Study: Teaching social skills raises test scores

Study: Teaching social skills raises test scores

Teachers use Responsive Classroom to foster cooperation and create sense of community
Students in a Responsive Classroom school greet one another during the daily morning meeting (left). In another class, after the greeting, students have the opportunity to share their feelings and experiences with their peers (right).

A widely used K6 teaching technique that integrates social and emotional learning into the school day improves academic performance, according to a study published in the American Educational Research Journal in March.

Though the approach, known as Responsive Classroom, has been used for some 25 years, this is the first comprehensive study of its impact on student achievement.

Teachers use Responsive Classroom strategies to foster cooperation between students and to create a sense of community that promotes sharing and learning. A key element is morning meetings, during which students greet one another and are encouraged to share their feelings. The teacher then leads a brief activity, such as dancing or singing, to enhance group cohesion. The teacher also gives an overview of what students will be learning that day.

“We know there are kids who may have had a rough start to the day, and the morning meeting is a good way to say, ‘Today is a new day, everyone is going to be taken care of, and here is what we’ll be doing,’” says Matt Miller, principal of Roundtown Elementary School, part of the Central York School District in York, Pa.

Teachers using Responsive Classroom also help students set goals at the beginning of the year. One Roundtown student’s goal this year was to create a bench on the playground where students who were feeling lonely could sit to signal others that they wanted to talk or play. The school gained national media attention after Miller helped the student bring the “buddy bench” to fruition.

Roundtown Elementary began training all 350 teachers in Responsive Classroom in 2006, and students have performed above the 90th percentile in reading and math for the past eight years. “One of the core beliefs of Responsive Classroom is that the social curriculum is as important as the academic,” Miller says. “Anyone who knows children knows you can’t ignore those emotional factors.”

“When teachers actually used the Responsive Classroom practices, we saw gains in student achievement and improvement in teacher-student interactions over the three years.”

The technique was developed in the 1980s by the nonprofit Northeast Foundation for Children, which runs training workshops for teachers nationwide. More than 120,000 teachers in 41 states have been trained in Responsive Classroom since 1995. The training costs about $730 per teacher for a four-day course.

The approach does not differ greatly from general good teaching practices, but “Responsive Classroom packages them in a way that makes them easier for teachers to learn,” says Sara Rimm-Kaufman, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and lead author of the U.S. Department of Education-funded study of the technique.

From 2008 to 2011, Rimm-Kaufman and her colleagues followed 276 teachers and over 2,900 students in grades two through five, in 24 Virginia elementary schools—none of which had been using Responsive Classroom. Teachers in half of the schools—chosen at random—received Responsive Classroom training.

“When teachers actually used the Responsive Classroom practices, we saw gains in student achievement and improvement in teacher-student interactions over the three years,” Rimm-Kaufman says.

Math and reading scores rose by nearly 12 percent in classrooms where Responsive Classroom was fully implemented. The improvement was comparable for all students, including those eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Also, teachers were more likely to use Responsive Classroom effectively if the school’s administrators prioritized the approach.