Teaching

Researchers Link ‘Responsive’ Classes to Learning Gains

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — September 18, 2012 4 min read
First graders Will McDowell and Jonathan Fulton practice a proper handshake during morning meeting in their classroom at the William H. Rowe School in Yarmouth, Maine. The school uses a social-emotional-learning approach known as Responsive Classroom.
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Fifth graders in schools where teachers faithfully used the Responsive Classroom teaching approach performed better on statewide assessments of mathematics and reading skills than their peers at schools that did not use the social-emotional-learning program’s strategies as much, according to new research presented at a national conference here month.

The findings, discussed at the fall meeting of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness, are part of a comprehensive, three-year study of the program, which trains 10,000 teachers each year. A team of researchers led by Sara Rimm-Kaufman, an associate professor of leadership, foundations, and policy at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, has also been examining the program’s effect on teacher-student dynamics in the classroom and on standards-based math instruction. Those and other findings are being shared in a series of upcoming and recently published papers.

“When there’s top-notch research like [Ms. Rimm-Kaufman’s] showing positive effects academically for social- and emotional-learning programs, it’s a great contribution,” said Paul Goren, the vice president for research and knowledge use at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, in Chicago.

The findings were also welcomed by Gretchen L. Bukowick, the director of professional-service delivery for the Northeast Foundation for Children, the Turners Falls, Mass.-based organization that developed the approach. “This helps us put some evidence behind what we believe,” she said. “Academic, social, and emotional learning all go hand in hand.”

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Social and emotional learning programs focus on teaching students how to manage emotions and their behaviors and interactions with others. Some do so through direct lessons, but Responsive Classroom focuses on teacher language and modeling expectations, describing itself as an approach to learning rather than a program.

High Fidelity, High Scores

In this second in-depth study of the program led by Ms. Rimm-Kaufman, 24 elementary schools in an unnamed Virginia district were randomly assigned to either receive training, materials, coaching, and administrative support to implement Responsive Classroom or to be part of a control group that did not adopt the program. The researchers followed 2,904 students, taught by 295 teachers, from 3rd to 5th grade, and examined their academic performance on 5th grade state exams.

The researchers also used surveys and observations to determine the degree to which Responsive Classroom practices were used in every school in the district, as the approach involves practices that may also be used by teachers who were not teaching in the Responsive Classroom schools.

First graders Natalie Walove, left, and Brooke Boone dance and sing during music class the William H. Rowe School. The Responsive Classroom teaching approach the school uses has been linked to learning gains—but only when teachers implement it faithfully.

Simply being assigned to implement Responsive Classroom strategies did not have a direct effect on student scores, the researchers found, but there was a strong indirect effect: Schools in which teachers adhered more closely to the approach had significantly higher math scores, especially for students who had had low math scores in 2nd grade.

Even within the group of schools that was not assigned to use Responsive Classroom, more-frequent use of the approach’s strategies was correlated with higher math achievement. In both the control and treatment groups, using more Responsive Classroom practices was associated with a 23-point gain on state standardized tests. Which specific program components were associated with higher performance will be the topic of a different paper, Ms. Rimm-Kaufman said, but preliminary findings show that the program’s focus on academic choice—allowing students to pick among different activities to accomplish the same learning goals—may be particularly effective.

On the other hand, students in schools that were assigned to implement the program but did not do so diligently actually saw a small negative effect on their scores. “If you have lackluster fidelity, you don’t see gains in whatever the intervention happens to be,” Ms. Rimm-Kaufman said. But she said the score drop-off may also be tied to “something about schools and teachers that is both predicting use of practices and predicting achievement gains.”

A Schoolwide Effort

The fact that the schools that implemented the program more faithfully saw better results is no surprise, said CASEL’s Mr. Goren. Previous research on similar programs has also indicated that social-emotional-learning programs are more effective when they are whole-school initiatives.

In this case, researchers found that fidelity was associated with having a principal or school leader who buys in to the program, with teachers’ feelings of being supported and validated in taking up the new program, and with the presence of strong coaching. Implementation was more challenging when teachers said that the program was one of many being “thrown at them,” or that they were unsupported.

The findings are part of a growing body of research showing that social-emotional learning can positively influence academic, as well as behavioral, results.

“A lot of people believe that we just don’t have time for social skills, and yet the data continue to show it’s a great investment,” said Steven Elliott, the director of the Learning Sciences Institute at Arizona State University in Tempe, who has conducted previous studies of the approach.

A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 2012 edition of Education Week as Researchers Link ‘Responsive’ Classes to Learning Gains


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