The Responsive Classroom

Helping children enjoy school and learn more.

Twenty six typical, rambunctious 3rd grade boys sit in a circle on their classroom floor, joined by their Rebbi.  One at a time each boy gently tosses a light ball to a classmate of his choice. The recipient responds by verbally greeting the `tosser’ with a smiling ‘boker tov’ and then proceeds to toss the ball to a classmate of his choice, who now greets the 2nd `tosser’ and the greeting and tossing process continues.  The Rebbi guides the class through this and similar processes of mutual greetings and sharing with each other in an activity known as “Morning Meeting.” The students also enjoy a meaningful activity and hear a message from the Rebbi, either orally, or written on an easel nearby.  This 20 minute activity, which takes place daily after the end of Shacharis, sets the stage for yet another day of community building and strengthening the social and emotional wellbeing of each student in the class. The Morning Meeting (known as The Circle of Power and Respect – CPR – in Middle School) is a structured, inclusive and fun part of an approach to creating a supportive environment in school, known as The Responsive Classroom TM approach.

At the other end of the campus, a child is swinging erratically on the swing set during recess, dangerously close to a classmate.  The teacher approaches and calls out; “Stop” in a calm and confident voice. “What’s the rule about how we play on the swings,” continues the teacher in a friendly tone.  After the child states the agreed upon rule for safety on the swings, the teacher says, “Show me.”  The child begins swinging properly, in a straight line. “There you go,” exclaims the teacher as she continues on her rounds through the recess area.  The child’s behavior has been redirected, safety for all assured and no feathers have been ruffled, no lectures delivered and no eyes are rolling.  Inappropriate behavior is dealt with, and the student’s dignity maintained.

These two examples are a small sampling of what a school implementing the Responsive Classroom approach can look like. The Morning Meeting (known as The Circle of Power and Respect – CPR – in Middle School) is a structured, inclusive and fun part of the RC approach which helps create a supportive environment in school.  Rules governing all aspects of school behavior are created and established collaboratively, creating a sense of community and shared purpose and responsibility. The approach extends far beyond the four walls of the classroom.

The Responsive Classroom, (RC) is the brainchild of a group of innovative public school teachers from the Boston area and has been used by schools across the country for over 30 years.  The underlying philosophy behind it places equal importance on the Social curriculum as on the Academic curriculum. A student will be most successful in learning when he or she feels safe, secure and good about him/herself.  School must be a place where the child feels significant, a part of something larger than himself, and a place to also have fun.  It is as important for the teacher to know his/her students as it is to know his/her curriculum.

At the Klurman Elementary School of Yeshiva Toras Chaim Toras Emes in Miami, we have completed our first successful year using the RC approach.  Our students, beginning in Kindergarten (5-year olds), start each day in an upbeat, supportive atmosphere, and it carries over throughout the day.  The Morning Meeting is the most visible, tangible, structured part of the approach, but The Responsive Classroom impacts the manner with which teachers structure the classroom and learning, the choice of language they use to guide and redirect student behavior, establish rules and procedures for the class, and in general, influences how they as the adults in the room relate to the students and how the students relate to each other.

Research studies within the past few years show tangible gains in achievement test scores in schools that adopt the RC approach.  The data provides clear evidence that time spent making children comfortable, safe and secure in their classroom, not only has benefits for the children’s social/emotional wellbeing, but actually translates into an overall increase in learning that takes place during academic time.

Establishing classroom rules and procedures are a critical part of any successful teacher’s repertoire.  The RC method is to gather the students on the very first day of school and discuss not rules, but the hopes and aspirations that each student has for the school year. For one, it may be learning to read Rashi; for another, it may be improving his basketball game. All goals are legitimate.  The teacher lists all the children’s goals and revisits them the next day with the following question for the members of the class: “What rules and procedures do we need to have in place in our classroom to help ensure that our hopes and dreams can become a reality?”   This second discussion leads to a new list – this one comprising all the suggested rules the students generate to ensure the realization of their hopes and dreams.

The next step for the teacher is to categorize the suggestions, and inevitably they fall fairly neatly into the usual classroom rule paradigm. They usually include “be respectful of others,”  “take care of classroom property” and “speak and act kindly.”  These rules come with one powerful difference – the children have created them to support their own dreams and aspirations. When one of them deviates from following the rules – the teacher merely needs to calmly point out that the student is working against his own interests and his own formulated rule. No power struggle, no issue of controlling a student against his will. The teacher is truly helping the child achieve what he or she has previously articulated as the goal.

The Responsive Classroom approach also stresses logical consequences to inappropriate behavior. Misuse of supplies results in curtailing the rights to use those supplies for the rest of the day – no reprimands or loss of recess, just the loss of privilege for misuse of that privilege.  Fooling around in a group activity will result in separation from that (or possibly any) group for a finite amount of time. With proper forethought, class wide discipline and the dignity of each student are maintained.

The RC approach analyzes the components of student behavior necessary to achieve the desired results of engagement in the learning process.  The goal is not a quiet classroom – rather a classroom in which all students are focused on the lesson.  Classroom management therefore focuses on strengthening the behaviors that most directly achieve those results. Quieting a talkative child is not the goal – redirecting him to the task at hand is.  It is taking every “Sur Meira” and transforming it into an “Asei Tov.”

There are other aspects, as well. Interactive modeling ensures children understand the rules that are being taught.  By actually modeling the desired behavior, we ensure children `get’ what we want them to do in any given circumstance.  Positive time-out allows the child to temporarily and voluntarily remove himself from an escalating situation in which he or she feels the loss of control. Each classroom has a `Take-A-Break’ (TAB) chair for this purpose.

While not specifically directed at preventing bullying, that is precisely the outcome when a class and school use the RC approach.  By proactively strengthening the bonds and friendship among the children, the likelihood of acting in a mean or abusive manner to each other is significantly lessened.  It’s a lot harder to bully a child you greeted with a smile several hours earlier and it is far less socially acceptable to contravene the social norms of a class in which everyone’s value is validated on a constant basis.  There are far fewer `outcasts’ when one of the goals is building community.

For the RC approach to really take root in a school’s culture, everyone must be involved. It starts at the top.  I write a daily message to the staff (with a boys’ and girls’ division in separate buildings, I must write two each day!) which includes the date, a greeting, an idea, some good news from around school, personal staff Mazel Tovs, an upcoming event, a question or quick survey that requires staff response, and occasionally a suggestion for improvement.  I notice how the teachers look for the note, written on chart tablet, as soon as they arrive at school.  It literally starts their day on the right foot.

Another ubiquitous symbol of the RC approach is the chime. A chime makes a soft yet piercing sound that, together with a raised hand or fingers, is the signal for children’s attention.  It is respectful and effective because it catches attention without being annoying like a loud bell, buzzer or whistle or downright disrespectful like shushing or shouting over the children.  With some practice and consistency it works in a classroom, in a crowded, noisy lunchroom, at recess time and at an assembly with hundreds of children.   If everyone has a unified signal, and consistently waits for 100% compliance, silence can be achieved in a matter of seconds.  The response becomes second nature.

Make no mistake – the Responsive Classroom approach takes work (and money).  Our staff was introduced to the RC approach through a workshop, given by a colleague who had returned from another city where she experienced firsthand the RC method at work.  Intrigued, we invited a certified RC presenter for a day. The teachers were hooked. They volunteered to give up a week of their summer break to participate in the week long Institute which covers the first half of the RC approach in great detail.  Their enthusiasm just kept growing. I can honestly state that in nearly 30 years, I have never seen my staff or heard of any staff so excited about a new approach or idea. Better yet, that enthusiasm continues as we approach our second year.

At the time of this writing, we are looking forward to embarking upon year two, welcoming returning children who are already familiar with the expectations and routines.  Staff has become comfortable with conducting morning meetings, and we are now focusing on teacher language and logical consequences.  We are hoping to enroll our teachers and assistants in Institute II next summer, where the connection between community building and improvement in learning will become even more of a reality IY’H.

The Seven Guiding Principles of the Responsive Classroom

  • 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.
  • To be successful academically and socially, children need a set of social skills: 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 working with them as partners is essential to children’s education.
  • How the adults at school work together is as important as their individual competence: Lasting change begins with the adult community.