same terms and concepts.

For example, in RULER classrooms, students write charter agreements outlining how they want to feel in class, and how they will achieve it.

In Highline, the adults in each of the first seven schools have done that for themselves, too.

And at Southern Heights, RULER family nights and the school’s newsletter are keeping parents in the loop about charters, meta-moments, and “mood meters”  — a sheet of graph paper divided into four colored quadrants — designed to expand students’ vocabularies about emotion beyond happy, mad and sad.

“They’ve led the way in some of that family connection, but that’s definitely where we hope all of the participating schools will go next year,” Reinig said.