The research, published in the American Educational Research Journal, found that the benefit holds true for students across a range of socio-economic backgrounds. It also works even if academic improvement is not a direct goal of the program to build social and emotional skills, according to the researchers.
“We find that, at the very least, supporting students’ social and emotional growth in the classroom does not interfere with academic learning,” said Dr. Sara Rimm-Kaufman, a professor at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education.
“When teachers receive adequate levels of training and support, using practices that support students’ social and emotional growth actually boosts achievement.”
The researchers found that math and reading gains were similar among those students who qualified for free and reduced-priced lunch and those who did not.
The study, funded by a grant from the Institute for Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education, looked at Responsive Classroom (RC), a widely used social and emotional learning program.
The RC approach focuses on enhancing the capability of teachers to create caring, well-managed classrooms by providing practical teaching strategies designed to support social, academic, and self-regulatory skills, as well as bolster respectful and productive classroom interactions, the researchers explained.
“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 and autonomy,” said Rimm-Kaufman.
“Our trial of the Responsive Classroom approach suggests that teachers who take the time to foster relationships in the classroom and support children’s self-control actually enhance student achievement.”
Rimm-Kaufman said that 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,” she said.
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. They compared math and reading achievement between 13 schools that adopted RC and 11 schools that did not.
Teachers trained in the RC approach attended week-long training sessions over two consecutive summers.
The researchers found that despite the same initial training, schools varied in their use of RC practices.
An analysis of the data revealed that student achievement gains were evident in classrooms where teachers were using the RC practices fully and in ways that were consistent with the program goals. Teachers tended to use the RC practices well if they felt that the principals at their school supported them, the researchers noted.
“Our findings raise important questions about the support of teachers in implementing social and emotional learning interventions such as RC,” said Rimm-Kaufman. “Because RC was most effective in classrooms where teachers were supported in implementation, thoughtful school leadership is important to success.”