Students in class


The California Department of Education (CDE) recently recognized the El Segundo Unified School District (ESUSD) with a 2022 Pivotal Practice Award which celebrates schools and districts that implemented an innovative practice during the 2020–21 school year, when California required schools to offer distance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m incredibly proud of these schools and districts for their creativity, dedication, and innovation in the face of adversity,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said in the April 26, 2022 announcement. “These schools led incredible efforts to engage students, distribute technology, provide meals, and support the social and emotional well-being of students during an incredibly difficult time for schools and families.”

The newly-created award program is being utilized by California in 2022 in place of the California Distinguished Schools Program. In a period when pandemic disruptions made it hard to collect data for statewide assessments, the CDE worked with education association partners to create the Pivotal Practice Award to honor the efforts of schools and districts who designed and implemented unique opportunities and strategies to support students in this unprecedented time. A total of 121 school districts received the honor, after state school districts were invited to submit an application highlighting an innovative practice in one of the four student support target areas implemented during the 2020–21 school year. The four target areas are: student engagement, distribution of technology, nutrition services, and social emotional well-being of students.

 ESUSD first adopted the RULER Approach for social emotional learning in 2019 and it has been implemented systemically district-wide: preschool through high school. Then in 2020-21, ESUSD was relegated to opening school in full distance learning mode due to COVID-19 pandemic in Los Angeles County. All educators had to shift their practice to ensure not only students’ academic needs were addressed, but also recalibrate the implementation of the RULER Approach to a virtual setting to provide meaningful support for students’ social emotional learning. “It became apparent very quickly that students were suffering at home,” said ESUSD Superintendent Melissa Moore. “Although educators were doing all they could to make connections with each student in the virtual classroom setting, students were becoming increasingly isolated and disengaged as evident by the Panorama survey results.”

ESUSD has recognized the critical value of RULER for student achievement. Research shows that emotions profoundly can impact attention, memory, and learning. Emotions can adversely affect academic achievement. RULER begins with the educators and incorporates four tools that include: the Charter, the Mood Meter, the Meta-Moment and Blueprint. Simply put, the Charter outlines the agreed-upon norms for how the group wants to feel; the Mood Meter is a tool for individuals to develop self-awareness; the Meta-Moment allows for individuals to respond to emotional situations and move closer to become one’s best self; and lastly the Blueprint serves as a guide to resolve conflict.

Most importantly, the RULER Approach focuses on changing the mindset of the adults as an initial step; the entire first year of implementation focused only on the adults at the school. ESUSD has trained multiple cohorts of educators at every school site and district office in RULER and the entire team creatively adjusted practice to shift to RULER to address social emotional learning in a virtual classroom until our students were permitted to return to the classroom in person. RULER was an embedded educational support component within ESUSD classrooms every step of the way during the 2020-21 school year.

At the opening of that school year, just 46 percent of secondary students reported feeling a sense of belonging and 29 percent felt engaged in their classes; these numbers represent a drastic drop. In addition, elementary students reported decreased levels of emotion regulation at just 42 percent. Parents of TK through second grade students reported only 44 percent of their students displaying “grit,” well below the norm of typical school years. Here are some of the practices ESUSD implemented to aid in social emotional learning and student connectedness:

  • At the elementary level, educators checked in with students daily using the Mood Meter as a warm-up activity. Students quickly began to build a more sophisticated vocabulary related to emotions.
  • At the secondary level, a strategic change in the bell schedule built in a set time daily that was allocated for teachers to conduct regular check-ins to build relationships with students and discuss emotions.
  • With all students learning from home at that time, families were encouraged to develop a Charter using this RULER tool to identify the group norms on how all within the family want to feel. This practice was intended to deepen ESUSD families’ understanding of emotions together while students remained in distance learning.
  • ESUSD successfully obtained a waiver to have TK through second grade students return to campus on a hybrid schedule, in small learning communities, in December 2020. RULER embedded within literature was a successful strategy to help the young students reflect and demonstrate their skills as emotional scientists. Virtual family events were created to increase learning and connectedness including a “Masked Reader” night, Magician night, weekly guest author readings, reverse parades, and STEAM family workshops.
  • The middle school established sixth grad pods and used strategies from RULER and Where Everyone Belongs to explore current emotions on the Mood Meter and other “icebreaker” activities to help the students feel more comfortable at their new school since this was the first time they were on campus in person. Students were engaged and thrilled to be at school for a portion of the day for outside activities and connection with their peers and teachers.
  • At the high school, seniors were invited back to campus in January 2021 for a portion of the day to reimagine some of the senior activities that were cancelled during distance learning. Events included a door decorating contest, the reimagined prom called “Masquerade on Main Street” for a magical outdoor social event, and time dedicated to reflect, connect, and explore emotions in small groups supported by a teacher.

RULER has shown to be an important tool for social emotional learning. At ESUSD, the RULER Approach is assessed and monitored through use of the Panorama Survey data. Since ESUSD students have returned to full in-person learning, there was a 15 percent increase in students’ sense of belonging on campus, which is moving closer to pre-pandemic levels, and a 16 percent increase in student engagement.

Research shows that students who feel safe and supported by adults at school are better able to learn. A positive relationship between the student and teacher can affect motivation and engagement in learning. “At ESUSD, the RULER Approach for social emotional learning served as a foundation to deepen the student-teacher relationship in a virtual setting and ensure the social emotional well-being of students during this challenging time,” said Moore. 

More information on the RULER Approach for Social Emotional Learning at ESUD is available on our website: