Back from the Brink: Emotional Intelligence Helps a Struggling School

Back from the Brink: Emotional Intelligence Helps a Struggling School

Morale was low at the struggling Montessori Magnet School. The state test scores at the Hartford, Connecticut public elementary school had declined so much that it had been ranked the district’s worst academic performer. Though the school was housed in a good building and was free from severe safety or discipline problems, teachers were finding it difficult to reconcile the school’s Montessori approach with test preparations. The faculty risked being fired and replaced. Tensions among staff members were leaking into classrooms. And parents were puzzled and angry about their children’s poor test scores.

But four years later, the school was ranked number one in the district–and most teachers had kept their jobs. The school had adopted RULER, and the emotional intelligence training program became a cornerstone of the turnaround.

“We had a staff filled with committed, hardworking people, including dedicated parents who cared about their child’s education,” says then-principal Melissa Gagne, who introduced RULER after joining the school midyear. “People just needed a direction.”

Shortly after beginning her new job, Gagne attended a lecture by Marc Brackett, Ph.D., Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. It was then that she realized that the school needed a social and emotional turnaround first and foremost. “He’s an amazing presenter, and I was hooked,” she recalls. “I was convinced that this was exactly the turnaround that the school needed.”

The school district soon gave Gagne the green light to bring RULER to the school. Staff and parents learned it first, kicking off the process with using one of RULER’s anchor tools, the Charter.

The adults considered the three Charter questions: how they wanted to feel, what behaviors would promote those emotions, and how to handle conflict. Working together, teachers co-wrote answers to those questions. They pledged to greet each other in passing in order to feel valued by their peers, they asked that the staff room be cleaned up to help them feel more respected, and they agreed not to resolve conflict by gossiping. These and other agreements went into a Charter, and everyone signed it. Parents, too, wrote a Charter that worked to turn formerly hostile PTA meetings into constructive conversations.

Result: an almost immediate improvement in morale. Next came a two-year rollout to the students. Though the four Anchors of RULER are usually taught in one academic year, the school chose to teach the Charter and Mood Meter the first year and the Meta-Moment and Blueprint the following year; administrators reasoned that the teachers had enough on their plates already.

RULER quickly caught on, and soon it was part of the fabric of the school. Each classroom developed its own Charter. The Meta-Moment empowered children to control their own impulsive reactions. Students worked on Blueprints after getting into fights. The school nurse asked students to tell her where their feelings fell on the Mood Meter she’d painted on her office window, while teachers used Mood Meters to help students explore story characters’ reactions.

Meanwhile, parents were learning RULER, too. “That’s what’s so exciting about it: kids become the ambassadors and they grow together with their teachers and their families,” Gagne says.

Test scores began to rise, and after several years the students were tops in academic performance in their district. But that wasn’t the only change.

“The building just became a warm and wonderful place to be,” Gagne says.

The experience has left Gagne reflective.

“People are well-meaning. They go into education because they love kids,” Gagne says. “But they may not have the leadership and the skills that they need. We were never taught emotional intelligence–we feel like paying attention to this aspect of our lives is ‘fluffy.’

“But everybody’s having these emotional experiences, including kids. We can choose to help them manage their emotions, or we can ignore them. But if we expect them to be accessible to learning, there’s research now that says, ‘Here’s where they need to be.’”