Cover Story

Educators at Special Education District 75 in New York City have their work cut out for them, overseeing the schooling of 23,000 students who have mental or physical disabilities including autism, psychological disturbances, blindness, deafness, mental retardation and severe learning disabilities.

Many have emotional overlays to these problems as well, says district superintendent Bonnie Brown.

“Our students are here because they are too disruptive, aggressive, self-injurious or dangerous to other students to be maintained in the mainstream school down the block that their siblings attend,” she says. To draw value from their education, “we need them to be able to recognize what is going on inside themselves, label it and understand it, and hopefully in the end, be able to regulate their own behavior.”

Though Brown had tried a number of social and emotional learning (SEL) programs over the years, it wasn’t until she learned about the Yale University RULER program — a mainstream SEL program that has also been adapted to special ed and other settings — that things started to turn around. Developed by psychologist Marc Brackett, PhD, and colleagues, the program has professionals spend a year working with administrators, teachers and parents before even starting to implement it with kids, says Brackett. That includes familiarizing adults with the program’s tools and having them use them, both to understand what the youngsters will be doing and to help develop their emotional awareness, he says. Program leaders also create “emotional literacy teams” whose job is to roll out the program in the school, sustain it and provide ongoing professional development.

“We build a climate and culture in schools where it is safe for youngsters to acquire these skills,” says Brackett, who received the 2009 Joseph E. Zins Award for Early Career Contributions to Social and Emotional Learning Research, awarded annually by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.

In school, RULER begins by using deceptively simple, research-based tools that are familiar to everyone. These include a “classroom charter” in which students and teachers create a mission statement for the learning environment and pledge to maintain it; a “mood meter” that allows people to plot their mood on a color-coded diagram; and an “emotional literacy blueprint,” which helps children deal with conflict by figuring out how they’re feeling, gauging how the other child is feeling, and identifying healthy solutions together. Later, teachers introduce “feeling words” — a large vocabulary to describe emotions — and integrate them into core subjects like language arts and social studies through writing assignments, visual and performing arts activities, and analysis of the causes and consequences of fictional characters’ feeling states.

The system has proven remarkably adept at helping students self-monitor inappropriate emotions and interactions, says Brown. While past approaches to conflict tended to be reactive and self-focused — asking a child to describe after an incident how she was feeling and why — the blueprint is more proactive and inclusive, allowing youngsters in an altercation to look at the feelings of others and learn empathy.

“You can take each child’s blueprint and give it to the other child, and they’ll say: ‘That’s what you were thinking and feeling? I didn’t know that!’” Brown says. “In many cases, kids end up being able to mediate their own problems.” And because the approach in general is so systemic and requires adults to talk the same talk the children do and to serve as role models, it ends up preventing behavior problems over the long run, she says.

Another happy result is the program’s effect on autistic children, who Brown assumed wouldn’t benefit because of their difficulty understanding social cues, reading facial expressions and understanding body language.

“But you can ask them how they’re feeling when they’re having a tantrum, and they can point to the red part of the mood meter and say, ‘I feel angry,’” she says. “It’s an incredible thing for these kids to be able to identify their emotions.”

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.