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Responsive Classroom Strategies

Using Language to

Encourage and
Empower Children Part 1

In this four-part series, Ruth Sidney Charney discusses the language of the Responsive Classroom, explains the structures that support encouraging and empowering language, and provides practical examples of each.

Heading up the stairway, the principal notices two children heading down. They are happily slip-sliding and jumping steps. They are so involved in their "sport," they don't notice the adult until she demands that they stop. Just as she is about to launch into lecture mode, she decides to try out the Responsive Classroom approach to language she is learning in workshops.

Using Language to Encourage and Empower Children

Part 1: Encouraging and Empowering Language
Part 2: Exploring the First "R": To Reinforce
Part 3: Exploring the Second "R": To Remind
Part 4: Exploring the Third "R": To Redirect

"Remind me," she asks one of the boys, "how do we go down the stairs in our school in a safe way.
"One step at a time?" he says.
"Okay. Show me how it looks when you do that," she tells the other boy. He walks back up the stairs and comes down with precise steps.
"Exactly," she says. "And why is that important."
"So we are safe."
"So we keep others safe."
She nods her agreement. "Think you can do that now and keep yourselves and everyone else safe?"
They nod in solemn assent and set off, one step at a time. Seeing them in such good control, she thinks to herself, "I like this. It works."


In the Responsive Classroom approach, how teachers talk to children is a critical tool for classroom management. In previous pieces, I have noted that discipline consists of proactive and reactive components. Teacher language is a proactive intervention. We can use our language to help children develop self-controls and construct positive relationships. How we talk can build up or knock down; encourage or demoralize.

Over the years, I have been impressed with how many adults still can recite, word for word, encounters with their elementary school teachers, recalling what seemed at the time either an awful humiliation or a momentous kindness. It is so easy to take our words for granted and forget that they are a powerful tool; a way that we "encourage" and "empower" children's best efforts to take care of themselves, one another, and their environment.

Effective teacher language takes awareness and practice. Gail Zimmerman, a masterful and experienced public school teacher, once wrote that it was the single most significant force for change in her own practice -- and the hardest! I used to rehearse while walking to school, talking to myself as I walked down the street, appearing to passersby perhaps like another dithering pedestrian. But no, I was just a hard at work teacher.

In the Responsive Classroom approach, our goal is to use our language to encourage and empower children. We encourage children when we notice and acknowledge their attempts to meet expectations. We empower children when we express faith in their ability to follow-through, recover controls, and make constructive choices.

Thus, some of the general characteristics of encouraging and empowering language include the following:

  • Be specific and direct. ("We will start when I see everyone's eyes on Jason.")
  • Speak to the child (or children) rather than about the child(ren). ("Leila, I noticed you stayed in your seat while I talked to Derek. Thanks for your cooperation.")
  • Stress the deed not the doer. Describe actions and deeds rather than making judgments. ("I notice a lot of paper on the floor. We can't leave the room until it is clean.")
  • Give children the opportunity to follow through with appropriate behavior. ("Show me how you can say that with your friendly words.")
  • Frame a positive action and choice. ("You can walk slowly and quietly with your partner or you can walk next to me.")
  • Use the "3 R's (Reinforcing, Reminding, and Redirecting) to support encouraging and empowering language.

Teachers using a Responsive Classroom approach employ three simple structures to support encouraging and empowering language. We call those structures "The Three R's": to reinforce, to remind, to redirect.

Next: Exploring the First "R": To Reinforce

About the Author: 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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