two girls in a classroomSchools across the country are pushing for larger gains in academic achievement, but there are still unanswered questions about how best to do so. Researchers from the University of Virginia tracked the use of a program called Responsive Classroom (RC), which teaches emotional and social skills to students at school. According to the results, students who participated in the program demonstrated more improvement in math and reading than those who did not do RC.

The findings come from a three-year longitudinal trial of the Responsive Classroom model. Students and teachers from 24 elementary schools were involved in the study; 13 schools participated in RC, while 11 served as the control group. The research team monitored student progress from the end of second grade through the end of third grade. Teachers received training for Responsive Classroom in two one-week training sessions that took place in consecutive summers. Although all the teachers received the same training, the program’s implementation varied depending on the school’s level of administrative support.

The findings indicate that helping students develop social and emotional skills does not interfere with the academic curriculum. Moreover, when teachers are given sufficient training and support to offer social and emotional lessons, student achievement increases. Students from both low- and high-socioeconomic levels (judged by whether students received free and reduced lunch or not) who participated in the program demonstrated gains in math and reading. Students made the most progress when the teachers carried out the RC program consistently and completely. Teachers used Responsive Classroom teachers the best when they felt they had the support of their principal behind them.

“In a time of intense academic demands, many critics question the value of spending time on teaching social skills, building classroom relationships and supporting student autonomy. Our research shows that time spent supporting children’s social and emotional abilities can be a very wise investment,” said Sara Rimm-Kaufman, professor at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education.

This study is published in the American Educational Research Journal.

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