Modeling Inclusivity and Emotional Awareness Across Highline
BY SUSAN ENFIELD AND LAURIE MORRISON/School Administrator, June 2021

Susan Enfield, superintendent of Highline Public Schools in Burien, Wash., is building a culture of emotional awareness and inclusivity to support students districtwide.
In the fall of 2016, Highline Public Schools began a partnership with Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence and the center’s director, Marc Brackett. The collaboration led to the implementation of the RULER approach in six of our elementary schools.

Brackett is the lead developer of RULER, an evidence-based approach to social and emotional learning. The acronym refers to the five key skills of recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing and regulating emotions.

Today, all 18 elementary schools in the Highline district, along with many of our middle and high schools, are implementing the RULER approach.

Culture Building

More than a standalone approach, RULER has guided our district toward a culture of inclusivity and emotional awareness to ensure we deliver on our “Highline Promise”: Knowing every student by name, strength and need. It holds us accountable to what what we prioritize for adults and students.

As educators working in a learning organization, we are role models. As such, we must understand, be able to learn about, practice and model the behaviors and skills we want our students to experience and demonstrate.

In our effort to create a culture in Highline where the social and emotional learning of students and staff is prioritized, we have implemented our Three Signature SEL Practices for Student and Adult Learning. These practices are used in our classrooms, with staff in school-based team meetings and in central-office leadership meetings, including cabinet members.

Three Practices

The three central practices, which became our routine and expectation for collaborative time in Highline, are known as a welcoming ritual, active engagement and optimistic closure.

»Welcoming Ritual. Classes, professional learning and meetings in Highline typically begin with intentionality for the conditions that create a collaborative, productive and emotionally safe space. We might begin with anchoring ourselves to the commitments of our class or team charter; a check-in on the mood meter to name, with precision, our emotional state; or a breathing exercise to be mindful of the strategies that help us be the best for ourselves, each other and our shared work. The welcoming ritual is our commitment to nurturing self-reflection, empathy and understanding among the group.

»Active Engagement. Just as our teachers work to design lessons to engage students, school and district leaders share a similar responsibility to engage our teams and colleagues in meaningful ways. We structure our meetings with the same intention and attention to outcomes as our teachers do their lesson plans and consider the varying ways to deepen learning and productivity.

Strategies for active engagement might include distributed leadership; opportunities for meaning making and collaboration; diverse modalities for learning and communicating; and culturally responsive perspectives and approaches.

»Optimistic Closure. We conclude our learning and meeting times by solidifying our earlier commitments to collaboration and wellness. The optimistic closure promotes connections, relationships and impact beyond the confines of the lesson or meeting by reinforcing our shared sense of purpose. Strategies might include reflecting on the achieved goals; noticing and naming the ways the class or team modeled behaviors associated with the charter; engaging in self-reflection on the mood meter; and individuals naming what they might be inspired by, excited about or hopeful for.

The goal of the optimistic closure is to leave the collaborative space in the spirit of collectivism — celebrating the ways that together, we are our best selves.

Professional Growth

Because we believe social and emotional learning is essential for the development of students, it has been obvious since the beginning of our implementation of RULER that adults must also grow in social-emotional literacy, especially in the places where our children learn: our schools.
Highline’s commitment for prioritizing a comprehensive emotional intelligence strategy is deliberate and infused in all aspects of our organization. It is anchored to our vision for equity. It reinforces how adults and students co-create emotionally intelligent, culturally responsive conditions for learning and leading.

It also is the undergirding of our Highline Promise, ensuring we know all the members in our organization in deep and meaningful ways to strive toward empathy and excellence.

SUSAN ENFIELD is superintendent of Highline Public Schools in Burien, Wash. Twitter: @SuptEnfield. LAURIE MORRISON is executive director of instructional leadership in the Highline district.