The Recognizing Excellence in Learning and Teaching Tool for Special Education Classroom Observation


School education classroom quality

The Recognizing Excellence in Learning and Teaching (RELATE) Tool for Special Education Classroom Observation was created to fill the need for a well-researched, observational tool that provides a more accurate lens to understand instructional and social processes in the self-contained, special education setting.

The RELATE Tool includes three components (Teacher-Paraeducator Interactions, Accommodations, and Prevention) that emphasize teacher, paraeducator, and student social interactions that support students with disabilities. These interactions reflect best practices, and most are highlighted by the Council for Exceptional Children in their Educator Initial Preparation Standards.

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Teacher with Pupils

Teacher-Paraeducator Interactions encompass interactions between classroom educators (i.e., teachers and paraeducators).


Best practices for this component fall into four categories:

Solidarity is the consistent presentation of teamwork between the teacher and paraeducators. Solidarity becomes apparent when classroom teams work together and display behaviors such as deference, “we” language, active listening, teamwork, and building and maintaining rapport with one another.  Solidarity is fostered through professional learning opportunities characterized by collective participation; educators who learn together build a foundation for communication and practical collaboration.

Delegation of staff refers to how the lead classroom teacher enables smooth classroom functioning by the division of classroom roles and promotion of initiative on the part of the paraeducator; and to the paraeducator’s level of attending to classroom instruction and other assigned roles. Delegation allows the lead teacher to maximize his or her ability to provide instructional support.

Respectful modeling occurs when educators hold one another in high regard and acknowledge each other’s work. Behaviors that demonstrate respect in the classroom have the potential to increase retention of paraeducators in their positions.

Disrespect occurs when teacher-paraeducator interactions undermine classroom work in the classroom. These interactions can have detrimental effects, including being related to high turnover rates of special education teachers and staff which can negatively affect classroom climate.

Teacher-Paraeducator Interactions

The Accommodations construct focuses on how the teacher handles each student’s individual learning needs and goals in the classroom.


Providing SWDs with necessary accommodations can have a positive effect on their academic performance by addressing barriers to learning faced by students because of their disability.

There are three elements associated with this component:

Tiered support describes best practices that educators employ to organize instruction, including effective student groupings, acknowledging student learning differences, modeling, praising, and encouraging positive student learning behaviors.

Instructional resources reflects the degree to which educators incorporate a range of materials, student choice, and student self-assessment into the lesson structure and presentation. These practices are among those that have been linked to student autonomy.

Flexibility refers to educators’ ability to differentiate instruction, adjust pacing and support, and explore student ideas. Researchers present these practices as effective instruction to supporting students’ learning-profiles


Prevention focuses on how the teacher handles student conduct in the classroom.

There are three elements in this construct:

Monitoring refers to educators’ employing a classroom merit system, communicating about student behavior to students, considering student progress in providing behavioral feedback, demonstrating vigilance, and using reference goals and rewards. It also considers the degree to which students engage in unprompted self-evaluation of achievement or behavior.

De-escalation of unsafe and disruptive behaviors examines the degree to which educators enact strategies to minimize behavior-related issues.  This includes demonstrating neutrality, using positive directives, keeping an appropriate distance, and adjusting elements of the classroom to help in managing student behavior. 

Intervention examines the degree to which educators promote a safe learning environment when student behavior becomes aggressive or self-injurious; they do so by using standard crisis intervention strategies, removing students from unsafe situations, and re-establishing communication with students post-intervention.

We have validated the RELATE Tool for use in K-12th grade classrooms that serve students with Emotional Disturbance. 

In future work, we plan to validate the tool for use with other special education populations. 

Interested in learning more about the RELATE Tool or want to be involved in our research on this tool?



The Classroom Observation Research Extension

It is well documented that researchers and educators have experienced difficulties when trying to observe special education classrooms in meaningful ways.

We published about this very idea in Education Week.

From this need we developed the Classroom Observation Research Extension, or CORE. The CORE provides profiles of the School, Classroom, and Teacher, and is intended to be used by researchers and practitioners to supplement in classroom observations. 

The School Profile consists of 4 dimensions (1) Personnel Supports (2) Expectations and Support Services (3) Barriers to Effective Service Delivery, and (4) Collaboration between general and special education, totaling 20 indicators. 

The Educator Profile consists of 3 dimensions, including Educator Background (5 items), Mindset (10 items), and Reflections on Observations (5 items)

The Classroom Profile consists of Classroom participants (3 items), Professional Relationships (7 items), Student Characteristics (5 items), Service Delivery (5 items), Classroom Transitions (6 items). 

Interested in learning more about how the CORE can support your classroom observations?


EFI Scale

Emotion-Focused Interactions Scale

Teacher-student interactions contribute to the quality of the classroom environment. Although numerous measures of these interactions exist, few target the affective expression and reception of interactions directly.


To fill this need, researchers at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence developed the Emotion-Focused Interactions (EFI) Scale (Rivers, Bracket, Elbertson, and Salovey, 2013). 

In this paper, we detail the piloting and psychometric validation of the self-report EFI.

The EFI is reliable as a one-factor measure, with strong positive loadings and adequate internal consistency.


Confirmatory factor analysis rendered the EFI valid, test-retest reliability was adequate, and concurrent validity was significant.


Results suggest the EFI has good psychometric properties as a measure of affective exchanges among teachers and students.


Implications for use and further study are discussed.



Social and Emotional Learning Observation Checklist for Elementary School

The promotion of social and behavioral outcomes alongside academic development is a primary goal of education in the US. Yet in the absence of a high-quality measure of teachers’ SEL pedagogy, little is known about how SEL practices promote student development.


We are working to support educators in improving student social, behavioral, and academic success, as well as educators’ own professional growth through the development and validation of the Social and Emotional Learning Observation Checklist for Elementary School (SELOC-ES).

The SELOC-ES is an observation tool for elementary classrooms in development specifically designed to capture SEL pedagogy that enhances student learning. 

The SELOC-ES will support practitioners and researchers to:

(1) measure discrete theoretically-supported pedagogies fostered by effective SEL curricula;


(2) identify key growth areas in practice to support teacher SEL instruction and promote best practice in the delivery of SEL curricula, and


(3) understand how these practices are associated with student social, behavioral, and academic outcomes.


The SELOC-ES will directly assess SEL pedagogy in elementary schools (K-5) using a multi-method, multi-informant observational design.

We are currently recruiting SEL School Leaders to support in the development of the SELOC-ES.

Looking for more information about SEL?

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