In recent years, education policy—especially in the form of the No Child Left Behind Act—has emphasized academic standards, teacher accountability, and rigorous testing in schools nationwide. But a recent study suggests that a rigid focus on academic standards could hinder a child’s academic achievement.

The study, published in the Journal of School Psychology, found that a “child-centered” approach would be more effective. In such an environment, teachers focus on supporting the social and emotional, as well as academic, needs of their students—for instance, by trying to foster positive relationships within the classroom—and they develop instructional methods that consider the varied abilities and learning styles of different children.

The researchers, from the University of California, Berkeley, tracked the progress of students from 14 first-grade classrooms, an age rarely studied in previous research. Teachers in some of these classes took a child-centered approach, devoting more time to building social connections with and among their students. Other teachers adhered more strictly to a uniform set of rules and academic standards, placing more emphasis on rote learning and memorization.

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The results showed that by the end of the school year, a higher percentage of students in the child-centered classrooms met academic standards on math and reading, and on average had higher math scores. Those students also showed more improvements in their behavior and had more positive perceptions of their academic abilities.

“I think that standards are important and that testing can provide useful information on how students are responding to instruction,” says Kathryn Perry, the study’s lead author.

“However, as our study demonstrated, social connections and relationships affect students’ ability to learn and meet these standards.”

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