What is a Responsive Classroom?

Kate Gallagher
Kate Gallagher
High school principal; M.A. in Urban Education, ESL Program Specialist
Teaching at the front of a classroom calling on a girl with her hand raised.

What is a Responsive Classroom?

If you’ve tuned into the news as it relates to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on children over the past few months, you’ve surely heard or read something that pointed out the damaging social-emotional impact that quarantine and remote learning has had on our nation’s youth. The studies and research have yet to be released that give us a true picture of the effects of months without peer socialization and school has done, but knowing how important routines and social interactions are for children leaves us little to wonder.

The Lancet: Child and Adolescent Health published an article in April 2020 titled “Mental health effects of school closures during COVID-19” by Joyce Lee. In the article, Lee states, “For children and adolescents with mental health needs, such closures mean a lack of access to the resources they usually have through schools.” It cites the importance of school routines as coping mechanisms and the social isolation of being in an abusive home. In recognition of these concerns, we as educators must be prepared more than ever to address the social-emotional needs of our students.

Responsive Classroom defines responsive classrooms as “an evidence-based approach to teaching and discipline that focuses on engaging academics, positive community, effective management, and developmental awareness. Our professional development, books, and resources help elementary and middle school educators to create safe, joyful, and engaging classrooms and school communities where students develop strong social and academic skills and every student can thrive.” Responsive Classroom practices focus on grades K-8.

What are the Benefits of a Responsive Classroom?

Responsive Classroom claims that, “Independent research has found that the responsive classroom approach is associated with higher academic achievement, improved teacher-student interactions, and higher quality instruction.” After conducting this classroom efficacy study from 2008-2011, the data showed that the use of responsive classroom practices was associated with achievement outcomes in reading and math, the outcomes were equally effective for students of low and high socio-economic status, and that students with greater deficits in mathematics initially showed the most academic growth.

It also showed that the use of the responsive classroom practice of “Morning Meeting” helped students be more organized and improved emotional support of students. Lastly, it showed that teachers conducted “more skillful standards-based mathematics instruction,” and that it was important for principals to show support of teachers and to provide coaching in restorative practices to ensure positive outcomes.

How to Create a Responsive Classroom

We know that there are significant benefits with the implementation of responsive classroom practices, but what does a responsive classroom look like? There are four key domains of a responsive classroom: engaging academics, positive community, effective management, and developmentally responsive teaching. The website Responsive Classroom breaks down the practices and strategies that define these four domains into three grade spans: K-8, K-6, and 5-8. Strategies that are implemented for K-8 include:

Interactive Modeling

We often make the assumption that students come to school already knowing how to interact with each other as a community of learners, but what we inevitably find is that just as students come to us with all levels of knowledge and skills, they also come to us at different levels of maturity and emotional intelligence. If we do not teach and model our expectations to students, no matter how small the routine or procedure, it is like giving students a test without teaching the content first.

Structure within a classroom is imperative to achieve maximum student achievement. If the teacher is constantly stopping instruction to redirect a student who gets out of their seat without permission (if that is an expectation), it is disruptive to the learning environment and will ultimately have a negative effect on student achievement. Teaching and modeling expectations and procedures from the very beginning provides transparency to students for what is expected of them and also creates clear boundaries for classroom behavior.

Teacher Language

How we speak to students makes a difference. Rita Pierson reminds us in her TED Talk, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like,” our tone matters and so do our words. To this end, Jimmy Casas tells us in his book Culturize to “be impeccable with your words.” Students are always listening and learning from adults in a school building. It is critical that we use our words intentionally to support the social-emotional wellbeing and intelligence of our students, modeling for them a growth mindset. Creating and nurturing resiliency and high-level learning begins with us and our language as educators.

Logical Consequences

Avoiding punitive consequences and allowing students to restore the damage they’ve created through their actions gives students a chance to maintain their own dignity and also supports relationship building among a community of learners within the classroom. Repairing harm is much more productive and effective than punishing a student. After all, the reason for discipline is to correct behavior, teach students desired behaviors, and prevent negative behaviors from happening in the future.

Research has shown that punitive consequences do little to reinforce student growth, community relationships, and positive classroom culture. Holding a re-entry circle, where a student apologizes to their peers, after being removed from the classroom for an infraction is much more effective.

Interactive Learning Structures

I’ve heard it said that we are preparing students for jobs that have not even been created yet. If we don’t know what the jobs or industries we are preparing our students for look like, we need to focus on building strength in the skills we know they will need in any industry. The ability to communicate, collaborate, and engage in tasks that are not on paper to solve problems are the most important skills we can teach our students to prepare them their futures. To prepare our students to do these things, we must give them opportunities to do them. Activities and projects that are hands-on and require critical, higher-level thinking is the only way to strengthen these skills in our learners.

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