Nice Work

Nice Work

As first appeared in Education Week, April 30, 2003. Adapted and reprinted with permission.

The children in Jessica Kimmel’s fifth grade class at Hyde Elementary School in Washington, DC, are gathered in a circle to wrestle with a problem. It seems that Kimmel has heard her students saying “shut up” to one another lately. Now, the class has to figure out how to stop before it becomes habit-forming.

“You can tell people, ‘You shouldn’t say that because it’s a bad word,'” offers one child, Roslynn, from her spot by the bookcase. “It would be bad if you said that around little children on the playground, because they look up to you.”

Polly, who is sitting on the floor next to Roslynn, suggests that friends can keep watch to prevent each other from saying the words.

“We could put sticky notes on our cubbies,” another student offers.

In an education world that is increasingly geared toward attaining high scores on standardized tests, all this talk about behavior and problem-solving might seem out of place. But not at Hyde Elementary, a 172-student public school where many teachers use the Responsive Classroom approach.

Whether these lessons will one day help Polly, Roslynn, or the other children in this class become better students, more responsible citizens, or more caring adults is an open question. Still, a growing number of studies are beginning to suggest that efforts like the Responsive Classroom approach just might help.

Once built on testimonials and program evaluations, the research base for social learning and character education programs is starting to mount. “We’re seeing the beginning of some positive results,” says Roger P. Weissberg, a professor of psychology in education and the director of the Consortium on Social and Emotional Learning, a nine-year-old group based at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Not only do studies show that these programs improve students’ social skills, but much of the newer research also suggests that some of the best programs can increase academic achievement in the bargain.

Academic Enablers

Marvin W. Berkowitz, a professor of character education at University of Missouri-St. Louis, is working with the Character Education Partnership, a Washington-based umbrella group, to put together a review of the research on a wide range of K–12 programs that include improving some aspect of children’s character as at least one goal. He said he was surprised to find studies for 300 such programs.

“The quality varies widely,” he notes. Nonetheless, he says, at least fifteen programs—and possibly twenty—have a research basis that he considers strong. They include the Child Development Project, a schoolwide program devised over two decades by researchers in Oakland, California; Positive Action, a commercial model based in Twin Falls, Idaho, that focuses on promoting “prosocial” skills and healthy behaviors in children; Second Step, designed by the Seattle-based Committee for Children and originally marketed as a violence-prevention program; and Northeast Foundation for Children’s Responsive Classroom approach.

Early on, Northeast Foundation for Children saw the need to build a research base for its work and accumulated a handful of studies. Recently, under the sponsorship of the DuBarry Foundation, the group assembled an independent research-advisory panel, which is implementing a three-year longitudinal study of six Connecticut public schools, half of which are using the Responsive Classroom approach. The study, currently in year two, is showing promising results.

The completed studies indicate that children in classrooms where teachers use the Responsive Classroom approach score higher than children in other classrooms on scales designed to measure five core social skills: cooperation, assertion, responsibility, empathy, and self-control. The findings also point to decreases in problem behavior in Responsive Classroom schools, to more teacher satisfaction, and to some increases in academic achievement.

“As you facilitate social development, you are concurrently, for many kids, advancing their academic function,” says Stephen N. Elliott, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the associate director of its center for educational research. He did most of the early studies on the Responsive Classroom approach. He points to a growing body of other research from both this country and abroad that suggests that social skills are “academic enablers.”

Most notable, he says, is an Italian study published three years ago in Psychological Science that tracked 294 children from third grade to eighth grade. The most powerful predictor of academic achievement in eighth grade, the researchers in that study found, was the youngsters’ positive social skills five years earlier.

“This is big stuff,” Elliott says.

Free to Teach

Addressing children’s social skills was not rocket science to Anne Jenkins, Hyde Elementary School ‘s principal. Jenkins learned about the Responsive Classroom through a summer course. Jenkins says the approach made intuitive sense to her. Now, she’s hoping to infuse the model into every classroom at Hyde, an economically diverse school tucked in a busy Georgetown neighborhood in the nation’s capital.

“It’s how you do that social piece that frees you up to teach,” observes Jenkins, who has been a trainer for the Responsive Classroom for more than eight years. “That’s when wonderful things start to happen in the classroom.”

When children don’t have those skills, she explains, teachers spend too much time negotiating, keeping order, and directing activities.

Elements of Success

Marvin Berkowitz says he has identified—at least preliminarily—some elements that seem to be common to successful character education programs. He found, for example, that effective programs are usually part of a more comprehensive model for school improvement. Moreover, he says, the programs work best when students see their schools as caring communities and bond with them.

He also says that principals need to take an active role in those efforts, and that all adults should become exemplars of the traits and behaviors they are trying to instill in children.

“If adults don’t walk the walk, it doesn’t work,” says Berkowitz, who hopes to complete his three-year-long study this summer. In the meantime, the Coalition for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, known as CASEL, recently published the results of a similar review.

In that report, titled “Safe and Sound,” the group cites twenty-two programs, including the Responsive Classroom approach, that it considers to have a solid research base, good staff development, and sound curriculum design. (Go to for a copy of the report.)

Proponents of such programs are hoping that the good news dribbling in from the research front will help to counter the perception that approaches like Responsive Classroom are touchy feely and time consuming and don’t address academic needs.

Even Jessica Kimmel, the fifth grade teacher at Hyde Elementary School , found herself bowing to that kind of pressure at the beginning of the last school year. With the prospect of standardized tests breathing down her neck, Kimmel, who is in her fourth year of teaching, decided to forgo some of the upfront lessons that go into the Responsive Classroom approach. Instead, she launched right into the academic program. Students were disruptive all year, and the pace of learning suffered.

“I paid the price dearly,” recalls Kimmel, as she surveys her fifth graders working quietly and industriously at their tables. “I’ll never do that again.”

Debra Viadero is an associate editor for Education Week. She often writes about research on education issues.

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