The Emotions of Learning: Q&A with Marc Brackett, PhD

The Emotions of Learning: Q&A with Marc Brackett, PhD
Jennifer Gunn February 6, 2019

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Social-emotional and trauma-informed learning and teaching are at the forefront of education research and study today. The National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH) reports that nearly 50 percent of the children in the U.S. have experienced “at least one or more types of serious childhood trauma.” Therefore, ignoring emotions in the classroom can absolutely pose a barrier to learning. One group of researchers (Kautz, Heckman, Diris, Bas ter Weel, & Borghans, 2014) found that social-emotional learning (SEL) “increases high school graduation rates, postsecondary enrollment, postsecondary completion, employment rates, and average wages.”

We sat down to discuss the emotional component of learning with Marc Brackett, PhD, founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, professor in the Child Study Center at Yale University, and the lead developer of RULER, an evidence-based approach to social and emotional learning.

Dr. Brackett’s work studies “the role of emotions and emotional intelligence in learning, decision-making, relationship quality, and mental health; the measurement of emotional intelligence; best practices for teaching emotional intelligence; and the influences of emotional intelligence training on children’s and adults’ effectiveness, health, creativity, and both school and workplace climate.” Consulting with Facebook, he has developed a number of products, including: social resolution tools to help adults and youth resolve online conflict, the bullying prevention hub to support educators, families, and teens, and inspirED, an open-source resource center to support high school students in leading positive change in their schools.

Let’s start with the basics. How can emotions impact students in school?

The idea that emotions matter — and matter a great deal in school but also in everyday life — is at the core of research and programming at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. RULER is premised on a fundamental insight from research: emotions influence attention, memory, and learning, decision-making, health, and creativity. They influence our ability to form and maintain healthy relationships; they are integral to our physical and mental wellbeing. And, they open opportunities for us to succeed in school, at work, and beyond.

In other words, emotions can help us or hinder us. When our basic needs are met and we feel safe and content, our brains have room for curiosity and motivation and are ready to learn. These emotional states support our cognitive functions and allow us to pay attention, assimilate information, and learn. When hijacked by intense emotions, especially unpleasant ones such as anger or despair, we are disengaged, distracted, and our thoughts go to the source of our fear or pain. While this was helpful to our primitive ancestors when they were hunting a bear, or running from a snake, these emotions do not serve us when we are sitting in a classroom trying to take in information.

Emotions also affect the teaching-learning process. When educators stand before students, they hope to hold their attention, engage them to participate, and provide content they can remember and can apply on a test and, perhaps, in life. To do this well, educators must attend to their own and their students’ emotions. Students pay attention to what they care about. One of our goals as educators is to create content and present it in ways that matter to students. Skilled educators leverage the emotions they and their students are experiencing to enhance learning, including deliberately shifting mood as appropriate.

Is the RULER program solely for students or do the adults participate and benefit as well?

One aspect of RULER that differentiates it from other school-based initiatives is that it focuses first on developing adults in the school, both personally and professionally, so they can be role models and knowledgeable implementers of the skill-based instruction for students. We know from research that educators and leaders with higher emotional intelligence demonstrate more empathy and greater sensitivity to others’ needs, develop higher performing teams, receive higher performance ratings, experience less stress and burnout, and build warmer and more supportive emotional climates in school. When both the students and the adults in a school develop their emotional intelligence, they contribute to a positive school climate for everyone in the community. The RULER approach guides the learning and practicing of these skills, beginning with leaders and educators and expanding to other school staff, students, and their families.

Let’s dive in. Can you explain the RULER approach?

RULER is an acronym for the five skills of emotional intelligence:

  • Recognizing emotions in oneself and others
  • Understanding the causes and consequences of emotions
  • Labeling emotions with a nuanced vocabulary
  • Expressing emotions in accordance with cultural norms and social context
  • Regulating emotions with helpful strategies

Research shows that these five skills are associated with a wide range of important life outcomes, including greater academic and workplace performance, better relationships, enhanced leadership skills, less anxiety and depression, better conflict-resolution skills, and greater wellbeing.

RULER also is the name of our evidence-based approach to social and emotional learning that supports the entire school community in:

  1. Understanding the value of emotions
  2. Building the skills of emotional intelligence
  3. Creating and maintaining positive emotional climates

RULER trains school leaders, faculty, and staff, as well as students and their family members, to manage their full range of feelings so they can make more informed decisions, form and maintain mutually supportive relationships, attain personal growth and wellbeing, and achieve both academic and life success.

Is the RULER program only used in school or does it tie to a student’s home life as well?

Since 2005, RULER has been introduced in over 2000 public, private, and charter schools serving students in rural, suburban, and urban settings from preschool through high school around the country and world, reaching more than a million students. We also offer training to families to support RULER school rollout and standalone resources to help parents, children, and siblings everywhere better manage the emotional challenges they face.

RULER training relies on four core Anchor tools: the Charter, Mood Meter, Meta-Moment, and Blueprint, which are introduced to all stakeholders — school leaders, teachers, staff, students, and families — with developmentally appropriate content, starting out in a simple form for the youngest children and increasing in complexity for children in older grades through adults, as cognitive, emotional, and social abilities develop. This model builds a common language for the entire school community and ensures multiple forms of transmission (e.g., adults model the skills they are teaching to their students).

What has been the impact of this work — what have you witnessed in schools where students and staff do this work?

Our research shows that RULER fosters a range of student and adult behaviors and shifts in school climate that are essential to positive youth development. One study showed a 10% increase in academic performance, and another showed a 12% improvement in classroom climate — all after just one year of implementing RULER. Specific outcomes include:


  • Develop emotional intelligence skills
  • Experience fewer attention and learning problems
  • Display greater social and leadership skills
  • Feel less anxious and depressed
  • Become better at solving conflicts
  • Perform better and are more engaged academically

School leaders and educators:

  • Have more positive relationships
  • Create warmer emotional climates
  • Experience lower stress and burnout
  • Become healthier physically and mentally
  • Use enhanced instructional practices

So, how can schools get started with this work?

Schools and educators can start with this six-page laminate, which provides an overview of social and emotional learning, including RULER. Additional resources include the Mood Meter App.

Formal RULER adoption begins when a team of school staff is trained at Yale or off-site to bring emotional intelligence strategies and tools back to their school, with coaching and online resources from our Center.

To get started, schools can register to attend a RULER Institute for Creating Emotionally Intelligent Schools. (An online version will be launched in the fall of 2019.) Regional trainings also are offered if 25 or more schools within a district or region show interest in adopting RULER. You can email RULER if you would like to discuss the possibility of bringing a training to your district or region.

This interview was conducted via email and edited for length and clarity.

Jennifer L.M. Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education. She is a curriculum designer, a teaching coach, and high school educator in New York City. She is also co-founder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference for teacher-led innovation and regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation.

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