I recently heard a great analogy about the CLASS tool and I had to share it. I can’t take credit for the idea. Affiliate Trainer, Teresa Bockes, originated the concept, and I loved it the minute I heard it: CLASS is like a house. Let’s build a house step-by-step to learn more about this metaphor.
You can’t begin building a house until you have a solid foundation. Without a sturdy groundwork, your walls will crumble and your roof will never be raised. Likewise, you can’t have a productive and effective relationship with the children in your classroom until you’ve formed an emotional connection with them. In the words of veteran teacher, Rita Pierson, “Kids don't learn from people they don't like.”
The first CLASS domain you learn about in observation training is Emotional Support (ES). It’s the groundwork for your relationship with a child. You welcome children by name with warm, calming voices (Positive Climate), ensure that they feel safe in the new classroom environment (Teacher Sensitivity), and following children’s lead during storytime (Regard for Student Perspectives).
When it comes to building a house, many people tend to think that once the foundation has been poured, you can forget about it. But that’s not true! Always check back in with yourself that you are still being respectful, addressing problems, and allowing for autonomy within the classroom. Any cracks in the foundation can cause structural issues later on.
Ok, so now you have a good, solid foundation on which to build the rest of your house. It’s time to construct the walls that support the weight of your roof. Similarly, you can’t expect children to make drastic academic gains without appropriate behavior expectations, clear routines, and effective facilitation techniques and materials.
Let’s build the walls of Classroom Organization (CO). Are you able to redirect misbehavior if it comes up (Behavior Management)? Do your students know the routines and transitions (Productivity)? Have you hooked your student’s interest with hands-on opportunities (Instructional Learning Formats)? When all these pieces are in place, the classroom becomes—in the words of the CLASS Manual—a “well-oiled machine.” Now your students are ready for some serious learning.
Your foundation and walls complete! Your house has really started to take form, so, it’s time for the last part of construction—the roof. Classrooms can function when teachers and students have a strong relationship, and when children know the rules and routines. But the Instructional Support (IS) domain is where the “height” of learning takes place (excuse the pun).
It’s at this point in your “construction” that you’re asking more from children’s cognitive skills. You’re asking open-ended questions (Language Modeling), brainstorming, problem-solving (Concept Development), and prompting them to explain their thinking (Quality of Feedback).
One way that CLASS differs from construction is that you don’t necessarily have to build your CLASS house one piece at a time or in a specific order. I’ve heard that there is an underlying belief system that "I have to improve ES and CO before I can even begin to work on IS."
Research shows that you can see improvements in ES and CO while focusing on improving IS. When teachers were coached to improve Instructional Support (the roof) "The number of prompts spent on IS was positively associated with gains in all three domains—i.e., more IS prompts → greater CLASS score gains" (Pianta, 2014).
And as in any construction project, when unexpected hurdles arise, you might need to slow down and re-prioritize your goals. Improving Instructional Support scores is a common goal, but it’s crucial to recognize that each part of the “CLASS house”—Emotional Support, Classroom Organization, and Instructional Support—all work together. So, while all three domains are interconnected, you can put the roof on while building the foundations and the walls. You can have a roof while building the foundation.
Recently, I wrote about research showing us just how few children experience even “good enough” teaching from kindergarten to third grade. Only 4% of children in rural areas of North Carolina and Pennsylvania had access to good enough teaching during these critical early years and over 50% only experienced good enough teaching for 1 year or less.
As I entered my 15th year of teaching young children and supporting adult learners, I found myself searching for answers. Answers to why CLASS implementation was so difficult, why teacher buy-in was such a challenge, and why long-term improvement seemed impossible. In my role as the Director of Curriculum and Instruction, I’m constantly checking the data. Data drives instruction, instruction drives learning, learning drives comprehension, and comprehension equals success!
The CLASS measure allows us to quantify the quality of teacher-child interactions—and that is a powerful thing. But collecting observation data, alone, does nothing to impact students. Improving child outcomes takes more than just data collection; it’s what you do with the data that really matters.