PV Schools

“Emotions are something that we rarely talk about, yet something that is so important. They affect us in so many ways and if we can learn how to better embrace our emotions, then we can help our students to do the same, and to have a more positive school experience.” This response from a teacher on the Putnam Valley District RULER team to the first year of training in RULER indicates that the core beliefs reflected in the program are meaningful and relevant to participants.

Recent research on the emotional health of youth (http://csmh.umaryland.edu/; https://www.samhsa.gov/school-campus-health)  has reflected the widening recognition of anxiety, mental health disorders,  and depression as a pervasive influence affecting the personal lives and educational achievement of students. There is a new weight given to social emotional health as a condition for student academic growth and full participation in the learning process. Furthermore, schools have been at the intersection of the alarming opioid epidemic that is impacting families and serve as the mediator of  an ugly bullying culture on social media that is victimizing the young. (https://youngminds.org.uk/media/2189/pcr144b_social_media_cyberbullying_inquiry_full_report.pdf);  (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2975801).

In reckoning with the social emotional factors that inhibit full participation in the learning process,  the Putnam Valley School District established “building relationships” as its theme for cultural renewal, finding new, more effective  ways to make connections with students and staff that would strengthen the emotional health of the District community. Some of our activities included a partnership with the public library, a “community read” of A Man Called Ove and a very successful community potluck dinner fundraiser for Puerto Rico sponsored by our Make a Difference Club that included student musicians with over 400 community members and families attending. The sense of human connection was something we wanted to deepen as part of the fabric of our District culture. We wanted to expand from events that occurred sporadically to a consistent effort to make human connections. Some of our more recent initiatives to deepen connections with students beyond the RULER program have included a strengths-based suicide prevention program sponsored by Senator Serino at the high school and the K-12 Therapeutic Crisis Intervention program. In fact, as part of New York State’s mental health initiative and new standards for mental health support, the District has included an additional school counselor in the 2019-20 budget to expand our capacity to prevent and intervene early in mental health issues and, we are revising Putnam Valley’s  K-12 Guidance Plan. Many teachers in the District have participated in the First Aid Mental Health program and there is a commitment to find ways to support students who are impacted by trauma.

There are a number of widely respected theories that support the concept of the emotional foundation of well-being and accomplishments. For example, in his widely discussed PERMA model, Martin Seligman incorporates Positive Emotions along with Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment/Achievement as building blocks for attaining “authentic happiness.” (https://ppc.sas.upenn.edu/learn-more/perma%E2%84%A2-theory-well-being-and-perma%E2%84%A2-workshops) These concepts are embedded in RULER’s model as staff and students explore the vocabulary of emotion and develop the tools to articulate and strategize more effective approaches to building relationships and finding deeper personal  meaning in the educational process. The goal is to create a culture that supports positive relationships to counter some of the external environmental stressors that come to school with all who live within the educational community. Through the RULER training, the emphasis on the personal stories that illustrate specific emotional responses offers a collective empathy that deepens the well-being of the school community.

With the opportunity to introduce the Yale RULER (Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing, and Regulating Emotions)(http://ei.yale.edu/ruler/the-anchor-tools/) program, the training of a District team became a fulcrum for looking at the District’s emotional health and thinking differently about how change could occur. By beginning with the adults in the schools and providing tools that they could use to impact their own well-being, the RULER program offered a new lens for self-knowledge as well as some practical tools to help teachers and students find common ground in self-understanding that would transfer to more meaningful learning experiences for both.  RULER provides strategies, such as the “meta-moment” and the “Blueprint” that offer practical approaches to bridging conflict and distress that exist inevitably and naturally when human interaction is frequent and necessary.

The District RULER  team consisted of representatives from District administration, and  each of the three schools in the District, elementary, middle and high school, including administrators, teachers, and clinical staff. A middle school teacher who was doing an internship in the regional leadership program served as liaison to the team, providing reports and follow-up information. The team presented information at faculty and leadership meetings as well as District convocations. It was through the four training experiences that the team developed an understanding of the deeper meaning of RULER, that suggests a shift in how educators view their work and their responsibilities as teachers for the world they create in the classrooms with and for their students.  During the meetings of the RULER teams and reflection on the experiences, it was clear the the culture of teacher autonomy and social-construction of the isolated classroom was not compatible with a process of tapping into emotions and mood of self and others as a condition for well-being and learning in the school community of educators and students.

In fact a number of shifts in perspective  took place among those who participated in the RULER training, as teachers and staff members viewed themselves differently with regard to their emotional self.  Some teacher comments included a change from the preferred stoicism reflected by teachers, who are used to “leaving everything personal at  home,” and an interest in interacting with others and moving away from a culture that could be isolating in schools, as teachers identified their emotional quadrant and how it affected their classrooms. In contrast with the archetypal model of teacher autonomy, (Lortie, 1975) RULER provides the benefits of community and empathy for  practitioners who value their freedom to create and manage their classrooms, yet appreciate supportive  interactions with colleagues. The phrase, “How can I help?” became a window to finding ways change moods and minds.

As one member of the team expressed that change, “the RULER environment supports mental health by giving people permission to talk about feelings as opposed to culture that doesn’t seem to care how you feel.” There was a sense on the team that the administrator and teacher shared struggles and could be there for one another. RULER values the individual experience and the collective experience, as participants realize that their mood does affect others, peers and students. There is a new awareness of the other: who is the other and how is he or she feeling? Ultimately, there is an insight about responsibility for the classroom and school environment: Who is responsible for happiness?

With the new approach to looking within, there is also an emerging awareness of the strategies of mood and body chemistry. Getting accustomed to identifying mood leads also to a new look at biases and how mood can affect grading, and response to student needs.

Ultimately,  RULER training can lead to a shift in the way of being an educator. By getting to emotion, there is a shift from losing oneself by giving all to students,  to taking care of oneself to become a better parent and teacher.

The next step will be building a consensus around the work with the larger school community and equipping students with the skills to employ more flexible strategies when they become aware of their emotional self.  Each school has already developed a contract to express the values  that teachers identify as important to their well-being in the school community.

To validate the initial work and identify needs as the District moves to teach students the basic elements of the RULER program, an action research model will be implemented through a brief qualitative semi-structured interview conducted by the team with their peers on the District committee.

Two members of the RULER team summarized the impact that the program had on their work with children:

Once we started the work, the approach resonated with us because it placed value on our feelings, as professionals, and taught us how our mood and feelings may affect our work. In a culture where our feelings have not always been validated, this was a wonderful shift in thinking, as well as a healthy prioritization. RULER helps us to better serve students by eliminating bias based on our personal, and perhaps unrelated feelings or mood. We are learning that we must be able to honor our emotions first in order to help our students honor theirs. We are also establishing professional norms for mindfully and productively addressing conflict in ways that work for everyone in the community. We are improving our own emotional intelligence so that we may teach our students to become emotionally literate and reflective problem-solvers with a bank of personal strategies for self care, and a strong sense of empathy. We’re excited to see where this work will take us!


(2014, June 20). School and Campus Health. Retrieved from https://www.samhsa.gov/school-campus-health

Luk, J. W., Wang, J., & Simons-Morton, B. G. (2010, December). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2975801/

PERMA™ Theory of Well-Being and PERMA™ Workshops. (f.w.). Retrieved from https://ppc.sas.upenn.edu/learn-more/perma™-theory-well-being-and-perma™-workshops

Safety Net: Cyberbullying’s impact on young people’s … (f.w.). Retrieved from https://youngminds.org.uk/media/2189/pcr144b_social_media_cyberbullying_inquiry_full_report.pdf

The Anchor Tools. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://ei.yale.edu/ruler/the-anchor-tools/

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