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Responsive Classroom 101: Ideas for Educators and Parents

by Malcolm Lester, Grace Episcopal Day School, Head of School

Grace Episcopal Day School is a “Responsive Classroom School,” meaning that we implement and teach the Responsive Classroom (RC) social curriculum, as other schools do. It is called a “social curriculum” because it places a huge premium on “community” and making sure that everyone—student and adult alike—feels not only like they are a special part of the community, but also that they feel safe within that environment.

Many may be familiar with the practice of “Morning Meeting,” a daily Responsive Classroom routine (ah yes, RC is big on “routine,” which is important for young people) in which the children and teachers sit down at the start of the day, warmly greet each other individually, and share information or items from home.  This builds camaraderie, familiarity, and trust.

Responsive Classroom educators work from the premise that everyone (adults and children) start from a place of goodness and wanting to belong. Accordingly, RC theories posit that misbehavior results from people not understanding societal norms, needing help with controlling impulses, and/or feelings of being unsafe.

While many schools—independent and public—employ Responsive Classroom, RC lends itself very well to Episcopal schools.  Inclusivity, community, warmth, and openness, among other traits, as well as tradition and ritual, are hallmarks of both Episcopal schools and the Episcopal faith, so Responsive Classroom ties right into the denomination’s teaching and values.

At a recent Professional Development day, our division directors, Gail Kennedy and Pam Yarrington, led a workshop on Responsive Classroom.  This was a follow-up to our faculty and staff summer reading, in which we all read the book Responsive Classroom Discipline.  We then spent a good chunk of our Teacher Work Week meetings in August talking about the book and its applications at our school.

We discussed “Positive Adult Language,” which occupies a chapter in the aforementioned book. Language is central to our work as parents and educators—it is how we communicate with young people!  Therefore, it seemed worthwhile to spend some time sharing highlights from that discussion and book chapter.

Thank you to Grace preschool teacher Jennifer Hamilton, who provided the notes below, from Chapter 4 in our Responsive Classroom book.  Also, the Responsive Classroom website, www.responsiveclassroom.org, is a great resource for both educators and parents alike.

Keys to Using Positive Adult Language with Children

  • Convey belief in children, show friendly interest in children’s home lives, and don’t overcorrect children’s English
  • Be direct.  Tell children what to do in the positive, without manipulating or using questions, sarcasm, or negativity.
  • Use reinforcing language when children show positive behaviors. Name specific behaviors in a warm, professional tone, emphasizing description over personal approval.  For example, “Tanya, you remembered our five finger rule. You selected a meat, two vegetables, a drink and dessert. “
  • Use reminding language before or just when children start to forget expectations. Use before a challenging activity or when child is just beginning to act inappropriately.
  • Use redirecting language when children’s behavior has gone off track. Name expectations clearly with direct tone and neutral body language. Issue reminders early, keep them brief, and anticipate potential behavior problems.

The Responsive Classroom curriculum emphasizes that how we talk to young people—and to each other—is crucial.  Not only are our words important, but so too is our tone, inflection, intonation, and body language.  Positive adult language does not mean that there is a lack of imposing discipline and high expectations on children.  Rather, it stresses that discipline is, in part, about giving children the guidance and tools to choose positive behavior.

Being a Responsive Classroom teacher—or parent who borrows from RC philosophy—requires patience, as the benefits are not always seen overnight. However, the long term results are a strong, vibrant community that embraces children, teachers, parents, and the entire school.

Malcolm Lester is the Head of School of Grace Episcopal Day School in Kensington, Maryland, which serves students from preschool through Fifth Grade