Grant helps put emotion in learning

Hillside Intermediate School sixth grade teacher Maureen Greene, right, holding a RULER mood meter, talks with students about their emotions as sixth-grader Jaeden Barnes stands by her side during a class in December at the school in Naugatuck. –ANDREAS YILMA

NAUGATUCK — Hillside Intermediate School sixth-grader Jaeden Barnes slowly walked through Maureen Greene’s classroom a week before Christmas with a RULER mood meter in hand. He asked a few of his classmates how they were feeling and they responded by picking a spot on the mood meter.

The mood meter is a square divided into four colored squares — red, yellow, blue and green — with arrows pointing in different directions designed to indicate how someone is feeling.

The mood meter is one of the tools of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s RULER (Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing, and Regulating emotions) program, which aims to provide a positive climate that allows students and adults to improve emotional skills, such as discussing their emotions, in school.

In the fall of 2018, the Naugatuck school district was one of three districts in the state awarded a Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education) grant. Naugatuck was awarded $1.4 million spread out over five years.

The federal funding pays for RULER along with other measures, like professional development for staff, which focus on the mental health of students. Last school year, all pre-kindergarten to eighth grade school staff received training to recognize, label and regulate their own emotions.

“I think for all of us it’s an awareness now. We weren’t thinking about social, emotional learning to this level, and now we’re all very aware of that component and understanding that kids need to feel safe and social, emotional learning is so important,” Hillside Principal Johnna Hunt said. “I think the awareness has really helped all of us, students and adults.”

Greene, who teaches six grade at Hillside, said she’s learned how to manage various situations in a new way.

“I know if I see them with their arms crossed and their head down, I give them that five or ten minutes,” Greene said. “Where in the past, I would be like, pick it up, pick up your head, let’s go, pay attention. I know, and they know, that that just means that at that moment that’s what they need right there.”

Superintendent of Schools Sharon Locke believes the program assists students identify their “best selves.” When students aren’t making their best decisions, they will take a moment and try to put space between how they’re feeling and their actions, she said.

“Not only is the program helping us give kids a language to normalize feelings and their range of feelings but also put space in between how they’re feeling and their behaviors,” Locke said.

The program is embedded in the curriculum where teachers and students will talk about their feelings during the normal school day, said Meagan Rolla, lead counselor for Naugatuck schools.

Michael Alfano, dean for the Sacred Heart University College of Education, believes the implementation of social and emotional learning in the classroom is less of a trend and more an acknowledgement of what people have known for some time — that tending to emotional learning is important.

“You cannot ignore social and emotional outcomes if you want to maximize academic and behavioral outcomes for the people we serve,” said Alfano, who has a doctorate in educational psychology.

Alfano said the emotional health of school staff is equally as important when trying to help and teach young people.

“Teachers are really creating great connections with students so that students are in the classroom more rather than in the counselor’s office,” Rolla said. “Being in the classroom and really engaged in their curriculum and with their peers and being able to express their emotions there.”

Back in Greene’s sixth-grade class, the impact of RULER was evident, at least for one student.

When Hunt asked the students how RULER has helped them, sixth-grader Isabelle Deforge responded, “I used to lash out at people when I would get mad, but now I can actually control myself.”

Alfano hopes education officials don’t see social and emotional learning programs as a short-term trend.

Naugatuck school officials plan to keep RULER as part of the curriculum once the grant funds run out.

“I hope this gets woven into the culture of how we implement public education. We’re seeing monstrous academic achievement. We see an uptick in positive behaviors and a downturn in referrals,” Alfano said. “It just helps with the school climate.”