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Responsive Classroom Strategies

The Importance of Modeling

We have generated our hopes and dreams. We have constructed our classroom rules, which are signed and beautifully and prominently displayed. We have shared our rules with parents. Now comes the interesting part, the part where we teach the rules.

We have generated our hopes and dreams. We have constructed our classroom rules, which now are signed and beautifully and prominently displayed. We have even shared our rules with parents. We are done now, right?

NO. We are not done. Now comes the interesting part, the part where we teach the rules. In the Responsive Classroom approach, we teach the rules through modeling and practice, as well as through the "Three R's" of teacher language. This article will focus on the critical strategy of modeling expectations.

It is important to keep in mind that, although all effective approaches to classroom management are both proactive and reactive, I believe that 80 percent of discipline should be proactive. The more we show (not just tell) children what we expect and then give them opportunities to practice getting on line, using their walking feet, demonstrating their "indoor voices," making eye contact as good listeners, or exhibiting friendly and respectful words with peers, the more we set them up for success.

Mostly, children want to do what we want them to do. Recently, I observed a group of sixth graders discussing their growing capacity to get through lessons with fewer and fewer interruptions. Noting the results of their own self-controls, one student said, "It's quieter now and we get more work done." That simple fact came from several weeks of intentional exertion. Sometimes, as teachers, we forget that in this time of fast paced, multi-tracked, high-pitched media, the effort just to not call out is huge. So we model and practice.


Modeling is a way to teach our rules. It involves demonstrating the specific behaviors and language patterns of an expectation in a way that grounds the rules in day-to-day experiences. When we model expectations, we translate and enliven more general expectations, such as respectful listening or orderly lines into accessible behaviors. We act out the desired behaviors, showing what it looks and sounds like to stop and freeze, listen to a classmate, or raise your hand and wait to be called on.

We then give students the opportunity to also model, naming as a group the desired behaviors we observed. Remember, words alone do not suffice. Often children know the right words to say, but struggle in the moment to actually follow through on the expectation. Saying that we need to be quiet is not the same thing as being quiet. The chance to show that one can be quiet is the beginning of internalized learning.

I have seen an incredible difference, for example, when teachers take time to model and practice walking in line. Even though it is a universal school requirement, one that children experience year after year, day after day, staying quiet and focused is not easy for anyone. For children, it is a lesson in using self-controls.

Given the chance for movement, natural childish exuberance will surface, turning steps into high jumps, quiet into chatter, and end of line students into dreamy dawdlers. Getting to and fro can become a protracted struggle. An orderly and safe line, therefore, requires significant work. Recently, for example, I watched Ms. Becky, a first grade teacher, working with her class.

"Who can tell me the three things we need to remember to have a beautiful and safe line?" Ms. Becky asks her first graders the third week of school, when walking on line is still a challenge. Many hands go up.

"Tell me one, D.J.," she asks an eager student. "We need to be quiet," he announces, while making a zipping motion with his hand and lips. "Show us," she says to him. "Go stand on line and show us what it looks like and sounds like to be quiet with your body and words." And he does. As if they are viewing a staged drama, the others watch and applaud their classmate's appropriate performance.

Turning to her class, Ms. Becky asks them what they notice about D.J. being quiet. "He didn't talk," someone notes with approval. Each of the components that make for an orderly and efficient line are modeled, even before they start off down the hall: quiet voices, eyes front, right hand on rails, and bodies at a proper spatial distance to insure the children don't crowd, bump, or lag.

As the first graders move from landing to landing, reinforcing and adjusting their line, they pass the sixth graders. "Are you practicing too?" one asks in a whisper. And yes, the older students are practicing too.

When the first graders reach the playground, the teacher turns and says, "I noticed that most people kept their lips zipped. I also noticed that everyone had his or her right hands on the rail. And no one bumped. What did you notice?"

"We did good," Stephanie says proudly.

See Modeling Procedures, Part 2 of Ruth Sidney Charney column on modeling, next week, to find step-by-step instructions for modeling specific expectations.

About Ruth Sidney Charney

Ruth Sidney Charney is a highly respected education consultant and author. She is a co-developer of Northeast Foundation for Children and a pioneer in the Responsive Classroom approach.

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