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Prioritizing the Whole Child

Looking beyond the traditional markers of classroom success, one district responded to alarming mental health data by committing to a social-emotional learning intervention
Emotion drawing

Posted in collaboration with Digital Promise, where this originally appeared. Usable Knowledge is a contributor to the Digital Promise Research Map, a learning sciences research hub. We share resources and posts that offer promising ideas for our readers.

How do you measure success in the classroom? Is it through grades and test scores, or something more like social-emotional learning?

At El Segundo Unified School District (ESUSD) in southern California, we view our district as highly successful in many ways. And we also recognize a need to look beyond traditional measures of academic success to consider the whole child.

After taking a deep dive into the California Healthy Kids Survey, we saw alarming results — a trend of students with increased anxiety, students not feeling a sense of belonging, and an increase in chronic sadness. We found that 81% of El Segundo high school students reported feeling stress on a daily basis. Data also shows an increase in chronic absenteeism resulting from anxiety, most notably at the secondary levels. This was a call to action to commit to a social-emotional learning intervention.

Research-based Interventions for Social-Emotional Learning

When considering an intervention for our district, it was essential to select a program that was backed by evidence. With social-emotional learning becoming a major topic of interest in the education field, we wanted to make sure we weren’t spending money on someone’s “hot idea.” Our community wants more than a “hot idea;” they want practices that have a high likelihood of being successful. And teachers also desire an intervention that is richly steeped in research, so it’s not just another program to try, but a vetted approach.

This understanding of the importance of an evidence-based approach led us to select an intervention called RULER. Developed at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, RULER teaches emotional intelligence skills—those associated with recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing, and regulating emotions.

Lessons Learned 

Lesson 1: Start with adults.

RULER starts with the adults, including educators and administrators, who attend an intensive training session to learn the anchor tools to increase their own emotional intelligence and model these tools for students. The first year of implementation began with staff and teachers; student rollout took place the following year. Starting with adults ensured buy-in and also helped to build key skills. It signaled that we were serious about approaching this as a whole-district priority. Starting with adults also helped our district move forward with the systemic work needed for change by looking at the program as a mindset, rather than a curriculum, and embedding it into everyday school life. 

Feelings do impact so much of our cognition; we have the power to shift our mood if we have the strategy. — Alice Lee, principal, Richmond Street Elementary School

Lesson 2: Let students lead.

As we’ve continued our implementation of RULER across ESUSD this year, each classroom has designed its own social-emotional learning charter. In this process, students become emotion scientists as they learn how to name their emotions, place themselves on the mood meter, and create strategy walls to shift their thinking and mindset to more closely align with their class charters. These steps reinforce a safe and comfortable social-emotional environment so that students can fully engage in learning. 

Lesson 3: See the whole student.

The RULER approach highlights the need to educate the whole child. In order for students to become effective global citizens, we must learn to view them in a holistic manner that recognizes them as individuals with discrete feelings. Being aware of feelings and how they impact behaviors and decisions is a strategy that students can use in the classroom and beyond. 

Next Steps for Our District

As we continue our journey of integrating social-emotional learning in our district, we see the value of developing a common language and framework around emotions so everyone (teachers, staff, and students) has an easier time navigating the work.

We are further along in our rollout with the elementary schools, and we view high school 

implementation as a critical next step, especially since high schoolers report experiencing many stressors, from AP courses to peer pressure.

Our district’s work is guided in part by our Graduate Profile, which envisions the cognitive, personal, and interpersonal competencies that our students should possess when they graduate from high school. It is our hope that the social-emotional competencies we’re building now will become a part of that strong foundation for students’ future success in college and career.

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