Decades ago, when the Outcome Based Education movement was trying to take hold, educators who were already overburdened did not want to be saddles with managing social and emotional development of diverse classrooms and the competing goals of parents.

Parents agreed that turning over the social development of children to school districts was a bad idea but a new paper says that classroom programs designed to improve elementary school students' social and emotional skills also increase reading and math achievement, even if academic improvement is not a direct goal of the skills building. The benefit holds true for students across a range of socio-economic backgrounds, they say.

The paper in American Educational Research Journal detailed randomized controlled trials to examine the effect of social and emotional learning interventions on student achievement.  The randomized controlled field trial examined the efficacy of the Responsive Classroom (RC) approach on student achievement. Schools (n = 24) were randomized into intervention and control conditions; 2904 children were studied from end of second to fifth grade.

The researchers followed the group of students and teachers from the end of the students' second-grade year until the end of their fifth-grade year, and compared student math and reading achievement between thirteen schools that adopted RC and eleven schools that did not.

Teachers being trained in the RC approach received two one week-long training sessions delivered in consecutive summers. Despite the same initial training, schools varied in their use of RC practices. The study found that student achievement gains were evident in classrooms where teachers who had been trained were using the RC practices fully and in ways that were consistent with the program goals.

"We find that at the very least, supporting students' social and emotional growth in the classroom does not interfere with academic learning," said Sara Rimm-Kaufman, a University of Virginia education professor. "When teachers receive adequate levels of training and support, using practices that support students' social and emotional growth actually boosts achievement."

Math and reading gains were similar among those students who qualified for free and reduced-priced lunch and those who were not.

Rimm-Kaufman discusses key findings 
Students at schools assigned to the RC condition did not outperform students at schools assigned to the control condition in math or reading achievement. Use of RC practices mediated the relation between treatment assignment and improved math and reading achievement.

Effect sizes (ES) were calculated as standardized coefficients. ES relations between use of RC practices and achievement were .26 for math and .30 for reading. The RC practices and math achievement relation was greater for students with low initial math achievement (ES = .89). Results emphasize fidelity of implementation.

"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.

"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." 

Teachers tended to use the RC practices well 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 RC," said Rimm-Kaufman. "Because RC 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 RC 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.