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In the classroom, familiarity breeds success

Once more, “looping” shows behavioral benefits for students

iStock.com/Drazen Zigic

In the classroom, familiarity breeds success

Serenity Graham taught first grade in a Georgia classroom when her principal asked her to continue with her students to second grade. During that second year, Graham loved that she could start off already familiar with her students. “I knew who needed to have homework checked because I knew that their mom worked nights,” she said. “I knew who to call and check on and worry about if they weren’t at school … By the end of the second year, it was a real family.”

So Graham gladly accepted her principal’s suggestion that she stay with her class for third grade, a big testing year for Georgia students.

Looping, or the practice of a teacher staying with one group of students for more than one school year, can significantly improve students’ behavioral outcomes, according to a study released this summer. As school officials respond to more student outbursts and disciplinary concerns since schools reopened post-pandemic, the greater social connections provided in a looped classroom could help.

A June 2022 study on looping by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University showed only nominal improvement in student test scores overall, with better results for high-achieving students. But the real benefit seems to be less academic: All student groups—particularly boys of color—experienced fewer absences and suspensions when they looped with a teacher. Overall, suspensions dropped by 10 percent.

Looping is neither new nor common. Fewer than 2 percent of U.S. teachers loop, though a U.S. government official wrote about the practice as early as 1913. Sometimes, as in Graham’s case, the decision to loop a teacher and class is made on a case-by-case basis. Other schools implement looping as part of their model. Waldorf schools, patterned after Rudolf Steiner’s educational theories, traditionally keep the same teachers with students from grades one through eight.

Proponents point out that teachers start the school year knowing their students, cutting out time-consuming getting-to-know-you periods. Teachers can jump into a new school year with a working knowledge of their students’ personalities, strengths and weaknesses, and family situations. They can build on previous years’ work to connect with what students are learning now.

But the model isn’t without its drawbacks. When the time comes for students to finally move on, students and teachers can struggle with the transition. Teachers who drop back to lower grades face a huge drop in student ability, and students who were used to one teacher’s style and teaching method may struggle to adapt to the next teacher. Teacher weaknesses in certain subject areas are less likely to be caught by later teachers.

Dan Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association, said that looping’s downsides usually affect teachers and administrators more than students. It is easier, for example, to simply assign one grade per teacher. He also pointed out that sometimes a parent may not think the teacher is the best fit for their child, which can be an even bigger problem when they are grouped together for multiple years.

Domenech agreed that looping could help teachers and students regain some social strength after the pandemic fallout, saying the practice “has a place” in today’s schools: “Is it beneficial? Is it something that schools ought to consider, given the issues that they have to deal with? Yes, it’s definitely something that should be considered.”

In Graham’s class, she said, no parents opted out of looping when given the option. Her students moved on to different classes and teachers for fourth grade, but her principal asked her to teach them again for fifth grade. She is now a sixth-grade social studies teacher in Georgia public schools and has since looped again with another group of students.

Despite her enthusiasm for the model, even Graham said that looping isn’t for everyone. “They’re going to be your kids for more than one year,” she said. “If you have somebody that doesn’t build that family feeling between the kids in the classroom … I don’t think it would work.”

Graham’s class, or “the Graham Fam,” as she called her students, seems to have achieved that ideal.

Just before that class’ senior year began in fall 2019, Graham received a barrage of text messages from her former students telling her that the mother of one of the students had passed away unexpectedly. Former classmates were already visiting the grieving teen at his house before Graham even heard the news. The entire class later converged at Graham’s house for a group dinner. The young man’s father and grandmother also attended, and commented on how close-knit the group was. “You just don’t even know,” Graham said. “They’re amazing.”

Lauren Dunn

Lauren covers education for WORLD’s digital, print, and podcast platforms. She is a graduate of Thomas Edison State University and World Journalism Institute, and she lives in Wichita, Kan.

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