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Responsive Classroom
Practices Teach
The Whole Child

As part of its Lessons from Our Nation's Schools series, Education World visited two elementary schools that use the Responsive Classroom approach to teaching and learning. By intertwining social and academic learning, advocates of the Responsive Classroom system say, children become more independent learners and more considerate people. Included: Descriptions of how Responsive Classroom practices work in schools.

Who would believe that a finger snap, a hand wave, or a trill from a chime could freeze a room of first graders or silence a 450-student assembly? Professors at Harry Potter's Hogwarts School for Wizardry, perhaps.

It's not magic, though, that conjures up these results. Practitioners of the Responsive Classroom® education philosophy say the approach gives them more time for instruction because they spend less time on discipline. The 20-plus-year-old Responsive Classroom approach focuses on practical ways of meshing social and academic learning.

Education World spent a day at two Responsive Classroom elementary schools: Four Corners Elementary School in Greenfield, Massachusetts, the town where Responsive Classroom originated; and Flanders Elementary School in East Lyme, Connecticut. The buildings were filled with attentive assemblies, groups of students working independently, teachers who could leave classrooms for coffee without issuing threats or bribes, relaxed and happy kids, and staff members who gushed about the pleasure of coming to work every day.

Click to read snapshots of these two Responsive Classroom practices' schools.

"In my opinion, you are in the greatest elementary school in the country," Andrew Dousis, a fourth grade teacher at Flanders, told Education World. "I've been teaching here nine years; I came here because I saw this as a place where I would have a chance to do things I wanted to do. I fully intended to be a traditional teacher -- I thought I would use a fully systematic approach, lecturing to rows of desks. Now I couldn't teach in a traditional setting."

Stephanie Barry, a first grade teacher at Four Corners Elementary School in Greenfield, MA, leads her students in an activity during the class Morning Meeting. (Education World photo)

"Visiting teachers say they are impressed that we get everything done," added Dr. Cherry McLaughlin, Flanders' school principal. "But we don't waste a lot of time on [classroom] management. We're not passing out stickers all the time. Instead of motivating kids with bribes, kids do things because they are the right things to do. And our kids do well, we have [time for] enrichment, and recess."


The Responsive Classroom philosophy was conceived in 1981 by six teachers who were interested in exploring developmentally appropriate practices and devoting classroom time to what was considered social curriculum, according to Ruth Charney, one of the founders of the Responsive Classroom movement. The Northeast Foundation for Children (NEFC), in Greenfield, Massachusetts, a private, not-for-profit organization, has become the Responsive Classroom philosophy's primary advocate and information resource. NEFC Staff members train educators to use Responsive Classroom principles and support them in their schools once they adopt it.

The Responsive Classroom Framework

The seven key principles of the Responsive Classroom approach, as outlined by the Northeast Foundation for Children, are:

* The social curriculum is as important as the academic curriculum.

* How children learn is as important as what they learn: process and content go hand in hand.

* The greatest cognitive growth occurs through social interaction.

* Children need certain social skills in order to be successful academically and socially. These include: cooperation, assertion, responsibility, empathy, and self-control.

* Knowing the children we teach -- individually, culturally, and developmentally -- is as important as knowing the content we teach.

* Knowing the families of the children we teach, and inviting their participation, is essential to children's education.

* How the adults at school work together is as important as individual competence: lasting change begins with the adult community.

"The approach includes what we know about how children grow and learn," according to Pamela Porter, director of staff development for the NEFC. "Research shows that the Responsive Classroom approach does teach social skills; when children learn social skills, they tend to do better academically and schools are happier places."

The key teaching practices of the Responsive Classroom philosophy, according to NEFC, are:

  • Morning Meeting: This is a daily routine that builds community, creates a positive climate for learning, and reinforces academic and social skills. Students and teachers sit in a circle and greet each other by name, take turns "sharing" anecdotes, sing, and or play a game.
  • Rules and Logical Consequences: A clear and consistent approach to discipline that fosters responsibility and self-control.
  • Guided Discovery: A format for introducing materials that encourages inquiry, heightens interest, and teaches responsibility for the school environment.
  • Academic Choice: An approach to giving children choices in their learning that helps them become invested, self-motivated learners.
  • Classroom Organization: This involves strategies for arranging materials, furniture, and displays to encourage independence, promote caring, and maximize learning.
  • Family Communication Strategies: Ideas for involving families as true partners in their children's education.


Originally conceived as an approach for kindergarten through eighth grade students, limited resources and the logistical problems of implementing Responsive Classroom practices with multiple teachers, prompted the NEFC to narrow its focus primarily to elementary schools. Some middle schools, though, do use aspects of the approach. The first Responsive Classroom school, Greenfield Center School, was founded in 1981. "The vision was to create a model for the public school system," Porter said.

Since then, the number of schools using Responsive Classroom principles has increased steadily. About 80 schools in the U.S. used Responsive Classroom in 2003, Porter said. NEFC has trained more than 100,000 educators in the approach, and has at least 70 certified presenters, according to Charney. NEFC conducted between 20 and 30 weeklong workshops for educators across the country in the summer of 2003. In many cases, teachers paid the tuition themselves to attend.

"The demand for this exceeds our capacity to meet it," Charney added.

While studies have shown that students in Responsive Classroom schools are happier, and teachers feel more confident and effective, NEFC has yet to conduct a long term study to determine if students continue to use Responsive Classroom-type skills once they enter a traditional school environment in middle or high school. "That kind of study would be valuable," Porter said.

Often schools turn to the Responsive Classroom philosophy for a consistent form of classroom discipline. As Charney noted, though, it is no quick fix; learning to fully implement Responsive Classroom techniques takes three to six years, and when schools sign on to work with NEFC, it is for at least a three-year commitment. Practitioners say it is worth it.

"It gives me more time to work with kids and teachers, rather than always intervening. And it gives kids more learning time. I love coming to work," Healy said.


While schools using Responsive Classroom practices appear unstructured -- in a single room, students can be working on computers, reading, drawing, or playing chess -- flexibility exists within a concise, universally understood set of rules. Once students understand the class rules and consequences for breaking them, they take responsibility for their own behavior. Children then work more independently to solve academic and social problems. And teachers spend more time on instruction than intervention.

More Lessons from Our Nation's Schools

Have you read other stories in Education World's Lessons from Our Nation's Schools' series? Click Lessons from Our Nation's Schools to read more!

"I have had zero kids in for discipline problems this week," McLaughlin told Education World. "I could not go back to a regular school. Responsive Classroom is a major shift with a big, big payoff for kids, teachers, and parents. Parents notice the difference in certain behaviors such as [children] making eye contact and shaking hands."

Teachers spend the first few weeks of every school year developing classroom rules with their students. The process starts with children listing their hopes and dreams for the academic year. Then students and the teacher formulate the rules, and discuss the "logical consequences" for violating the rules. If children participate in creating rules and understand the purpose for them, they are more inclined to follow them, according to NEFC. Students also have opportunities to practice and model the rules.

The rules for one first grade class at Four Corners School, for example read:

  1. Respect everyone and everything.
  2. Do your personal best. Stay focused.
  3. Be kind and generous.

"The beginning of the year is a little harder," Kathleen Smith, a first grade teacher at Flanders, said. "We don't make the rules off the bat; it can take a few weeks. There is a lot of give and take; we work with each child, and then refer to the rules."

Schools also establish signals, such as a hand clap or wave, finger snap, trilling chime or ringing bell, that students understand means freeze and listen.

Each classroom has a copy of its rules, signed by all the students, posted prominently, as well as a list of steps for problem solving. At Flanders, the process for students resolving conflicts is called HELPS:

  • H: Have a place to go to cool down and talk to each other.
  • E: Explain what made you unhappy. Use "I messages" such as "I feel _______when you ______."
  • L: Listen, without interrupting.
  • P: Plan what to do to fix it.
  • S: Shake hands, or agree that the problem is resolved in some other way.

Spending days crafting rules may seem impractical when increasing academic demands already are consuming every spare minute of the school day. But practitioners say the time invested on rules upfront exponentially reduces time spent throughout the year on discipline.

During recess at Flanders one afternoon, a boy in Smith's class came up to her and complained that an older boy called him "a scaredy cat" for not wanting to use a piece of playground equipment. Smith asked him if he told the older boy how he felt. When the child said no, Smith sent him back to tell the older boy his feelings were hurt. When Smith's student approached her a short time later, she asked what he had done, and the child said he had talked to the older boy, who apologized.

"You explain the steps to them, and they can follow the list," said Smith after the boy had run off. "It helps them to know that they have the capacity to change things."

"It's taking time and listening to kids," added Four Corners third grade teacher Carol Perkins. "Before, the rules were the rules. Now you have rules up front. They make their own list of responsible behavior. You are teaching to the needs of the child. The rules form the way children respond. They are using the same language instead of fists. They can voice an opinion; children have decision-making power."

Knowing the boundaries and expectations from the beginning of the year helps students feel more secure and confident.

"[Having rules] doesn't make school easier, but a better place and more fun," said Cameron, 10, a Four Corners' fourth grader. "Lots of schools are more strict. But the kids here are nice. If you just follow the rules and understand the rules, you can have fun."


Besides setting rules, the other critical part of the Responsive Classroom approach underpinning is Logical Consequences. The basis for all Logical Consequences is the idea that if you break it, you fix it -- whether it is equipment or feelings. Among the Logical Consequences used are time outs, meeting with another student and/or teacher to resolve a problem, a verbal apology, or an apology of action, which is a gesture acknowledging another's hurt feelings.

"If their homework isn't done, they can't join the Morning Meeting," Flanders' principal McLaughlin said, explaining one common Logical Consequence. "If children learn to work for internal motivation, there are tremendous benefits."

Children also know that if they are losing focus or need a self-imposed time out, they can go to a designated place in the classroom or in the hall to regroup before they rejoin the class.

Four Corners also has a behaviorist, Jane Lohmann, who works with students individually and in groups. Teachers call on Lohmann at any time, so she can address a problem immediately. Often she will lead a child to a corner or out into the hall to talk with him or her, or just to give the student a break.

"I help kids create solutions," Lohmann said. "If they have problems settling into work, I might create a space that works better for them, or try to take care of issues that interfere with their learning."

Lohmann said she helps children develop strategies and ways to solve a problem, rather than create another problem. If, for example, one student hit another, she would sit down with all of them and try to understand all the different perspectives.

Also helping to eliminate disputes at Four Corners are 35 peer mediators, fourth and fifth graders chosen by their classmates to help resolve student conflicts. Peer mediators participate in training and must maintain good grades and serve as role models. "They sit down with students in the library or on the playground, and usually can solve the problem," said Healy. If a conflict is physical, the mediator notifies the behaviorist or the principal.

"I like doing it because I get to help out other people," said Cameron, 10, a fourth grade peer mediator. In one situation he mediated, a kindergarten student gave another kindergarten student a flower and she threw it on the ground and stepped on it. "I asked what happened and asked each one how they felt," Cameron said. In the end, each girl picked flowers and gave some to each other.

Read how Responsive Classrooms operate once the rules are in place in Part 2 of this article.

By Ellen R. Delisio 
Education World®             
Copyright © 2011 Education World