How Does RULER Measure Up?

Why the program was implemented and how it has been received in grades 8-12.

With the hope of teaching both students and teachers emotional skills, Albuquerque Academy jumped into the 2022-2023 school year with the community’s first social emotional learning (SEL) program, RULER. It has caused a harsh uproar, since most people don’t even know why or how it’s been added to our school curriculum. For many upper schoolers, it seems like a waste of time. Contrary to popular belief, however, there’s been a lot of thought, intention, and reasoning that went into the process behind the implementation of this program.

In the U.S., more and more adolescents have been diagnosed with anxiety or depression in recent years, from 5.4% in 2003 to 8% in 2007. In 2020 9.2% of youth were diagnosed with anxiety, and 4.0% were diagnosed with depression, and the numbers are growing. From 2018 to 2019, roughly 1 in every 5 teens seriously considered ending their own lives. Academy students aren’t immune to these mental health issues, and the administration has implemented RULER to help students regulate their emotions.

The process of implementing a SEL program at Academy began around 2019 after a recommendation which came out of the Academy’s re-accreditation process with the National Association of Independent Schools, which the school undergoes every ten years. Academy faculty and staff reflected that some students were becoming increasingly affected by mental health struggles. Together the growing worldwide mental health crisis and these observations led adults on campus to ask for resources to help students manage their emotional wellbeing, ultimately leading to the adoption of RULER.

Counseling and Human Development department chair Cathann Dragone-Gutierrez noted that one of the main reasons RULER was picked was because it “has 40 years of evidence-based research.” Additionally, it doesn’t focus solely on a single concept like mindfulness; rather, it includes many steps, leading students through a process of learning about emotional regulation. RULER also has a clear curriculum with many resources and lesson plans all available online to educators. Specifically, this curriculum is designed to focus on what RULER stands for: Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing, and Regulating emotions. It also includes four other components, including “The Charter,” “The Mood Meter,” “The Meta Moment,” and “The Blueprint.”

After RULER was selected, fifteen faculty members were instructed in an intensive six week program about teaching the rest of the faculty how to use RULER, leading trainings once per month during the subsequent year, 2021-2022, to give their colleagues the tools and understanding to know why “emotions matter” for them and Academy’s students.

There has been substantial pushback over the program from both students and faculty. Many teachers feel that while they have been trained, they still do not feel fully qualified to take the reins and responsibility of leading advisory discussions centered around the use of RULER. Teachers are continually asked to give feedback on how they feel, which directed the counseling department to lead the instruction of RULER via division meetings and focus less on teaching the material and having discussions during advisory than originally planned. While this direction is being taken in both upper school divisions, 10-12 students haven’t seemed to take note of any changes so far.

On the other hand, students feel that it is uncomfortable to talk about their emotions in front of other students whom they do not know very well. In 8-9, students get no choice as to who is in their advisory or who their advisor is, and in 10-12, few get into their ideal group of people.

The intention of RULER, stated by adults on campus, is to give people the tools for emotional intelligence; students shouldn’t be pressured or feel like they have to be vulnerable and talk about their emotions with classmates. While normal for students to feel this push for discussion, they are able to refrain from that kind of participation in their advisories without consequence.

“It’s really about shifting the culture[, which] needs to be having these conversations [and] knowing how we feel. [Emotional regulation] impacts us in profound ways across all areas of our life,” said Dragone-Gutierrez.

Many middle and high schoolers understand RULER’s importance, but for most the lessons seem superficial. “The things we do in RULER come across as things we already know,” said an anonymous student. Implementing an SEL program is seen as a response to mental health problems around campus, but is only intended as a way to process emotions and to make sure all in our community think before doing. RULER is meant as a preventative measure for the community’s wellbeing, rather than a solution for bigger mental health problems.

RULER is meant as a preventative measure for the community’s wellbeing, rather than a solution for bigger mental health problems.

Because RULER is implemented in a social setting instead of a more clinical one, it will be difficult to measure how effective it really is.

Students in grades 10-12 see an issue with this. At the moment, students claim RULER is like a bandaid on a far bigger wound, one already affecting the community and not resolving present issues. They wish that they were taught more healthy coping mechanisms and skills, what to do in emergency situations, or shown information about hotlines that will give them help they need.*

Students and teachers learning RULER aren’t without their strongly worded opinions, but were reluctant to share or be quoted for this article. However, these same people and their parents have a genuine desire for RULER to help Academy’s community. Dragone-Gutierrez wishes to create a closer community in the next three to four years through the program. Regardless, for Academy, it seems to be one of the first small steps to a mentally healthier student body.


*Addendum: This information is shared with students in mandatory health classes and private counseling sessions and is posted in various locations on campus.