The Importance of Emotionally Supportive Learning Environments in Mathematical Engagement

The Importance of Emotionally Supportive Learning Environments in Mathematical Engagement

By Teresa Duncan

As the saying goes, “Maslow before Bloom.” These three words sum up decades of research that show how a sense of physical and emotional safety is the foundation for the development of social, emotional, and academic competencies. Learning environments that are emotionally supportive are associated with a variety of positive outcomes in mathematics classrooms, such as improved mathematics achievement, greater engagement, greater effort, and less fear of making mistakes.

There is growing awareness that the Common Core State Standards for Mathematical Practice—on which many states base their College and Career Ready (CCR) mathematical practice standards—have implicit social and emotional expectations. For example:

  • MP.1. Making sense of a problem and persevering in solving it—requires cognitive and emotional regulation
  • MP.3. Providing and/or receiving a constructive mathematical critique—requires social awareness, relational skills, and self-management


Therefore, if CCR mathematical practice standards have social and emotional expectations “baked in,” supporting students in meeting CCR mathematics standards may also require supporting students’ social and emotional development by providing an emotionally safe and positive classroom environment.

A recent analysis of mathematics lessons discovered that standards-aligned mathematical engagement was found only when the learning environment was engaging and emotionally supportive.

Rebekah Berlin and Julie Cohen analyzed more than 400 mathematics lessons of 49 elementary school teachers who taught grades 3 through 5. They used two observation coding schemes to measure the social-emotional and cognitive aspects of the lessons:

CLASS, to capture different aspects of the classroom learning environment

  • Emotional Support (positive climate, teacher sensitivity, regard for student perspectives)
  • Classroom Organization (behavior management, productivity, lack of negative climate)
  • Student Engagement

Instructional Practice Research Tool for Mathematics (IPRT-M), to measure CCR-aligned mathematical engagement

  • Coherence—extent to which a teacher intentionally relates the current lesson to students’ prior mathematical skills and knowledge
  • Depth—focuses on whether the mathematics presented is clear and correct and whether the teacher uses explicitly connected explanations, representations, tasks, and/or examples
  • Student Representations and Solution Strategies—captures the degree to which students strategically share their representations and solution methods. At the high end, the teacher must support students in explicitly drawing mathematical connections between various representations and/or solution strategies.
  • Prompting Student Thinking—assesses the frequency with which the teacher poses questions and tasks that elicit mathematical reasoning and provide opportunities for productive struggle
  • Responding to Misunderstanding—captures whether the teacher responds constructively to student misunderstandings with scaffolds that offer specific, clear, mathematical support for the student to use reengage with the problem and revise their thinking
  • Opportunities to Engage with Mathematics—focuses on the proportion of the lesson that provided opportunities for all students to work with and practice mathematical reasoning
  • Opportunities to Justify and Critique—assesses whether teachers prompt students to justify their thinking and/or critique the reasoning of others

The 400+ lessons fell into four types (see table below).

Lesson Profile
Classroom Learning Environment
CCR Mathematical Engagement
% of Lessons in this Profile
Lessons Characteristics
1 Turbulent Rare 4%
  • Low and lower midrange emotional support
  • Chaotic (lower in classroom organization and higher in negative climate)
  • Students were either offered no opportunities for CCR-aligned mathematical engagement or infrequent and/or shallow opportunities
2 Inconsistent Infrequent 18%
  • Both the learning environment and CCR-aligned mathematical engagement varied during the lesson—there was sporadic but inconsistent evidence of high-quality practice
3 Orderly Infrequent 48%
  • Orderly classrooms, but low emotional support and student engagement
  • The orderly environment does not seem to translate into higher levels of mathematical engagement.
  • Instructional practices are indistinguishable in orderly environments (Profile 3) from inconsistent environments (Profile 2)
4 Supportive Frequent 30%
  • The learning environments in these lessons are orderly like those in Profile 3 but are also more emotionally supportive and engaging than lessons in all the other profiles
  • These ratings indicate that compared with lessons in Orderly environments (Profile 3), lessons in Supportive environments (Profile 4) contained greater evidence of warm interactions, opportunities for student autonomy, active listening, participation, and on-task behavior.
  • The largest differences in CCR-aligned mathematical engagement between Profile 4 and the three other profiles are on measures of (a) collective mathematical work and (b) individual, productive effort

The take home message here is that safe, supportive, classroom learning environments are important in supporting mathematics achievement. We know that many factors influence mathematics achievement, but this analysis of mathematics lessons indicates that emotional support is a key piece of that puzzle.

Suggested Readings

More about this study:

Berlin, R., & Cohen, J. (2020). The convergence of emotionally supportive learning environments and college and career ready mathematical engagement in upper elementary classrooms. AERA Open, 6(3), 1-20.

More about the CLASS observation protocol:

Pianta, R. C., & Hamre, B. K. (2009). Conceptualization, measurement, and improvement of classroom processes: Standardized observation can leverage capacity. Educational Researcher, 38(2), 109–119.

More about the Instructional Practice Research Tool for Mathematics (IPRT-M):

Cohen, J., Hutt, E., Berlin, R., & Wiseman, E. (2020). The change we cannot see: Instructional quality and classroom observation in the era of Common Core. Educational Policy. Advance online publication.

Grant Opportunities

Below are two funding opportunities for teachers working to improve their instructional practices. Both opportunities have deadlines in the first half of April.

The SEL in Action Awards are accepting applications until April 9 for projects that foster student social and emotional competencies. Teachers, counselors, administrators, and other school staff who seek to implement SEL initiatives in classrooms or schools during the 2021–2022 school year can apply for up to $7,500.

Applications for Teacher Development Grants from the McCarthey Dressman Education Foundation are being accepted until April 15. These grants are for small teams of teachers to promote critical inquiry in their practice. Funding is up to $10,000 per individual per year, up to $30,000 over three years.

Math for All is a professional development program that brings general and special education teachers together to enhance their skills in
planning and adapting mathematics lessons to ensure that all students achieve high-quality learning outcomes in mathematics.

Grant-Supported Professional Development
Comments are closed.