The Emotion Revolution

How do you feel when you’re at school? How do you want to feel? 

In the spring of 2015, we asked more than 22,000 of our nation’s high school students these core questions as part of the Emotion Revolution project, a joint initiative between the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the Born This Way Foundation. We partnered on this project in order to amplify the national conversation about creating school communities in which emotions matter. We believed the combination of a rigorous research orientation on social and emotional learning (SEL) and the ability to engage and empower youth could help to achieve this goal. 

The research, supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, was conducted in order to unpack teens’ current emotional reality, explore links between their school-related experiences and the emotions they have each day, and learn how they hoped to feel at school. Using social media and outreach to like-minded organizations and schools, we recruited students from public, charter, and private schools across the nation to complete the survey. Here are the essential results. 

How do high school students feel at school? 

First, students were asked to describe in their own words the three emotions they felt most often each day at school. Sadly, 75 percent of the feelings they reported were negative. The top three feelings were: tired, bored, and stressed

When asked the percentage of time they felt these emotions each day, students said they were bored 70 percent of the time and stressed 80 percent of the time. (We did not include “tired” on the emotion survey because it is not generally considered an emotion.) 

How do students want to feel? 

Next, we asked students to describe in their own words how they wanted to feel at school each day. The top three emotions listed were happy, excited, and energized. The students also said they wanted to feel respected, supported, and inspired

Emotions Matter 

Abundant research shows that emotions influence how and what students learn, the soundness of their decisions, their relationships with peers and teachers, their mental and physical health, and their overall effectiveness. 

According to our research, American teens are not in the best emotional shape. Their boredom likely causes challenges with attention and motivation. Their stress likely influences their ability to learn and thrive. What’s more, prolonged stress can result in the excess secretion of hormones such as cortisol, which can negatively impact brain structures associated with executive functioning and memory. 

Related research by the American Psychological Association shows that stress levels of youth have crept beyond those of adults. According to a recent report from UNICEF, American youth rank in the bottom quarter among other developed nations on measures of well-being and life satisfaction. 

Closing the Emotion Gap with SEL 

How do we help our nation’s high school students feel the way they want to feel? How do schools create learning environments that best equip students to succeed in all facets of their lives — academically, socially, and emotionally? 

Growing evidence shows that schools must address the social and emotional needs of students for effective teaching and learning to take place, for positive relationships to form, to decrease stress, and to enhance student performance and well-being. 

Students who report that people in their school are mean or cruel to them tend to experience loneliness, fear, and hopelessness. Students who report that people in their school get along well tend to feel more accepted, connected, and supported. Students who report that what they are learning in the classroom is relevant and meaningful to their goals tend to feel more engaged, happy, and valued. To reduce unpleasant feelings and foster pleasant ones, all adults in the school — administrators, educators, coaches, and parents — must work together. 

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (www.casel.org) provides a framework for schools to teach SEL so that all children can develop the skills necessary for school and life success. SEL refers to the knowledge and skills associated with self-awareness, social awareness, self-regulation, responsible decision making and problem solving, and relationship management. The best approaches to SEL integrate skill development in these areas into both the curriculum and practices to enhance the climate of the school. 

The benefits of SEL are now well established, especially in elementary and middle schools. A 2011 meta-analysis of more than 200 studies showed that students in schools that integrated SEL programs performed better academically, experienced less stress, engaged in fewer problem behaviors, had more positive attitudes about school, and engaged in more prosocial behavior. Our center’s own research extends these findings to include positive shifts in classroom climate and teacher instructional quality. 

Our Approach to SEL 

RULER (ei.yale.edu/ruler), the evidence-based approach to SEL that our center developed for pre-K to high school students, is grounded in both emotional intelligence and systems theories. It is built upon decades of research showing that the skills associated with recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing, and regulating emotion (i.e., the RULER skills) are essential to effective teaching, learning, parenting, and leading. For example, emotionally skilled teachers are more likely to demonstrate empathy, encourage healthy communication, and create more open and efficacious learning environments. 

RULER begins with educating the adults in the school so they can both share a common language with students and families and be the role models for applying emotional intelligence in everyday interactions. Over the last five years, we have explored different methods for integrating RULER into high schools. Thus far, we have found that a series of SEL courses from ninth to 12th grade works best. Across time, students consider three big questions: Who am I? What do I want out of high school and beyond? How am I going to get there? First, students build greater self-awareness through assessments of personality, mindset, and essential life skills such as emotional intelligence and creativity. Next, they build a vision for what they hope to achieve throughout their high school career. Then, students identify strength and challenge areas; engage in self-reflective practices; and set goals for their physical and mental health, extracurricular activities, relationships, and academics. Finally, they apply all of this information to the vision they created and make adjustments and shifts as they grow. 

A second way we bring SEL to high schools is through inspirED (inspired.fb.com), a new resource center we developed in collaboration with Facebook. This online community focuses on helping students feel the emotions they reported they wanted to feel in the Emotion Revolution study. All of the resources are rooted in the latest research on SEL, positive youth development, and classroom climate. 

At the heart of inspirED is the creation of a team comprising students and educators who work together to help create the best possible school climate. Teams work with school administrators to: 

•conduct assessments that provide teams with immediate feedback on the emotional climate of the school; 

•unpack the findings of the assessment;  

•support the implementation of resources from the site that were (and will continue to be) developed by students in collaboration with SEL experts and high school educators; and 

•evaluate impact using an iterative process. 

Resources come in three formats: 10-minute activities, 50-minute classroom lessons, and project-based learning opportunities. The site features video clips and readings from books, articles, and websites; and provides opportunities for students, educators, and SEL experts around the globe to connect and share best practices, ask for advice, discuss challenges, and celebrate successes through two public Facebook groups, inspirED Educators (for adults) and inspirED Changemakers (for students). 

It’s Time for an Emotion Revolution 

It has been said that feelings have no place in school. To anyone who thinks this, I challenge you to simply walk into any school and ask students how they feel. Sadly, students experience unpleasant emotions such as boredom and stress far more often than any of us would like. Yet they know how they want to feel: energized, inspired, valued, connected, and supported. 

For students to perform at their best and thrive in all aspects of their lives, we need to close the “feelings gap.” Emotions are a power source waiting to be constructively tapped. Fortunately, more and more schools recognize this and are seeing the benefits of SEL training on educator and student outcomes. We still need more schools of education to integrate training in SEL and policymakers to pass legislation to support high-quality SEL training. If we want our youth to succeed, schools must be places where SEL is integrated into how leaders lead, teachers teach, and students learn. It’s time for an emotion revolution in our nation’s schools. 

Author
Marc A. Brackett

Marc A. Brackett is director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. He’s available on Twitter @marcbrackett or via www.ei.yale.edu.