Does the Responsive Classroom Approach Work in Urban Schools?

When I describe the Responsive Classroom approach to educators from urban areas, somebody always says, “That sounds great, but it would never work at my school.” When asked why, the person usually cites issues familiar to all of us who work in urban schools: a high poverty rate, turnover of teachers and staff, an inadequately-equipped building, a crime-ridden neighborhood, and more.

I’m familiar with these challenges because my school, Kensington Avenue Magnet School in Springfield, Massachusetts, faces all of them. My answer to those who wonder if the Responsive Classroom approach works in urban schools is “It works at mine.” In fact, the Responsive Classroom approach has helped us address many of the challenges of urban teaching. We started using the approach fifteen years ago, and it has made our school a better place for teachers, students, and their families. Here are some of the reasons why:

Expectations and routines are consistent throughout the school

Responsive Classroom practices are implemented schoolwide at Kensington. For instance, all staff members use positive teacher language and take the same proactive approach to discipline. For students, this means that while they are in school, the same general rules and behavioral expectations apply everywhere—in classrooms, at specials, in the hallways, at lunch, and at recess.

Furthermore, the Responsive Classroom approach to rules and expectations makes sense to the children. The goals behind all our rules are to ensure that people are fair and kind and that everything in our building runs smoothly and safely. These are things the children care about. They know that in our building, they are surrounded by adults who care about them and their learning. They also know that if they misbehave, there will be a consequence, and that consequence will be designed to help them learn better self-control.

Careful teaching of skills helps students succeed

As we know, just telling children they need to meet expectations isn’t enough. The Responsive Classroom approach emphasizes teaching students how to meet them. We carefully teach our students how to handle all kinds of everyday school tasks, such as responding quickly to a signal for quiet attention, passing efficiently as a group through the halls, and getting around in our busy, crowded lunchroom.

We focus intensively on this teaching during the first six weeks of school, laying a foundation that we build on for the rest of the year. It gives our students a sense of competence that they may not have outside of school, and prepares them for successful learning.

Children’s family members are welcomed and respected

One of the principles of the Responsive Classroom approach is “Knowing the families of the children we teach and working with them as partners is essential to children’s education.” We have worked hard to translate this into practice at Kensington. We believe it is our responsibility to help the adults in our students’ lives engage positively with the school. Over the years we have found many ways to do this, such as hosting school-home community building events, providing information consistently and in the students’ home languages, and having a schoolwide open-door policy for families.

None of these efforts would succeed without an additional factor: mutual respect. We show our respect for families by setting aside any preconceived ideas, by listening with interest and open minds, and by valuing family members’ input. We continually emphasize that we see ourselves as partners. Such a strong emphasis on family involvement may be unusual for an urban school, but the Responsive Classroom approach has helped keep it a priority at Kensington. The strong connections that have resulted have helped our home-school partnerships thrive.

New and experienced teachers are supported

Working with students and families in a community challenged by violence, poverty, gangs, and racism is demanding. Teachers need to feel that their work is making a difference. Kensington’s staff have this feeling of efficacy because the Responsive Classroom approach provides them with practices that make their days run more smoothly. The children then have more time and focus to learn, and the staff sees growth in the students.

The approach has also given a long-term structure to Kensington’s work, leading to a positive, supportive school culture that has endured despite significant staffing changes. Most years, we say goodbye to a few veteran teachers and welcome newcomers. Those who join us are often new to teaching, to urban schools, and to the Responsive Classroom approach. Training them in the approach is part of how we orient and welcome new hires. In addition, all staff members at Kensington have opportunities for ongoing support and learning about Responsive Classroom. Our administration makes this a priority, and it is definitely a key to our success.

Fifteen years ago, what attracted Kensington staff members to the Responsive Classroom approach was the vision of school as a place where students, their families, and teachers felt competent, significant, and safe. That vision compelled us particularly because we understood that for the population we serve, school could be a haven in an otherwise often dangerous and unpredictable community. Today, Kensington has a strong reputation in the Springfield district. We have received outside recognition for our accomplishments as well. Our students are succeeding, and our school’s adult community is strong. Responsive Classroom works for us!

Sheree Nolley is the Responsive Classroom facilitator at Kensington Avenue Magnet School, a K–5 public school in Springfield, Massachusetts, where she has been teaching for twenty years. Kensington serves about 350 students, 94% of whom receive free or reduced-price lunch. The Responsive Classroom approach has been a major initiative at Kensington for fifteen years.

Tags: Building Schoolwide Community