Research: How SEL Classroom Management Techniques Build Academic Achievement

Respect, responsibility, and a community-based learning atmosphere promote success at Mount Desert Elementary School, a K-8 public school in Northeast Harbor, Maine.

Respect, responsibility, and a community-based learning atmosphere promote success at Mount Desert Elementary School, a K-8 public school in Northeast Harbor, Maine.
Transitions on the bulletin board; teachers and students on the floor doing an exercise

An important aspect of the culture at Mount Desert is allowing students and teachers autonomy to determine what works best in their classrooms for promoting students' learning.

Credit: Alyssa Fedele

Mount Desert Elementary School is a small, K-8 public school in Northeast Harbor, Maine, that has successfully created a strong learning community that is the basis of the school's academic success. Since 2006, this elementary school has consistently outperformed the state of Maine in the percentage of students at "Proficient with Distinction" or above on state tests, and has been awarded National Blue Ribbon Schools Program status for academic excellence in 2008. While the teachers and principal of Mount Desert are hesitant to attribute their school's success to any particular recipe or approach, several key practices seem crucial to the school's success:

Responsive Classroom

An Approach That Helps Build Positive Relationships

The foundation for a community-based learning atmosphere at Mount Desert begins in the earliest grades, where a Responsive Classroom approach is used in all K-3 classrooms. Many teachers in the upper-grade classrooms also utilize elements of Responsive Classroom practices. The research-based Responsive Classroom program connects social and emotional learning (SEL) with academic skills, helping students to build positive relationships, manage their behavior, and take an active role in their own learning. The Responsive Classroom approach is established at the beginning of the school year, when teachers and students work together to co-construct expectations for a positive learning environment and create rules that connect expectations to their learning goals:

  • Every morning, the entire class comes together as a community to greet one another, share news, and warm up for the day ahead.
  • Positive language plays a key role throughout the school day. Teachers use positive words and tone to promote active learning, a sense of community, and self-discipline to achieve goals.
  • Along with language, teachers also carefully model expected behaviors.
  • To make learning active and engaging for students, and to promote autonomy, teachers provide students with structured choices in their activities. For example, students can often choose from a set of topics to pursue, or may choose the type of product they create (such as a poster or movie).

Using Discipline Challenges as Learning Opportunities

Logical consequences play a key role in addressing student misbehavior by sending the message that misbehavior -- not the student -- is the problem. Rather than focusing on punishing students for misbehavior, teachers provide opportunities for students to repair the situation and learn from their mistakes. For example, if a student breaks an object, instead of scolding the student or sending the student to the principal's office, the teacher and student (and possibly the object's owner) will have a conversation, figure out ways to amend the situation, and then the student will take action to make the situation more positive for everyone involved. Teachers report that the "logical consequences" approach is not only effective in reducing misbehavior, it is respectful of students and encourages social and emotional growth by letting them take responsibility for their actions and helping them understand -- in a positive, constructive way -- how their actions affect others. Conflicts between students are also resolved through collaborative problem-solving activities, such as conferences or role-playing.

Transitions on the bulletin board; teachers and students on the floor doing an exercise

Credit: Rebeccas Heniser

A growing body of research supports the use of positive intervention strategies for reducing student misbehavior: Children under the age of 15 typically do not understand the consequences of their behavior, and punitive measures, such as zero-tolerance policies, have not been found to be effective for improving school safety (and may negatively affect student behavior), despite 20 years of implementation (APA Zero Tolerance Task Force: Reynolds, Skiba, Graham, Sheras, Conoley, and Garcia-Vazquez, 2008). Meanwhile, prevention and intervention programs have demonstrated effectiveness for reducing the potential for violence and for maintaining school safety, according to an American Psychological Association task force (APA Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2008).

SEL programs (such as Responsive Classroom) have been shown to reduce misbehavior and to improve academic performance and attitudes toward school by developing skills that support positive social relationships and constructive responses to the challenges of life (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, and Schellinger, 2011). Several studies have found that programs like Responsive Classroom boost student learning and enhance conduct. In a two-year study of Responsive Classroom schools, students showed improved behavior, social skills, and achievement levels in reading, as compared to students in matched schools without a Responsive Classroom program (Rimm-Kaufman and Chiu, 2007). A three-year study showed improved achievement in both math and reading (Rimm-Kaufman, Fan, Chiu, and You, 2007). Teachers using the Responsive Classroom approach also collaborated more frequently with other teachers (Sawyer and Rimm-Kaufman, 2007), felt like more effective teachers, and had a more positive attitude about teaching, as compared to teachers not using Responsive Classroom (Rimm-Kaufman and Sawyer, 2004).

Tailoring Instruction to Students' Learning Needs and Interests

Personalized Attention for Each Student

The Student Success Team (SST) is another key feature of Mount Desert's supportive learning community. When a student seems to be struggling with any type of issue, the student's teachers, parents, and the SST will meet to discuss and resolve the problem. The SST provides recommendations for academic or behavioral supports and continues to meet on a regular basis to review whether interventions are helping -- and adjust interventions as necessary. A team of specialists with expertise ranging from special education, to speech and language, to gifted education, to guidance counseling, ensures that no teacher is alone in providing such supports. Classrooms often have a specialist assisting the teacher and providing additional support to students.

Differentiated Instruction

In addition to SSTs, many teachers at Mount Desert also report differentiated instruction as an approach that they use to support students' academic success. "Differentiated instruction" refers to proactively tailoring instruction, modifying curriculum and learning activities, meeting individual student's diverse needs, and maximizing learning potential through practices such as small teaching-learning groups, variable pacing, and providing a variety of instructional materials (Tomlinson et al., 2003). In a randomized-controlled experimental study in five elementary schools, differentiated instruction improved student reading comprehension and fluency, as compared to students who received whole-group instruction -- showing that a differentiated learning approach is as, or more, effective than a whole-group approach (Reis, McCoach, Little, Muller, and Kaniskan, 2011).

Writing from Personal Experiences

Differentiation is a key facet of English language arts (ELA) instruction at Mount Desert, and the writing component is based on the Reading and Writing Project (RWP) founded and directed by Lucy Calkins of Teachers College, Columbia University. The RWP provides curriculum development, professional development, and assessment tools for K-8 teachers. The RWP emphasizes an autobiographical approach to writing, which uses "small moments" to connect a student's writing to his or her own personal experiences. Students begin writing by thinking about a personal experience that generated strong feelings. For example, a suggested prompt is to tell students, "Think about things that you have done that have given you strong feelings -- times that made you really happy, for example, or really sad." Students then are given the opportunity to write a personal narrative based on the small moment, expanding the story by adding details regarding what happened, dialogue, and an ending. A core philosophy of the RWP is that the material that students read should be matched to their reading and comprehension ability. While the RWP is based on research and developed by staff from Teachers College, Columbia University, evaluations would help to determine the program's effectiveness in schools.

Making Math Relevant

Consistent with Mount Desert's approach to providing individualized instruction for all of their students, the math curricula at Mount Desert enable students to play an active role in the learning experience, engaging their personal interests and passions and emphasizing problem solving and hands-on learning. Students in grades K-5 use the Investigations in Number, Data, and Space curriculum developed by Technical Education Research Centers (TERC), which uses classroom activities and discussions to explore mathematical ideas. Research on Investigations in Number, Data, and Space is promising. An independent evaluation, which randomly assigned first graders (followed into second grade) and fourth graders (followed into fifth) at eight schools to the Investigations curriculum or the traditional curriculum, found that after two years, Investigation students showed increases in math skills (as measured by a standardized math test) at both the early- and late-elementary grades. Furthermore, both second and fifth graders were successful in equaling, often outperforming, their comparison group counterparts in the recall of math facts and math language and in the application of problem-solving strategies. The late-elementary Investigation students finished up fifth-grade testing five months ahead of their counterparts in the comparison group. The early-elementary students did not show as much growth, however: Investigations students finished up second-grade testing two months ahead of their counterparts in the comparison group -- not a statistically significant difference (Gatti, 2010). And while the second-grade students didn't significantly outperform their comparison counterparts, fifth graders gained three grade equivalents in two years, significantly outperforming students in the standard math curriculum (Gatti, 2010).

Mount Desert students in grades 6-8 use MathScape, a math curriculum that connects math to human experience. A typical lesson plan uses meaningful, real-world examples and data to engage students. For example, in the eighth-grade lesson plan "What Comes Next?: Modeling and Predicting," students use world population data to learn about linear and exponential models. At the end of the lesson, students prepare a culminating report to apply the concepts they've learned to population-growth data of a country of their choice. While there is insufficient evidence supporting the effectiveness of the MathScape program, it has been extensively field tested by over 1,000 teachers across California and Massachusetts. Results from interviews, classroom observations, and analyses of student work suggest that MathScape encourages a positive classroom culture through collaborative, hands-on activities, and increased communication between students and teachers, and also helps students to grapple with difficult math concepts, to connect math with real-world situations, and to address mathematical misconceptions (Mathscape Research).

A Community-Based Learning Atmosphere

Research supports the role of school community in improving student learning. A review of research from the 1960s through 2000 found that while some schools had organizational practices that neglected a sense of community, students who felt a sense of belonging were more highly motivated, engaged in learning, more committed to school, had higher academic performance, and experienced a better quality of student learning (Osterman, 2000). At Mount Desert Elementary, SEL, coupled with an approach to academic instruction that is responsive to each student's needs, helps to create a school community that ensures that students gain not only a strong academic education but also the self-confidence, emotional maturity, and social skills needed to succeed beyond the walls of the classroom.

The Importance of Teacher Autonomy

Just as teachers provide students with the opportunity to co-construct their learning environments, an important aspect of the culture at Mount Desert is allowing teachers to have autonomy to determine what works best in their classrooms for promoting students' learning. In one classroom, a teacher has found that daily yoga helps her students focus when transitioning between the morning meeting and their first class, which is writing. Research on yoga's impacts for learning is currently limited; however, emerging evidence suggests that yoga may improve behavior and support academic learning for young children (Galantino, Galbavy, and Quinn, 2008). One study in an elementary school found that a three-week yoga program improved students' ability to maintain attention on school tasks (Peck, Kehle, Bray, and Theodore, 2005), and an 11-week yoga program in a secondary school resulted in better anger control and lower levels of fatigue for students (Steiner and Cope, 2012). Research has also found that providing teachers with authority to make decisions supports effective professional learning communities, in addition to collaboration, continuous learning, and a focus on student learning (Vescio, Ross, and Adams, 2008). Teachers unanimously describe the culture at Mount Desert as one in which every person is dedicated to ensuring students' success. Although Mount Desert does not use formal structures for professional development, several teachers described taking walks together as one of the primary ways they collaborate and share information.

Principal Scott McFarland describes the strategies that work at Mount Desert as "a thousand points of light" forming a collective school culture. While educational programs play a key role in the school's success, they are part of a larger approach that supports teachers and students working together to shape the school's academic and social environment. The school's vision is reflected in the attitude that teachers bring to the classroom to do "whatever it takes" to help each student achieve his or her greatest potential.


APA Zero Tolerance Task Force: Reynolds, C.R., Skiba, R.J., Graham, S., Sheras, P., Conoley, J.C., and Garcia-Vazquez, E. (2008). Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools? An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations. American Psychologist, 63(9), 852-862.

Durlak, J.A., Weissberg, R.P., Dymnicki, A.B., Taylor, R.D., and Schellinger, K.B. (2011). The Impact of Enhancing Students' Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405-432.

Galantino, M. L., Galbavy, R., and Quinn, L. (2008). Therapeutic Effects of Yoga for Children: A Systematic Review of the Literature. Pediatric Physical Therapy, 20(1), 66-80.

Gatti, G.G. (2010). Pearson Investigations in Numbers, Data, & Space Efficacy Study. Pittsburgh, PA: Gatti Evaluation.

Osterman, K. F. (2000). Students' Need for Belonging in the School Community. Review of Educational Research, 70(3), 323-367.

Peck, H. L., Kehle, T. J., Bray, M. A., and Theodore, L. A. (2005). Yoga as an Intervention for Children with Attention Problems. School Psychology Review, 34(3), 415-424.

Reis, S.M., McCoach, D.B., Little, C.A., Muller, L.M., and Kaniskan, R.B. (2011). The Effects of Differentiated Instruction and Enrichment Pedagogy on Reading Achievement in Five Elementary Schools. American Educational Research Journal, 48(2), 462-501.

Rimm-Kaufman, S.E., and Chiu, Y.J.I. (2007). Promoting Social and Academic Competence in the Classroom: An Intervention Study Examining the Contribution of the Responsive Classroom Approach. Psychology in the Schools, 44(4), 397-413.

Rimm-Kaufman, S.E., Fan, X., Chiu, Y.J., and You, W. (2007). The Contribution of the Responsive Classroom Approach on Children's Academic Achievement: Results From a Three Year Longitudinal Study. Journal of School Psychology, 45(4), 401-421.

Rimm-Kaufman, S.E., and Sawyer, B.E. (2004). Primary-Grade Teachers' Self-Efficacy Beliefs, Attitudes Toward Teaching, and Discipline and Teaching Practice Priorities in Relation to the "Responsive Classroom" Approach. The Elementary School Journal, 104(4), 321-341.

Sawyer, L.B.E., and Rimm-Kaufman, S.E. (2007). Teacher Collaboration in the Context of the Responsive Classroom Approach. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 13(3), 211-245.

Steiner, N., and Cope, S. (2012). Evaluation of the Mental Health Benefits of Yoga in a Secondary School: A Preliminary Randomized Controlled Trial. The Journal of Behavioral Health Services and Research, 39(1), 80-90.

Tomlinson, C.A., Brighton, C., Hertberg, H., Callahan, C.M., Moon, T.R., Brimijoin, K., et al. (2003). Differentiating Instruction in Response to Student Readiness, Interest, and Learning Profile in Academically Diverse Classrooms: A Review of Literature. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 27(2/3), 119-145.

Vescio, V., Ross, D., and Adams, A. (2008). A Review of Research on the Impact of Professional Learning Communities on Teaching Practice and Student Learning. Teaching and Teacher Education, 24(1), 80-91.

This article originally published on 4/4/2013

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Comments (3)

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Education researcher at Edutopia

Great article covering new

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Great article covering new research on Responsive Classroom:
Socialization technique helps in academic achievement, trial study finds

And the study:
Efficacy of the Responsive Classroom Approach: Results From a 3-Year, Longitudinal Randomized Controlled Trial

2-4th grade ESS teacher, Georgia

I love this video. I was able

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I love this video. I was able to see a unique way that this teacher cared about her students. I enjoyed learning about the marshmallow theory.

Distance Education Specialist

Great video!

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I really enjoyed this video, it shows that people genuinely care about increasing the quality of education in many areas. This is my thought though, teaching children about their emotions is not easy. It's something they learn overtime, some the hard way. The best way to teach children about discipline is to have them put off instant gratification. The marshmallow theory is very true. The professor in the 1970's and 80's that proved that children who give into gratification usually end up not going far at all in life.

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