Study: Improving Students’ Social and Emotional Skills Can Lead to Academic Gains

Sara Rimm-Kaufman headshot

“We find that at the very least, supporting students’ social and emotional growth in the classroom does not interfere with academic learning,” Curry School researcher Sara Rimm-Kaufman said.

Classroom programs designed to improve elementary school students’ social and emotional skills can also increase reading and math achievement, even if academic improvement is not a direct goal of the skill-building, according to a University of Virginia-led study to be published this month in American Educational Research Journal. The benefit holds true for students across a range of socio-economic backgrounds.

In the study, “Efficacy of the Responsive Classroom Approach: Results from a Three-Year, Longitudinal Randomized Controlled Trial,” researchers led by Sara Rimm-Kaufman, a professor at U.Va.’s Curry School of Education and the Center for the Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning, looked specifically at Responsive Classroom, a widely used social and emotional learning intervention.

The study, funded by a grant from the Institute for Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education, is among just a handful of randomized controlled trials that have examined the effect of social and emotional learning interventions on student achievement. 

“We find that at the very least, supporting students’ social and emotional growth in the classroom does not interfere with academic learning,” Rimm-Kaufman said. “Teachers were taught how to improve their relationships with students, foster relationships among peers, interact with students respectfully, facilitate students’ development of self-control and prevent behavior problems, instead of waiting for the behavior problems to occur and then issuing discipline. When teachers receive adequate levels of training and support, using practices that support students’ social and emotional growth actually boosted student achievement. On average, students exposed to Responsive Classroom practices for three years showed a 12 percentile gain in math and reading achievement.”

Math and reading gains were similar among those students who qualified for free and reduced-priced lunch and those who were not. The gains in math were even stronger for students initially low in math achievement.

“The success of many curricula, including those that map onto the Common Core expectations, require that teachers use effective classroom management and develop student confidence, autonomy, and communication skills,” Rimm-Kaufman said. Our trial of the Responsive Classroom approach suggests that teachers who take the time to foster relationships in the classroom and support students’ self-control and social skills actually enhance student achievement.

“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 student’s social and emotional abilities may be a very wise investment.” 

For the study, researchers followed a group of students and teachers at 24 elementary schools over three years, from the end of the students’ second-grade year until the end of their fifth-grade year. The research team compared student math and reading achievement between 13 schools that adopted Responsive Classroom and 11 schools that did not.

Teachers being trained in the Responsive Classroom approach received two weeklong training sessions delivered in consecutive summers. Despite the same initial training, schools varied in their use of Responsive Classroom practices. The study found that student achievement gains were evident in classrooms where teachers who had been trained were using those practices fully and in ways that were consistent with the program goals. Teachers tended to use the Responsive Classroom practices effectively if they felt that the principals at their school supported them.

“Our findings raise important questions about the support of teachers in implementing social and emotional learning interventions such as Responsive Classroom,” Rimm-Kaufman said. “Because Responsive Classroom was most effective in classrooms where teachers were supported in implementation, thoughtful school leadership is important to success.”

Social and emotional learning interventions are designed to teach students the social and emotional skills considered foundational to academic learning. The Responsive Classroom approach focuses on enhancing teachers’ capacity to create caring, well-managed classroom environments by providing practical teaching strategies designed to support social, academic and self-regulatory skills, and bolster respectful and productive classroom interactions.

In addition to Rimm-Kaufman, the research team included Michelle Ko, Julia B. Thomas, Eileen G. Merritt and Jamie DeCoster of U.Va.’s Center for the Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning. The team also included U.Va. post-doctoral and doctoral trainees, including Ross A. Larsen, now at Virginia Commonwealth University; Alison E. Baroody, now of San Francisco State University; Timothy Curby of George Mason University; and Tashia Abry, now of Arizona State University.

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