Taking the Responsive Classroom Approach Schoolwide

Taking the Responsive Classroom Approach Schoolwide

At a time when many policy makers are concerned primarily with children’s cognitive development and how they do on standardized tests, educators from around the country gathered in Amherst, Massachusetts, to reaffirm the importance of educating the whole child and to share effective ways to do so. The two-day conference, the first of its kind organized by NEFC, focused on using the Responsive Classroom approach schoolwide as a way to promote children’s academic, social, and emotional growth.

“In the midst of the demands from NCLB, block scheduling, and even world events, empowering our youth to be their best whole selves still matters.”          —Clifton Taulbert, conference keynote speaker and author of Eight Habits of the Heart

Yes, academics are important, but so are social skills, NEFC executive director Roxann Kriete told attendees in her opening remarks. ” ‘Either-or’ choices are usually false choices,” Kriete said. “The question is not whether we should teach academics or teach social skills, but how to teach both. It’s not a question of either time for recess or time on task. In fact, social skills and academic skills promote each other. And often recess is the learning task.”

Held at the University of Massachusetts on July 25–26, the conference drew principals, teachers, counselors, and other staff from schools at various stages in their use of the Responsive Classroom approach. Those from schools just beginning their schoolwide implementation had opportunities to gather ideas and information from other schools. Those already on the journey learned new strategies to further their efforts and sustain momentum. Among the session presenters were educators who shared their stories of schoolwide Responsive Classroom implementation at several schools: Dame School, Four Corners Elementary, Hayshire Elementary, High Bridge Elementary, K.T. Murphy Elementary, and Penn Valley Elementary.


In sessions and keynote speeches, attendees heard the results of research into what children need so that they can develop and learn at their best. Reporting major findings from a three-year study, Sara Rimm-Kaufman, assistant professor at the University of Virginia, said that children at schools where teachers use the Responsive Classroom approach had higher reading and math test scores and showed greater gains in social skills than children at comparison schools.

Rimm-Kaufman’s study also found that teachers using the Responsive Classroom approach felt more effective with respect to discipline, were more positive about teaching, and delivered higher-quality instruction.

Keynote speaker Mary Utne O’Brien, executive director of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and research professor of psychology and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, cited brain research showing strong connections between social and emotional well-being and cognitive development. O’Brien also cited school-based studies showing that schools using social and emotional learning (SEL) initiatives see lower teacher turnover, a more trusting adult community, and increased student learning. SEL initiatives, she said, create a “platform for instructional excellence.”

Also a keynote speaker, Fay E. Brown, associate research scientist and director of child and adolescent development for the School Development Program at Yale’s Child Study Center, shared brain research findings showing how children grow and develop along six critical pathways: physical, cognitive, psychological, social, ethical, and language. Good teaching requires attention to all six pathways. “Children,” she said, quoting child development expert James Comer, “are not just brains on sticks. We need to know and teach the whole child.”

Success in the Field

Among contributors to the conference were five schools that have made significant strides toward schoolwide implementation of the Responsive Classroom approach: Dame School, Four Corners Elementary,  Hayshire Elementary, High Bridge Elementary and  K.T. Murphy Elementary (see below to read profiles of some of these schools). Counselors, teachers, and principals from these schools, along with other presenters and keynote speakers, offered ideas that can help schools just beginning to take the Responsive Classroom approach schoolwide as well as those well on their way. Here are some of those ideas.

Building a Framework for Schoolwide Implementation
  • Start small, add steps slowly, go for the long haul. The five schools mentioned above have been working on Responsive Classroom implementation for three to nine years.
  • When possible, invite—rather than require—colleagues to come along on the journey.
  • Include all adults at school, including paraprofessionals, office staff, and maintenance staff, in opportunities to learn about the Responsive Classroom approach. This creates consistency in adult behavior and reinforces the idea that every adult in the school is responsible for every child.
  • Infuse Responsive Classroom principles into the life of the school rather than treating the approach as an add-on.
  • Remember the importance of modeling; expect adults to follow the same rules of respect and caring as students.
  • Welcome parents and families and share with them what the Responsive Classroom approach is all about.
  • Continually revise and refine, while taking time to celebrate your successes.
  • Have faith in the children. The best teaching comes from a deep belief in the goodness of every child.
Choosing Helpful Practices
  • A schoolwide signal for attention—establishing a common signal for “stop, quiet, listen,” such as a raised hand or a chime
  • schoolwide discipline practices—a set of schoolwide rules and a consistent schoolwide plan for what to do when rules are broken
  • Teaching lunch, recess, and hallway—talking with students about how to be responsible and caring in the lunchroom, on the playground, and in the hallways, and then taking the children to these places to practice those behaviors
  • All-school meetings—monthly (or more frequent) gatherings that often use the Morning Meeting format and help develop a sense of community among teachers and students across grade levels
  • Buddy classes—older and younger classes that pair up for activities or sit with each other at all-school meetings so older and younger children can teach each other
  • Faculty meetings in Morning Meeting format—beginning faculty meetings with a greeting, followed by sharing (usually something about Responsive Classroom practice), a group activity, and a news and announcements portion as a way to strengthen the adult community and let teachers experience what they’re teaching students to do
  • Staff book study groups—reading and discussing books related to the Responsive Classroom approach as a way to explore ideas and to share classroom struggles and successes
  • Teachers visiting each other’s rooms—adjusting schedules so staff can observe classrooms that are using Responsive Classroom practices; providing structures to enable special area teachers to attend Morning Meeting in various classrooms as a way of getting to know students better


“At the end of the day, culture and climate will be essential to the success of any school,” said keynote speaker Clifton Taulbert. Peppering his talk with stories from his childhood as a son of Mississippi sharecroppers, Taulbert inspired the audience to take personal action to help propel children to excellence. “Community will not show up unless you bring it,” he said.

Taulbert and other presenters emphasized that a strong and positive community enables students to learn and adults to teach. What “community” looks like differs from school to school, but in every school with a strong community, students feel known, safe, wanted, and able to learn no matter where they are in the school.

In a well-attended session, members of Four Corners Elementary School of Greenfield, Massachusetts, shared what their school community feels like after implementing the Responsive Classroom approach for several years. The panel of parents, staff, and students remarked on the pleasure of being in a school where students are welcomed and welcoming, inquisitive and respectful, and where teachers have a common sense of purpose and philosophy. The schoolwide approach at Four Corners includes consistent rules in classrooms and common areas; ongoing, active practicing of these rules; all-school meetings and other schoolwide learning opportunities; and family-friendly parent practices such as holding meetings in families’ homes if needed to accommodate their schedules.

Session presenters Karen Casto and Marcia Bradley, former principals of schools using the Responsive Classroom approach, made one point with particular passion: The first step toward sustaining a caring community for students is developing a strong sense of community among the adults. “If you jump into all-school initiatives before the adults are a community, you will get resistance,” said Casto. She and others spoke of the importance of cultivating common norms and values among staff, building group ownership of initiatives, and providing structures and routines to help adults get to know and learn from each other. For specific ways to accomplish these broad aims, see “Success in the Field” above.

In Their Own Words

Several elementary schools that have been using the Responsive Classroom approach schoolwide were showcased at the conference. Here, four schools tell their stories of Responsive Classroom implementation.

Dame School

Location: Concord, NH
Grades: PreK–2
Student body: 350; 12% ESL; 40% free or reduced-price lunch
Began Responsive Classroom initiative: 2002
Presenters: Ed Barnwell, principal; Barbara Hemingway, coordinator; Linda Stephenson, guidance counselor; Summer Turner, kindergarten teacher

Where We Began

Until about five years ago, we were ineffective and inconsistent in our discipline approach, relying almost exclusively on reactive, punitive, externally motivating policies and procedures to deal with problematic student behavior. Consequently, many of our students were not making the social and academic improvements we believed they could, and should, be making. Removing students from classrooms for disruptive behaviors became the norm (as many as twelve per day during the worst period). There was little sense of community and a lack of common beliefs among the school’s adults. Morale was low, and staff were getting more and more discouraged.

We all knew we needed to do something to solve this crisis, beginning with a more proactive and positive discipline approach. Eventually, after investigating various approaches, visiting schools, and taking introductory workshops, we chose to go with the Responsive Classroom approach. We began by funding six staff in Responsive Classroom I training through a grant. Next, we formed a School Leadership Team as part of our involvement in the New Hampshire Best Schools Initiative. The team applied for, and received, a three-year federal Comprehensive School Reform grant to allow all staff to receive training (a One-Day Introductory Workshop, the Responsive Classroom I Week-Long Institute, or the Responsive Classroom II Week-Long Institute, as appropriate).

Since beginning our Responsive Classroom work, we’ve made great strides toward developing a school culture that is calm and respectful—a culture in which discipline problems are far less frequent. Each year, we try to get better at one or more elements of our Responsive Classroom implementation. We continue to make significant changes in our schoolwide practices as we work to become a more responsive school community.

Key Points Discussed During the Conference Session
  • Dame School’s progress was made possible by the conscious decision to shift from a punitive approach to discipline (punishing children because they lack the skills of good behavior) to a positive approach (teaching children the skills of good behavior, reinforcing these skills, and using logical consequences nonpunitively when behavior is inappropriate).
  • A critical element of Dame’s school culture is the belief, reinforced continually, that “discipline is everybody’s business.” All adults in the school community are responsible for teaching and helping children maintain responsible behavior.
  • Any discipline plan is more likely to succeed if it rests on a firm foundation of shared expectations, beliefs, and practices among the adults at school.
  • Because every school is different, the specifics that help Dame encourage appropriate behavior may not work for another school. The Dame educators suggest, however, that a carefully thought-out schoolwide discipline plan is key. Moreover, they say, a discipline plan developed collaboratively by the whole staff, integrated with the school’s culture, and appropriate for the children served is likeliest to be workable and sustainable over the long term.
  • A schoolwide discipline plan should be a living document, deserving of continual revisiting and refinement.
  • It’s important to devote time, thought, and resources to family outreach and support. When families are engaged in school, children are more likely to be engaged in school. That engagement results in fewer discipline problems.

Hayshire Elementary School

Location: York, PA
Grades: K–3
Student body: 410; 18% minority; 2% ESL; 19% free or reduced-price lunch
Began Responsive Classroom initiative: 1997
Presenters: Carla Gabert, kindergarten teacher; Matt Miller, assistant principal; Barbara Snare, principal; Lori Wiltshire, counselor

Making the Initiative a Success

The first Responsive Classroom component we tried was Morning Meeting, and it has now become the “soft landing place” from which we launch each school day. We’ve built our Responsive Classroom schoolwide implementation upon our success with Morning Meeting. In Morning Meeting we actively reinforce the skills children need to do well academically and socially. Similarly, actively teaching and reinforcing academic and social skills has become the underlying foundation for all we do at Hayshire.

We continually emphasize being specific about behavioral expectations and using supportive teacher language. In managing problem behaviors, we’ve kept our focus on plans for success with individual students. Using the “Green Circle” program (a human relations education program designed to promote positive intergroup relationships) in our guidance program helped us extend the Responsive Classroom philosophy.

Our principal and counselor have been constant supports. Also critical to our success is teachers’ belief the Responsive Classroom approach makes a difference. Not only do students respond positively to the approach, but parents notice and appreciate the school’s emphasis on teaching positive behavior.

Key Points Discussed During the Conference Session
  • Hayshire teachers find that Morning Meeting can serve as the first opportunity to observe children’s mood and how their morning at home might have affected them. Warm, welcoming, and engaging interactions during the crucial first twenty or thirty minutes of school can help smooth a rocky start and get children off to a good day of learning.
  • Time, patience, and small steps are essential elements to successful Responsive Classroom implementation. Hayshire has taken this incremental approach in its schoolwide Responsive Classroom work.
  • Learning new ways of interacting with children is hard work. At Hayshire, there’s recognition that just like students, teachers trying to learn new skills need to have the skills taught and modeled and then need opportunities to practice them. Staff development can specialists offer this crucial support. Counselors, too, are important team members who can support and guide both teachers and students.
  • It’s important to take care of the adult community at school. Adults as well as children need to feel a sense of belonging and significance.
  • As Hayshire has seen, involving families helps solidify all the work that schools do with children. Parents can reinforce school practices at home, and their active engagement shows children that school is important.
High Bridge Elementary School

Location: High Bridge, NJ
Grades: K–5
Student body: 300; high percentage of children with special needs; 3% ESL; 11% free or reduced-price lunch
Began Responsive Classroom initiative: 2003
Presenters: Lynn Hickey, first grade teacher; Carol Howell, principal; Lauren Richardson, first grade teacher

How the Initiative Began and Grew

Our principal had attended a One-Day Introductory Workshop and a Responsive Classroom I Week-Long Institute in a previous district. At our school, she began by purchasing several Responsive Classroom professional resources and, with our school’s guidance counselor, sharing small aspects of the approach during the 2003–2004 school year.

In February 2004, we hired an NEFC consultant to facilitate a One-Day Introductory Workshop onsite, and that summer several teachers attended a Week-Long Institute. These teachers became our “core group,” who would help to guide our school in its Responsive Classroom implementation. That summer, the core group revised our teacher handbook to reflect what they learned during the Week-Long Institute. They also developed our yearly theme to incorporate the social skills emphasized in the Responsive Classroom approach: cooperation, assertion, responsibility, empathy, and self-control.

Early on, several teachers began holding Morning Meetings in their classrooms, and on the opening day of school in the fall of 2004, we held our first staff meeting in a Morning Meeting format. As a staff, we developed our Hopes and Dreams for the school year and displayed them on a bulletin board outside of our main office. Teachers guided their classes in developing their classroom rules and then all the classes and teachers together created a set of school rules and displayed them on posters around the school. The rules read, “At High Bridge Elementary School we take care of ourselves, take care of others, take care of our environment, and take care to do our best work.”

Since then, the staff has continued working together on putting Responsive Classroom principles and practices into action, sharing successes and struggles at faculty meetings and learning together through book study groups. The principal and guidance counselor worked with cafeteria aides to revamp lunchtime procedures. And after learning about all-school meetings and visiting a school during one of their meetings, we now hold these all-school events regularly throughout the year.

In January 2006, we hired an NEFC consultant to spend the day at our school modeling Morning Meetings and Guided Discovery, as well as holding follow-up discussion groups. This refresher was a very positive and rewarding day for our staff. Our schoolwide Responsive Classroom implementation is a work in process, but we’re progressing well toward our goal.

Key Points Discussed During the Conference Session
  • How teachers talk with children is critical, setting the tone for the whole school culture and modeling for children what respectful interactions sounds like. Teacher language is an emphasis at High Bridge.
  • As High Bridge has found, the Responsive Classroom approach works best when the principles of the approach permeate school life and teachers consciously use the ideas, practices, and language at every opportunity. For example, it’s as important to use reminding and redirecting language in the lunchroom as it is in the classroom.
  • schoolwide service-learning projects can support children’s ethical and empathetic development as well as building a sense of community across grades. schoolwide, year-long themes (such as “One to One, We Change the World”) offer further opportunities for solidifying children’s sense of themselves as one learning community.
  • Music can play a huge part in building community. For example, children love singing with their classmates and teachers as they gather for and disperse after all-school meetings at High Bridge. Shared songs deepen children’s sense of their school community as one of warmth, stability, and consistency.
  • schoolwide implementation is an ongoing process. Not only is continually reflecting, asking questions, and practicing vital to success, but it’s a way to show children an example of life-long learning.
  • Children need to see school as a safe haven, a place where they will be supported and protected, not just taught and tested.

K. T.  Murphy Elementary School

Location: Stamford, CT
Grades: K–5
Student body: 490; 41% ESL; 56% free or reduced-price lunch; 50% of students attend preschool
Began Responsive Classroom initiative: 1996
Presenters: Toni D’Agostino, first grade teacher; Michele Sabia, staff developer

The Key Pieces From the Beginning

From the beginning of our Responsive Classroom implementation, we envisioned the Responsive Classroom as a schoolwide approach to teaching and learning. As the first few teachers began attending workshops and institutes, other teachers caught their excitement and also wanted to learn, so they began reading Responsive Classroom literature and observing their colleagues who were already using some of the elements.

Slowly, we began adding schoolwide initiatives. These included Morning Meeting in all classrooms, all-school meetings, and a schoolwide discipline policy that emphasized the consistent use of a firm, kind, and respectful approach to handling inappropriate behavior. We also revised our lunch schedule to make time for an organized play period.

To build our adult community, we established study groups and organized faculty and PTO meetings using the Morning Meeting format. Another important initiative was our all-school field trip. It’s become an annual tradition that does much to strengthen our sense of ourselves as a strong, inclusive school community.

Continuing Challenges

We need to work harder at consistently following the procedures outlined in our schoolwide discipline policy. On a daily basis, we’ll be emphasizing using logical consequences appropriately and using teacher language to remind or redirect students whose behavior is beginning to go off track.

We want to provide more support for our adult community by providing ongoing follow-up coaching to our teachers who have attended Responsive Classroom institutes. We also want to support our teachers in including daily Academic Choice lessons.

Another important goal is training guest teachers, parents, and volunteers in Responsive Classroom principles and practices.

Key Points Discussed During the Conference Session

The K.T. Murphy team members view their implementation of the Responsive Classroom approach schoolwide in terms of five interconnected structures.

  • Professional development includes creating structures and schedules that enable teachers and support staff to talk together at school and to visit each other’s classrooms. Sharing successes and struggles within and across grade levels breaks down teachers’ traditional isolation. Such sharing also promotes the idea that “These are our children, not my children,” and that everyone in school is responsible for teaching every child.
  • Creative thinking about scheduling aims to ensure that teachers and students have adequate time for Morning Meeting, a relaxing lunch, structured play (with adults leading and participating in games), monthly all-school meetings, and planning and reflecting.
  • schoolwide guidelines help ensure that Responsive Classroom practices infuse the school culture so that children have a coherent, consistent context for learning. Such guidelines might include ones for schoolwide discipline, welcoming children during the first six weeks of school, managing homework, and taking care of guest teachers.
  • schoolwide routines help children understand behavioral expectations, learn social skills, and feel secure and cared for. A sense of community develops as all children and all teachers participate in school routines, from the small (daily procedures in the classroom, lunchroom, and at recess) to the large (a traditional all-school spring field trip celebrating a year of learning together).
  • Respectful home-school partnerships are important to supporting children’s learning. Key ways to increase parents’ participation in their children’s education include welcoming them to Family Night and PTO meetings; providing a parent handbook explaining the school’s mission, expectations, and procedures; and developing a school improvement plan that demonstrates the school’s continuing efforts to better care for and educate their children.
Tags: Building Schoolwide Community, Schoolwide Rules