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 selfmanagement
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 standardsaligned 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 socialemotional 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 (IPRTM), to measure CCRaligned 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% 

2  Inconsistent  Infrequent  18% 

3  Orderly  Infrequent  48% 

4  Supportive  Frequent  30% 

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), 120.
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 (IPRTM):
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.
The contents of this blog post were developed under a grant from the Department of Education. However, those contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government.
This work is licensed under CC BYNCSA 4.0
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 highquality learning outcomes in mathematics.