A Leading SEL Program Gets Positive Results—But Only if It’s Used

by Sara Rimm-Kaufman

In March 2014 the American Educational Research Journal (AERJ) published results from a large, rigorous, three-year study of the Responsive Classroom approach. Responsive Classroom is one of 23 exemplary evidence-based social and emotional learning programs identified in the 2013 CASEL Guide. The study, funded by the Institute of Education Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation, was conducted by Sara Rimm-Kaufman and colleagues at the University of Virginia Center for the Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL). In addition to being a national leader in the SEL field, in 2007 Rimm-Kaufman was the first scholar to receive CASEL’s Joseph E. Zins Award for Action Research on Social and Emotional Learning. In this blog entry, Rimm-Kaufman describes the origins of the study, its method, and its findings.

In 2000 I began research on the Responsive Classroom approach. I’ve conducted two studies—one from 2001 to 2004 and a second from 2008-2011. My goal has been to conduct research and share findings that provide guidance for administrators and teachers making decisions about daily practice in classrooms. There has been a consistent, single thread present in both studies—my team and I wrestle with key questions about how the Responsive Classroom creates change. The focus on “mechanism” speaks to a need we have in educational and psychological research to understand how children’s personal attributes and their experiences in classrooms influence their self-control, engagement in learning, and achievement. Recently we have been examining this issue in math classrooms in the presence of the new, challenging mathematics standards.

I was initially drawn to Responsive Classroom because of the intent of its developers. The approach was created by a group of wise educators who wanted schools to feel like caring, safe communities. Upon examining the principles and practices, I could see they were based on strong developmental theory. They didn’t just focus on improving a set of social and emotional skills in children. They also focused on enhancing the capacity of teachers to be able to interact with children effectively. For example, teachers learned strategies to facilitate warm and responsive interactions with children, use proactive approaches to handling behavior problems, utilize language effectively, and foster children’s development of self-control and autonomy.

The study described in the AERJ article examined the efficacy of the Responsive Classroom approach over three years. Twenty-four schools were assigned randomly to intervention or comparison conditions. We studied 2,000 students and their teachers from the end of second grade to the end of fifth grade to examine the effects of exposure to the Responsive Classroom approach on math and reading achievement. We paid careful attention to the interactions that occurred when teachers were using Responsive Classroom practices. We watched and coded seven hours of video footage for the 300 teachers. Each video was coded between two and three times with different coding systems. We measured use of Responsive Classroom practices in one set of observations and utilized the Classroom Assessment Scoring System in another. For math classrooms we used the M-Scan measure to assess teachers’ use of standards-based mathematics.

These observations expanded our understanding of classroom and teaching practices. We have published papers in the Journal of School Psychology, School Psychology Quarterly, Prevention Science, School Psychology Review, and the Elementary School Journal that shed light on Responsive Classroom practices and teacher effectiveness. The findings we report in the recent AERJ paper showed that exposure to Responsive Classroom practices produced 11-12%-ile gains in student math and reading achievement over three years. Gains were larger for students who were in the lowest quartile (below 25%-ile) in math achievement in second grade. However, the findings show that simply receiving training in the Responsive Classroom approach did not improve student achievement. Achievement gains were only evident when teachers adopted the Responsive Classroom practices and used them regularly in the classroom.

Focus groups with teachers revealed experiences that were important in helping them adopt Responsive Classroom practices. Principal support for Responsive Classroom practices was critically important. So were efforts by school leaders to create a psychologically safe environment that allowed teachers to take the risk of learning and using new methods.

To read the AERJ article go to:

For more information about research conducted by Sara Rimm-Kaufman see:

For short informative article summaries from the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning see:

For information about doctoral and masters programs that teach about SEL at the Curry School of Education, see:

For information about the Responsive Classroom approach, see www.responsiveclassroom.org