Applied Psychology OPUS

Social Development in Democratic Elementary-School Classrooms

Lauren Tkach

In the late 19th century, John Dewey, a prominent philosopher and psychologist, sought to reform the United States’ education system. He was disappointed by the current state of education because he thought schools were training children to become obedient members of society rather than critical thinkers. Dewey emphasized the need for a child-centric, democratic perspective in education – one that highlights the student’s unique and natural development (Dewey, 2010). Dewey believed that if educational institutions provided young students the space and opportunity to naturally develop their interests in education, those students would be better equipped to handle unpredictable changes in society (Dewey, 2010). He saw the traditional education system as an institution focused solely on memorizing repetitive monotonous tasks in an isolated space (Dewey, 2010). Such an environment, he says, would not prepare them for the unpredictable nature of the world outside the school walls. Over time, this ideology developed into what is now called the Progressive Education Movement.

The Brooklyn Free School (BFS), a progressive school located in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, employs a modern-day interpretation of Dewey’s Progressive Education Movement. Like Dewey’s child-centric ideologies, BFS emphasizes diversity in education by embracing the students’ individual strengths and personal experiences. In fact, BFS’s mission statement follows Dewey’s vision for education, stating that it “ supports social and emotional development through conflict mediation, personal reflection, diversity awareness and community responsibility” (“Mission statement,” para 1). Despite the progressive approach’s underrepresentation in the American education system, the staff, administration, students, and parents involved at BFS all support the students’ rights to have control over their learning and overall daily activities.

Teachers and administrators treat every student in the school, from age six to eighteen, as an independent individual who is entitled to guided self-exploration, as well as the basic rights afforded in a democratic society. Particularly enlightening is the practice of granting students the right to call class-wide and school-wide meetings whenever they deem it appropriate. Meetings could range from discussing a prevalent issue occurring within the classroom community, to proposing a change or addition to the classroom rules. Additionally, with teachers’ help, students lead both school-wide and class-wide meetings. Although the school itself mandated weekly all-school meetings, students had the liberty to spontaneously call their own class-wide meetings, sometimes as often as five times a day. With the teacher’s guidance, students engage in a variety of discussions, ranging from general swearing to the misuse of another student’s toy. After extensively discussing and defending different issues through a basic parliamentary procedure, the students then take the issue to a vote in order to decide the necessary future steps.

The researcher observed two major yet contradicting trends during the younger students’ class-wide meetings. First, the space created by the meetings provided a safe space for quieter students to speak up when they felt the need to express their concerns Unfortunately, not every student took advantage of the support offered at these meetings. Some students blatantly did not care about this system and saw it as a waste of time. Others saw it as a perfect opportunity to make their voices heard as much as possible, no matter if it meant getting another student in trouble. Although there are many benefits to this type of democratic system, oftentimes the meetings create an opportunity for more bullying; in such cases, teachers would intervene and encourage the student facilitator to manage the discussion in a more productive manner. Despite consistent efforts to resolve individual conflicts through one-on-one mediations and class-wide meetings, it seemed apparent that certain students knew how to use these methods to their advantage. They abused their right to call meetings, mainly by using these meetings as a space to gain support from their peers about their negative feelings towards another student. It is important to note, however, that these negative outcomes did not occur in all of the younger students’ meetings. When students called on meetings to discuss general issues such as the prevalence of swearing or teasing in the classroom, the discussions were very productive and meaningful because the issues were relevant to everyone. However, the group meetings seemed least productive when a student would gather the class together only to blame another student for something that recently happened.

In theory, providing the space and time for democratically driven class meetings is a good way for young students to comprehend the differences between positive and negative social behavior. However, the researcher’s experience at the Brooklyn Free School suggests that theory and practice do not always go hand-in-hand. Despite the constant emphasis of conflict-resolution strategies among teachers and interns in the school, some students were still not able to internalize the consequences of their actions. This review article focuses on progressive classroom environments that emphasize democratic values because students in these classes have the unique opportunity to practice their rights, exercise a significant degree of autonomy, discuss their issues together, and vote on rules. Therefore, it is as if students and teachers are always engaging in some form of explicit or implicit conflict-resolution. However, the researcher interpreted the prevalence of bullying at BFS to be indicative of failed conflict-resolution and a neutral or decreased social-emotional development. Such occurrences inspired the research question: To what extent might a democratic classroom environment foster positive or negative social-emotional development in early school-aged children? Social-emotional development is defined as the development of skills necessary to actively engage with and understand one’s social context (Hoffman, 2009). For the purpose of this review article, conflict-resolution techniques within these classrooms were used as a measure of how a democratic environment promoting problem-solving skills can create both positive and negative social-emotional development for the students. Also, this review article focuses on early school-aged children (ages 6-10), the period that Erikson (1997) predicts the development of understanding of social surroundings begins.

Social-Emotional Development in the Classroom

Understanding one’s social surroundings is the crux of social-emotional development (Hoffman, 2009). Skills such as emotional intelligence, emotional literacy, self and social-awareness, and self-regulation, are necessary to become an active and empathetic member of one’s social context (Hoffman, 2009). The development of positive social-emotional skills particularly in an educational setting, is an integral developmental task for early school-aged children.

How children develop their social-emotional skills can have great implications on other aspects of their development (Bornstein, Hahn, & Haynes, 2010; Dotterer & Lowe, 2011; Heydenberk & Heydenberk, 2007). For instance, children whose teachers and school environments positively support their social-emotional skills are more likely to have more positive attitudes about education and improved academic performance (Dotterer & Lowe, 2011; Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011). Likewise, these children are also less likely to experience psychopathological symptoms and internalize negative social behaviors during late childhood and early adolescence (Bornstein et al., 2010; Hoffman, 2009). However, failing to acquire a sufficient degree of social-emotional skills is often a predictor of peer rejection, social isolation, and eventually weak academic improvement (Heydenberk & Heydenberk, 2007). Teachers can avert these negative effects by understanding the theories behind social-emotional development and ways to foster positive social-emotional skills in their students.

Theories of Social-Emotional Development

To prevent their students from falling behind on social-emotional skills, teachers may consult various theories on child development when designing their class curriculum, activities, and assignments. For instance, Erikson’s well known eight stages of psychosocial development emphasize the advancement of the self, identity, and interpersonal relationships as motivators for moving through each stage (Woolfolk, 2012). During elementary school, students are just beginning to understand the importance of accomplishing goals while experiencing competition and potential failure. If a teacher considers Erikson’s theory of development while conducting a class, he or she may focus too heavily on the student’s individual performance and self-perceptions because a failure to support their perceptions of personal competence can lead to feelings of inferiority (Woolfolk, 2012). Helping young students manage the pressures of competition with the support of personal achievement could help them feel more comfortable working alongside their peers and potential competitors.

Simply focusing on the students’ individual goals and self-perceptions of their achievements is an incomplete approach to helping them build and apply their social-emotional skills in the classroom. Unlike Erikson’s theory, which emphasizes a discontinuous path of development, Bronfenbrenner (1979) provides a more integrated and continuous theory that highlights the need for active reciprocal interactions between the student and his immediate and more distant contexts (Dotterer & Lowe, 2011). Teachers utilizing Bronfenbrenner as a framework for their curriculum should encourage interactions between the student, his school, family, neighborhood, and society. This approach not only allows students to learn from others, but it can help them practice patience, active listening, and social awareness in the process.

 Although it is important for teachers to acknowledge the many different theories regarding social-emotional development, it is a strong student-teacher relationship that ultimately aids children’s this development in the classroom (Solomon, Watson, Delucchi, Schaps, & Battistich, 1988). In addition to opportunities for meaningful and collaborative interpersonal communication among students, teachers play an important role in how students understand social-emotional development in the classroom (Jennings & Greenberg, 2009; Solomon et al., 1988). Jennings and Greenberg (2009) suggest that when teachers have high levels of social-emotional competency (i.e., they are socially aware, they exhibit pro-social values, and they can effectively manage their emotions and relationships with others), not only do they model positive social emotional skills to the classroom, but they also are likely to have healthier relationships with their students. Likewise, positive interpersonal relationships between teachers and students can help regulate and promote children’s social and academic competencies (Pianta & Bruce, 2002; Pianta & Stuhlman, 2004). Conflict-resolution activities are one effective way that teachers can support collaborative communication, enhance one-on-one relationships, and promote social-emotional learning in the classroom.

Conflict-Resolution and Social-Emotional Development

Teachers often employ conflict-resolution techniques in their classrooms to help students practice pro-social behaviors while also developing their social-emotional skills. When practicing how to work through conflicts, teachers help guide their students to recognize their peers’ negative emotions, which in turn builds their emotional intelligence (Smith & Sandhu, 2004). Conflict-resolution techniques help students practice self-reflection, active listening, forward-thinking, and communication skills, all of which are important social-emotional skills that help students collaborate more effectively with each other.

Depending on the developmental stage of the students in the classroom, a school might implement a variety of techniques in order to teach about peaceful interactions. School-wide peer mediation programs are very popular interventions to implement in elementary schools (Cunningham et al., 1998; Lindsay, 1998). Peer mediation intervention programs train students how to work collaboratively, actively listen to their peers, and practice problem-solving in order to mediate their peers’ conflicts on their own without needing to involve a teacher (Jennings & Mills, 2009). Aside from school-wide programs, teachers can also implement individual conflict-resolution activities in a classroom context. Practicing I-Statements, where students learn to express their feelings with sentences that start with “I…” instead of an accusatory “You…”  (Heydenberk & Heydenberk, 2007) and “Win/Win” strategies, where the two parties brainstorm effective solutions together, allow students to exercise introspection and effective verbal communication. Likewise, conflict-resolution strategies like these can also have a strong influence on how students deal with issues outside of the classroom (Johnson, Johnson, Dudley, & Acikgoz, 1994) and later in life (Battistich, Solomon, Watson, Solomon, & Schaps, 1989). Overall, it is important to encourage collaborative and introspective conflict-resolution activities in the classroom so that students can translate their social-emotional skills both within and outside an educational context.

Introducing Democratic Values into the Classroom

As opposed to non-progressive schools, which tend to adopt ephemeral conflict-resolution intervention programs, progressive schools implicitly and explicitly encourage conflict-resolution and social-emotional development within their community. By encouraging autonomy and individual responsibility among students, progressive schools provide students the space to explore what is appropriate pro-social behavior (Ainsa, 2011). Schools that adopt progressive values may use the Democratic Pedagogy Model, an approach to social-emotional learning that allows students the right to free speech, right to intellectual and physical property, and the right to alter the class activities and policies through a majority vote (Basu & Barton, 2010). When teachers implement these values in a nurturing and collaborative classroom environment, students experience a degree of autonomy and self-control that helps guide them to develop their social-emotional skills and prepare them for societal responsibilities (Solomon et al., 1988). In classrooms following the Democratic Pedagogy Model, students actively resolve interpersonal conflicts through communication and meaningful discussions about the issues at hand (Basu & Barton, 2010). When students have the time and physical space in the classroom to engage in reflective speech, they have the opportunity to collaborate to reach a greater goal (e.g., learn why it hurts if a child says bad words to another child, learn to respect other students’ toys). Emphasis on classroom collaboration also helps students express their feelings, actively listen, and value others’ perspectives (Jennings & Mills, 2009). It is essential to provide students with the opportunities to engage with their peers in a meaningful and collaborative way.

Similar to the Democratic Pedagogy Model, Critical Pedagogy is another way of fostering a classroom environment conducive to respectful teacher-student relationships, cooperation, and collaboration. In this model, teachers encourage their students to assume responsibility by facilitating classroom activities and meetings. With their teacher’s guidance, these students learn to follow through with activities and discussions in order to accomplish a greater goal (Ainsa, 2011). Providing students with a degree of autonomy and responsibility in this context can further enhance the student’s experience resolving interpersonal conflicts and, therefore, build on their social-emotional skills.

Bullying as a Measure of Failed Conflict Resolution Techniques

Currently, there is a shortage of literature about progressive approaches to education such as the Democratic Pedagogy Model and Critical Pedagogy. There is, however, a great deal of research surrounding conflict-resolution and bullying intervention programs in non-progressive schools, and how and where they underperform (Merrel, Gueldner, Ross, & Isava, 2008; Ryan & Smith, 2009). Despite the amount of research done regarding school-wide bully intervention programs, there is still not sufficient evidence these programs significantly lessen the issue (Merrel et al., 2008; Ryan & Smith, 2009; Smith, Schneider, Smith, & Ananiadou, 2004). Reasons for the lack of sufficient evidence in this field include a failure on the part of schools to implement a comprehensive and non-rigorous research methods involved in the development and evaluation of these programs. The failures to implement an comprehensive anti-bullying intervention program often stems from researchers misunderstanding the culture, context and environment it in which it resides, as well as the lack of resources it needs to sustain the values of the intervention after it is complete (Merrel et al., 2008; Smith et al., 2004). A school located in a high-income district has a vastly different school-wide and classroom-wide culture. Thus, the students could be dealing with issues very different from a school in a low-income neighborhood. Although both schools may experience a high degree of bullying, each will experience it in vastly different ways and for very different reasons. In addition, many studies also do not consider the school’s lack of monetary resources. Implementing and sustaining a comprehensive school-wide anti-bullying intervention program requires: (a) sufficient resources for teachers’ leadership development and training; (b) sufficient communication within the school such that teachers and students alike are well informed of the program; and (c) different strategies that help “at-risk” and average students alike (Cunningham et al., 1998; Lindsay, 1998). Each of these factors must be present in order for the program to succeed. After the program’s completion, it is up to the school to provide the resources to continue the intervention and fully support its goals. Many schools do not have the monetary resources for such an undertaking (Cunningham et al., 1998; Lindsay, 1998), and for this reason, maintaining the ideas and values of the intervention after the end of the research program can be difficult.

In addition to low budgets, a lack of sufficient time to fully commit to the program’s goals for the long term contributes to the difficulty in executing and maintaining a comprehensive program. Even if the school has resources to implement the program for a year or two, it runs the risk of not being able to sustain the program’s outcomes after its completion due to lack of administrative or staff support (Cunningham et al., 1998). Likewise, teachers are often under pressure to maintain a sufficient level of state testing standards and may not have time to continually stop class in order to engage in conflict-resolution techniques (Lindsay, 1998). Therefore, implementing certain bullying intervention programs can take a significant amount of time away from important classroom time that is necessary for test preparation. A school

Aside from what researchers know about the limitations in implementing comprehensive anti-bullying programs, many of the studies focusing on school-wide anti-bullying programs involve poor research methods (Merrel et al., 2008; Ryan & Smith, 2008; Smith et al., 2004). In a meta-analysis of bullying intervention programs among schools ranging from kindergarten to high school, about 60% of studies had an effect size that was too weak to be considered meaningful, and proximately 80% of studies did not use control groups (Merrel et al., 2008). Likewise, researchers in this field also lack adequate measures to consider why bullying behaviors increased or decreased during and after the intervention program, and thus did not adequately study the factors that were directly influencing student behaviors (Merrel et al., 2008). In order to fully understand the factors involved in mitigating negative social behaviors in a school context, studies must have a controlled sample with which to compare the results.

Another limitation of conflict-resolution intervention studies is that many have focused too heavily on indirect measures such as student and teacher self-reports (Merrel et al., 2008; Smith et al., 2004). Bullying is not always an overt behavior. Likewise, covert behaviors like gossiping, socially isolating or excluding others, and saying mean comments online may are often underreported (Barnes et al., 2012). Therefore, researchers should be cautious in relying on self-reports when measuring the prevalence of bullying (Cunningham et al., 1998). Instead, researchers should employ multiple methods in order to understand the factors influencing children’s continued negative behaviors. For instance, if students are asked to frequently write down their feelings about social interactions they had with classmates in personalized journals, researchers could have a better sense of the bullying that would typically go unnoticed.


Progressive schools that emphasize democratic values naturally promote positive social-emotional learning in a comprehensive and multifaceted manner (Ainsa, 2011; Jennings & Greenberg, 2009). These schools embody pro-social learning by incorporating three crucial  techniques into their classrooms: they recognize issues that are relevant to the child (e.g., name-calling and playing with others’ toys), promote social competence and consistent pro-social behavior over a long period of time, and encourage students to practice their social-emotional skills (e.g., class-wide and school-wide meetings) (Hennessey, 2007). Overall, progressive schools are more focused on social-emotional learning than their non-progressive counterparts.

Although the progressive-school approach fosters strong positive social-emotional development, a major critique of these schools is that they do so at the expense of developing students’ cognitive and learning skills (Hoffman, 1993). Thus, there is a need for balancing social-emotional  and cognitive learning in the classroom. Future studies should aim to understand how schools and classrooms could achieve this balance and effectively encourage social-emotional development in the classroom Additionally, researchers should strive to improve the methods involved in studying conflict-resolution techniques. Achieving this balance in the educational system can have great implications on children’s cognitive development such as higher intrinsic motivations for learning (Kohn, 1993) and higher academic achievement (Dotterer & Lowe, 2011). It is not enough for students to gain necessary social-emotional skills; they must also receive adequate and relevant academic instruction. Among progressive and non-progressive schools alike, teachers and administrators need to provide collaborative and meaningful learning environments for their students so that students can learn to work alongside each other and productively work through their conflicts.



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