Rural Early Adolescent Learning Program

While the circumstances, resources, needs, and values of rural communities vary greatly across the United States, there are several common issues faced by rural school districts. These include the impact of poverty and geographical isolation on student achievement, lack of resources to be responsive to the instructional needs of a diverse range of learners, and limited professional development opportunities for teachers. Within the context of these challenges, many rural districts struggle with concerns about how to improve student motivation and achievement, reduce school failure and school dropout, and prepare youth for successful futures.

These concerns are particularly germane to the early adolescent period – a time of developmental opportunity and vulnerability. Accordingly, the Rural Early Adolescent Learning Program (Project REAL) has been developed to help teachers promote the academic, behavioral, and social adjustment of rural youth as they transition from childhood to adolescence. While the program is designed to help support youth who are most likely to experience difficulty in school, the strategies and techniques have been carefully selected to promote the engagement of all students including typical learners and high achieving students. In fact, a primary emphasis of this program is to help teachers to establish classroom and instructional contexts that are responsive to a broad and diverse range of learning needs.

Why This Matters

Principals and teachers frequently describe early adolescence as a time of significant developmental change and a period of tremendous opportunity for youth to develop new skills, capacities, and interests. We view this period as the time when teachers are beginning to help students to link their skills and interests up with their futures.

Factors that Influence Success

Project REAL is designed to address early adolescent factors that contribute to their long-term achievement and outcomes:

  • It is critical that instructional and behavior management strategies focus on building and reinforcing students’ competencies and self-directed behavior. In early adolescence, students transition from a highly structured environment where expectations and direct monitoring and feedback are consistently provided by adults to a context where they are expected to be responsible for their own actions and activities with minimal adult input. During this period, many students will need considerable scaffolding and guidance from adults. As the 6th grade year moves on, there should be a shift from adult provided structure that mimics that of 5th grade to self-directed behavior that is supported by the collective “invisible hands” of the 6th grade teachers working as a team to provide consistent but subtle structure and cues.
  • Relationships are important to early adolescents. During early adolescence, students develop a need for autonomy and independence from adults. At the same time, relationships with peers become increasing important and a source for support, identity, and growth. This does not mean that adult relations are not important during this period. On the contrary, students need to develop meaningful and enduring relationships with both teachers and supportive peers. In fact, research clearly shows that relationships with teachers, other adults, and positive peers during early adolescence serve as important protective factors for youth who are at risk of problematic outcomes.
  • Development involves multiple factors working together as a system. Teachers know this. We often hear such comments as “It doesn’t matter what the content is or how I teach it, if the student doesn’t care or is more concerned about what her peers think or has parents who don’t support her, she isn’t going to learn.” We understand this. Our conceptual model is based on the idea that it is necessary to collectively address academic, behavioral, social, and family factors in a systematic manner.

Intervention Components

Project REAL consists of four distinct intervention components: academic engagement, behavioral competence, school social dynamics, and parental involvement and support.

  • Academic Engagement Enhancement – Focuses on organizational and instructional strategies that foster and support student interest and achievement during early adolescence. The emphasis is not on the content (this is decided by the school district’s own curriculum team) but rather on general strategies that promote an instructional context that is responsive to the need of a broad and diverse range of students.
  • Competence Enhance Behavior Management (CEBM) – The CEBM component focuses on establishing a whole-grade system of behavior management that provides structure and consistency across classes while fostering responsible self-directed behavior. This includes proactive approaches aimed at preventing behavioral difficulties and the use of problems as an opportunity to teach and reinforce new skills.
  • Social Dynamics Training (SDT) – The SDT component focuses on promoting teachers’ awareness of the impact of peers on motivation and achievement. This training includes (a) recognizing peer groups and social roles, (b) identifying youth who are experiencing social difficulties that interfere with their learning or the learning of others, (c) strategies to use peer group dynamics to foster classroom engagement, and (d) helping students with social difficulties to develop positive, supportive relationships with peers and adults.
  • Parent Information Meetings – The Parent Information Meetings involve monthly groups to discuss issues in parenting early adolescents. The content and delivery of this program will be developed based on parent and teacher input and will be co-directed by guidance counselors and REAL staff.

Professional Development Activities

The intervention delivery for Project REAL involves three levels of professional development training to prepare school staff to use the program components to support students in early adolescence.

  • REAL Leaders – For each intervention school, 3-5 REAL Leaders are identified to attend a Summer Institute to learn the program components. The role of the REAL Leaders is to learn the components of the program, serve as models for colleagues, help facilitate inservice training, support colleagues in the use of the intervention strategies, and facilitate communication between school staff and the intervention consultants.


  • Inservice Training – Inservice training will be conducted for 5th and 6th grade teachers in the program components. The aim of this training is to provide an overview of the aims, concepts, and strategies. While this training marks the beginning of implementation, full implementation requires ongoing support and guidance from the intervention consultants along with support from REAL Leaders.


  • Directed Consultation – For the first 10 weeks of the program, an intervention consultant will meet via videoconferencing for one hour with grade level teams. Consultation alternates weekly between academic consultation and social and behavior consultation. The consultation meetings will be directed in that specific content will be covered. However, teachers are expected to bring “real life” examples and problems to work through with the group and may go beyond the assigned topic. In addition to the team meetings, intervention consultations will provide individual consultation on an as needed basis. After 10 weeks, consultation will continue on online as needed.

Rural Early Adolescent Learning Program Staff

Dr. Thomas Farmer- Principal Investigator

Dr. Jill Hamm- Co-Principal Investigator

Jana Thompson- Project Coordinator

Dr. Patrick Akos- Investigator

Dr. Kim Dadisman - Investigator

Dr. Dianne Gut - Investigator

Dr. Carol Malloy- Investigator

Dr. William Malloy- Investigator

Dr. Judith Meece- Investigator

Dr. Samuel Song- Investigator

Dr. Linda Tillman- Investigator

Dr. Pam Winton- Investigator

Andy Andrew- Staff

Kristen Feil - Staff

Beverly Glienke- Staff

Bryan Hutchins- Staff

Allen Murray- Staff

Victoria Schaefer- Staff