The Responsive Classroom:
A Practical Approach for Teaching Children to Care.

By Dr. Belinda Gimbert
Teacher Educator

Approaching issues of classroom management and discipline is much more than what teachers do when children break rules and misbehave. Rather than simply reacting to problems, we need to establish an ongoing social curriculum, we need to encourage children to participate in community, we need to teach self-control, and most importantly, we need to accept the potential of children to learn these things and the potential of teachers to teach them.

Helping children learn to take better care of themselves, of each other, and of their classroom is not a waste of instructional time. It’s the most enduring task that teachers do and Ruth Charney’s book, Teaching Children to Care (revised June, 2002) establishes the educational practice and the classroom routines that help teachers accomplish this task with intention.

From Section I, chapter 1:
The word DISCIPLINE is derived from the Latin root disciplina, meaning learning. It needs to be associated positively with acts and feats of learning rather than negatively with punishing. Teaching discipline requires two fundamental elements: empathy and structure. Empathy helps us “know” the child, to perceive his/her needs, to hear what s/he is trying to say. Structure allows us to set guidelines and provide necessary limits. Effective, caring discipline requires both empathy and structure.

There are two basic goals in teaching discipline:
• Creation of self-control
• Creation of community

Creation of self-control
We need to strive for the creation of self-control in children. It is the first purpose of classroom management. This purpose is summed up by a quote from John Dewey in his pamphlet Experience and Education, first published in 1938. Dewey writes, “The ideal aim of education is creation of the power of self-control” (Dewey, 1963, p. 64).

Charney (2002) identifies “power” as the key word in Dewey’s quote. Power, says Dewey, is the ability to “frame purposes, to judge wisely…” (Dewey, 1963, p. 64). The power of self-control is the power to assert oneself in a positive way. It involves the capacities to regulate oneself, to anticipate consequences, and to give up an immediate gratification to realize a long-term goal. It includes the ability to make and carry out a plan, to solve a problem, to think of a good idea and act on it, to sift alternatives, to make decisions. For children, it is the ability to enter a new group and say hello, to make new friends, to choose activities, and to hold fast to inner thoughts and beliefs. It isn’t innate power, says Dewey, but one that is “created.”

Creation of community
In today’s world, it is particularly urgent that we extend beyond the domain of self and the lessons of self-control. We need to find connections to others and to feel ourselves members of many groups – intimate groups, community groups, and a world group. These connections and responsibilities need to be taught as well. We need to teach children to care as well as to receive care. We must help them learn to contribute, and want to contribute.

Belonging to a group means being needed as well as to need, and believing that you have something vital to contribute. Every child can contribute care for others in many ways – by listening with attention and responding with relevance, by showing concern for the feelings and viewpoints of others, by developing a capacity for empathy.

We all have an inherent need to be useful and helpful to others. But because it is inherent doesn’t mean that it automatically flourishes or is tapped. In our society, there are people who suffer from a lack of meaningful work. Children, too, can suffer from a partnership of neglect and indulgence that results in a lack of meaningful responsibilities. These children are not expected to demonstrate care, not accustomed to taking care of others. Creating community means giving children the power to care.

Consequently, the best methods, the most carefully planned programs, the most intriguing classroom centers, and the most exciting and delicious materials are useless without discipline and management. The children can hurl the Legos and crash the blocks, or they can build fine bridges. The critical difference is the approach to discipline and managing the classroom. (Charney, 2002, 17-25)

In my years of working as a classroom teacher and a teacher educator, I have found the Responsive Classroom“ approach to teaching particularly helpful in managing just such a classroom. It offers teachers tool and techniques for creating a learning community that is nurturing, respectful, and full of learning.

Responsive Classroom practice was developed by the Northeast Foundation for Children. There are seven guiding principals underlying the approach and six practical teaching strategies.

These principles:
• 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.
• There is a set of social skills children need in order to be successful academically and socially: 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 inviting their participation is essential to children's education.
• How the adults at school work together is as important as individual competence: lasting change begins with the adult community

And the resultant practices:

• Morning Meeting: A daily routine that builds community, creates a positive climate for learning, and reinforces academic and social skills.
• Rules and Logical Consequences: A clear and consistent approach to discipline that fosters responsibility and self-control.
• Guided Discovery: A format for introducing materials that encourages inquiry, heightens interest, and teaches care of the school environment.
• Academic Choice: An approach to giving children choices in their learning that helps them become invested, self-motivated learners.
• Classroom Organization: Strategies for arranging materials, furniture, and displays to encourage independence, promote caring, and maximize learning.
• Family Communication Strategies: Ideas for involving families as true partners in their children's education.

There are many good resources available from the Northeast Foundation for Children. As a teacher educator, I certainly have found Teaching Children to Care to articulate and to build on these principal and strategies. I find it most useful for classroom teachers in its intentionally and its detail. Charney gives us the specific classroom details we should expect to see in a classroom that teaches children self-control and helps them to feel connected to others through community. For example, we teach children to care and graciously be cared for when we expect them to:

• Learn each other’s names and get to know each other’s interests and feelings
• Take turns without arguing, pouting or quitting
• Share supplies, snacks, attention from classmates, private time with the teacher and so on
• Make room in the circle even for children who aren’t “best friends”
• Join small groups in a constructive way and invite others to join
• Greet and include others (not only friends) in conversation and activities
• Work on projects, solve problems, and play games with input from everyone
• Solve conflicts by talking and reaching mutually acceptable decisions without name-calling or hurtful behavior.

Charney tells us that children do not come to school knowing how to do all these things. They must be consciously taught, step-by-step. For example, Charney emphasizes reinforcing expected behaviors by commenting on what children do right, reminding children of expected behaviors before things go wrong, and redirecting children when they have gone off track – “The Three R’s” for teaching self-control.

Charney meticulously describes a process for nourishing social participation and caring behavior, liberally lacing her text with anecdotes from her own and other teachers’ classrooms. For example, Charney exemplifies how children, given time and attention, demonstrate the power of self-control daily. She describes five-year-olds during their first week of school trying to sit still in a circle, a clutch of wiggles, wagging hands, and babbling voices. Six weeks later, there is a real semblance of order. They are working on “being the boss” of their own bodies, staying “parked” in their spot, keeping their hands only on themselves, listening. Maggie’s hand starts to go up while Mikey is telling a story about his bike. When she sees a slight shake of her teacher’s head, she remembers, and her hand goes down. She will wait until Mikey is done talking to tell about her bike, “cause the same thing happened” to her on her bike. Self-control allows listening and waiting.

The practical wisdom from these stories helps persuade the reader that it is possible to create a classroom that is enlivened by caring and respect, and that such a classroom atmosphere is a critical foundation for learning. When we teach students to be self-disciplined and caring, and we do so with courage and authenticity, we are using instructional time well. Most importantly, we are building essential habits of self-control and care through the very routine of our classrooms.

For more information on the Responsive Classroom and the Northeast Foundation for Children, and for information concerning Teaching Children to Care and other Responsive Classroom materials log on to: http://www.responsiveclassroom.org

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