Socialization technique helps in academic achievement, trial study finds

A popular teaching technique to help elementary students develop emotional and social skills also leads to academic achievement, according to a study released Thursday.

In a randomized, controlled trial that examined the technique known as Responsive Classroom, researchers found that children in classrooms where the technique was fully used scored significantly higher in math and reading tests than students in classrooms where it wasn’t applied.

Sara Rimm-Kaufman, the study’s lead author and an associate professor of education at the University of Virginia, said the results are important during a period of increased emphasis on academic results.

At a time when teacher evaluations and school performance are increasingly judged by student test scores, many educators may feel that limited classroom time is better spent on academics and not “softer” social skills, Rimm-Kaufman said. The study shows that teaching social skills in the elementary years can translate into higher test scores, she said.

“Our research shows that time spent supporting children’s social and emotional abilities can be a very wise investment,” said Rimm-Kaufman, who was joined by researchers from Virginia, George Mason and Arizona State universities. “When teachers receive adequate levels of training and support, using practices that support students’ social and emotional growth actually boosts achievement.”

The practices that form the backbone of the technique are designed to create positive classroom relationships — between teachers and students and among students. They aim to teach young children to cooperate with each other and feel that they are part of a “community” that cares about them. Teachers set expectations for behavior and learning so that children will internalize those goals over time and learn how to regulate their own behavior. The practices are based on well-known child-development theories of Jean Piaget and others.

“This is about teachers teaching in a way that’s really respectful, that opens up the process of learning and provides students with some autonomy,” Rimm-Kaufman said.

The Responsive Classroom method also appears to dovetail with the new Common Core academic standards in math and reading, which are now rolling out across 45 states and the District of Columbia, she said. The new standards assume students possess a range of social skills that are taught through the Responsive Classroom and other similar techniques. “The standards assume all these social skills that kids can take turns, listen to each other talk in front of a group, have the courage to make mistakes in front of their peers,” Rimm-Kaufman said. “There is a real synergy between these new standards and social and emotional learning practices.”

One of the hallmarks of the Responsive Classroom is the morning meeting, where teachers and students begin the school day by gathering to share about themselves and talk about the learning expected during the day ahead.

Since 1995, more than 120,000 teachers in 41 states and the District have been trained in the Responsive Classroom, according to the Northeast Foundation for Children, a nonprofit group that developed the trademarked technique and runs workshops for teachers around the country.

While teachers and principals who use the Responsive Classroom say the technique creates more harmonious classrooms and better behaved students, there have been few studies that look at the academic impact of the technique.

Rimm-Kaufman and her team of researchers followed 2,094 children in 24 Virginia elementary schools from the end of second to fifth grade. The students were ethnically and socioeconomically diverse. Researchers compared student math and reading achievement between 13 schools that used Responsive Classroom and 11 schools that did not.

They found the strongest gains in math and reading among children whose teachers fully and consistently used the Responsive Classroom and were backed by administrators.

“It’s like those diet clubs,” Rimm-Kaufman said. “You can’t say ‘Okay, I’ve signed up but I’m not losing weight.’ If you don’t actually exercise, it’s not going to happen. Teachers need to practice this at a high level and they have to be supported by a school administrator or someone at the school who says ‘This is a priority, this is what we should be doing.’ ”

The academic gains made by children in Responsive Classes were of the same magnitude, regardless of whether they came from poor or affluent families, Rimm-Kaufman said.

The work, published this month in the peer-reviewed American Educational Research Journal (AERJ), was funded by a $2.9 million grant from the Institute for Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education.

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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