• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Thursday 30th July, 2015

What leads to high classroom fidelity? The mystery remains

Programmes usually work better if they are implemented as the designers intended. So which teachers are most likely to do this? A recent study of the Responsive Classroom approach found little direct relationship between fidelity and teachers’ experience, education, or skills. But when they looked at teachers’ engagement with training, they found one tantalising clue.

For a classroom intervention to work as intended, teachers must believe in the value of the new approach, have the skills to implement it, and be willing to devote precious time and attention to training.

If designers and trainers could identify which teachers are most and least likely to engage with training and implement the programme, they might be able to offer different types of support to increase the programme’s chances of success.

So a team of researchers, led by Shannon Wanless at the University of Pittsburgh, decided to look at six teacher characteristics to see which ones were related to fidelity of implementation of the Responsive Classroom approach.

In a study of 114 teachers at 13 schools, they were surprised to find few notable relationships between these six characteristics and fidelity of implementation. However, teachers who rated high on “emotional support” – who created a feeling of warmth and respect in the classroom – were more likely to engage with the Responsive Classroom training. These teachers who engaged in training, in turn, were more likely to implement the programme.

Responsive Classroom (RC) focuses on fostering “safe, challenging, and joyful classrooms and schools” through academic and social learning. The widely-used programme is perhaps best known for the “morning meeting” that teachers use to start the day, but it aims to create a positive culture in schools and classrooms more broadly.

Teachers are trained in the RC approach during week-long sessions during two consecutive summers, and they receive ongoing coaching. In this study, 126 fourth- and fifth-grade teachers were trained to implement RC as part of a broader randomized controlled trial. Of these, data for 114 were available for analysis.

In the spring before the first training session, observers rated each teacher’s classroom approach and atmosphere. During the training, coaches rated each teacher’s engagement with the training. Last, during the intervention year, teachers were rated on how thoroughly they were implementing RC practices.

This study focused on teachers’ skills, experience, and perspectives. The researchers examined some standard characteristics, such as education level, years of experience, and typical teaching practices. They also measured teachers’ confidence in their skills and abilities (called “self-efficacy”), and their perceptions of shared commitment to quality among teachers at their school (called “collective responsibility”). Finally, they rated how well teachers practiced emotional support by creating a positive environment with warmth and respect in the classroom.

In the analysis of direct relationships between implementation and teachers’ skills, experience, and perspectives, the researchers nearly drew a blank. None of the six teacher characteristics was strongly related to implementation fidelity.

Teachers who demonstrated high emotional support before the programme were modestly more likely to be implementing the programme two years later. However, teachers with good emotional support skills were substantially more likely to engage in training, and for this group, those who were most engaged in the training eventually demonstrated higher fidelity of implementation.

One possible explanation is that each teacher characteristic could work both ways. For instance, some confident, experienced teachers might implement the programme because they have the skills to do so. Others with similar skills and experience might have already settled on classroom practices that work for them, and might not see the value in changing their approach.

This study suggests that teacher characteristics are not, in themselves, enough to predict who will implement a programme and who will not. However, it draws attention to the role that training plays in putting teachers on the track to implementation – or not.

As the authors point out, “teachers live busy lives and need to navigate competing priorities. Those who recruit their resources and direct attention to the weeklong RC training are probably those more likely to implement.” Anything that helps to make the training appealing and relevant to teachers is likely to result in more consistent classroom implementation.

Wanless, S. B., Rimm-Kaufman, S. E., Abry, T., Larsen, R. A., & Patton, C. L. (2014). Engagement in Training as a Mechanism to Understanding Fidelity of Implementation of the Responsive Classroom Approach. Prevention Science. DOI 10.1007/s11121-014-0519-6

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