Emotions Matter-Building emotional intelligence in children

Michael Eggleton, Deputy Head at Charles Dickens and leader of the Improving Mental Health programme talks about how his school has tackled this pressing problem.

We have all seen the statistics and even had first-hand experiences of supporting children with mental health concerns. More and more emphasis has been put on schools to be the first responders in supporting children’s mental health. Often schools are encouraged to attend specific courses such Mental Health First Aider trainer, which certainly raises the profile of mental health and helps staff recognise signs, but doesn’t necessarily give all staff the skills to support mental health in a systemic and proactive way. The recent EEF report on Social And Emotional Learning talks about the importance of whole school approaches to supporting children’s mental health, levelling the playing field for all and not just waiting for signs to appear.  Like many senior leaders, I have had the challenging task of finding an approach that will work for the school. Often this is a minefield, as there are many companies selling different approaches, all of which claim to improve mental health, and some of which have small if not non-existent evidence bases but a cult following.

What is RULER?

Our journey began in 2016, where I read about an evidence based approach called RULER in the new scientist. At the time, RULER had been around for 30 years and had extensive longitudinal study demonstrating its impact in thousands of schools across the United States of America. RULER was created by Dr Marc Brackett, a professor at the Anchors of Emotional Intelligence at Yale University.  His studies have shown that RULER schools improve emotional intelligence, reduce anxiety and mental health problems, improve attainment and reduces burnout and stress for staff. RULER is now used in primary, secondary, further educational establishments and even businesses in the United States.

RULER is based upon four main tools that help children regulate and understand their emotions. Most importantly, RULER is underpinned by the vigorous and explicit teaching of emotional vocabulary. Children are taught to unpick how they are feeling and to use a bank of strategies to regulate their emotions in the short term in order to achieve long term happiness. RULER does not expect one tool or theory to support every child, but understands that each child is unique.

RULER tools and how they work

The first tool is called the Charter. Children create a whole class or school agreement for how they wish to feel each day. For example, the children may want to feel listened to, respected, happy, safe… The class can then agree ways in which they can all help to make this a reality and what will happen if someone doesn’t live up to the Charter. The children are encouraged to demonstrate forgiveness but also to hold others to account. The aim is to create a climate of respect and to really show that feelings do matter.

The next tool is the Mood Meter. The Y axis represents energy levels and the X axis shows how pleasant the emotion is. Children are taught to plot their emotions on the mood meter, knowing that there is no such thing as a negative emotion. The teacher then spends time using a language progression scheme to teach the individual emotions. Research has found that children have very few words to describe their emotions and rely on the obvious words to describe more complex emotions. As a result, children can neither regulate nor describe their emotions in order to access appropriate support. If you can name it, you can tame it!

The third tool is Meta Moments. The children are taught a memorable routine to help them stay calm when things don’t go right and the science behind the emotions they might be feeling.  The routines give them a range of regulation strategies, including scaling, positive self-talk, mindfulness and many more.

Lastly, if something does go wrong, how do you fix it? The children are taught a RULER version of restorative justice called the Blueprint in which children reflect on their own emotions and their ability to regulate whilst developing empathy.

On our RULER journey, we have found that tweaks have needed to be made in order to make some of the language UK-friendly.  The school has created a scheme of work, language progression list, assessment and booklets for the children based upon the RULER tools. The booklets include proven strategies to support pupils’ long term happiness. These resources have helped all staff teach social and emotional lessons to a high standard using this evidence based approach.

Over the last four years, we have noticed a huge reduction in the number of CAMHS referrals, teachers report that children can articulate and accurately describe their emotions, there are less barriers to learning within the class and behaviour has improved substantially.  We have shared our adapted version of RULER across the UK and internationally.

Want to support mental health and emotional wellbeing in your own school?  Find out more about RULER at Charles Dickens Research School or join Michael’s Improving Mental Health programme for senior leaders.

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