Understanding Shore's Responsive Classroom Approach

Bill Fisher
In every classroom across Shore’s Lower School, each day begins the same way. Students sit together in a circle on a rug for “Morning Meeting,” during which they’ll review the daily schedule, establish goals, ponder a “Morning Message,” and practice greeting one another with kindness and respect. The meeting is often playful, incorporating quick games that encourage sharing and communication; some of the fast-moving games, like “Whizzball,” even include unique rules and terms personalized by the class. “The not-so-secret purpose for all of these,” explains Head of Lower School Sara Knox, “is nurturing social skills and non-verbal communication, such as making eye contact when greeting someone. The Morning Meeting also builds community and inclusion, as students are pushed to be vulnerable, to support their peers, and to grow in their ability to take risks by sharing a personal story or feeling.”

Morning Meetings are one of the most visible components of Shore’s Responsive Classroom approach to social-emotional learning. Responsive Classroom is an evidence-based teaching methodology that focuses on engaging academics, positive community, effective management, and developmental awareness. It is based on a specific set of academic competencies—academic mindset, perseverance, learning strategies, and academic behaviors—and social-emotional skills—cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control. Responsive Classroom’s guiding principles posit that great cognitive growth occurs through social interaction—that feeling a sense of belonging and success in a healthy community of learners is just as important as what is being taught and how. “The defining competencies and goals are the same ones that we value and prioritize as a school,” says Knox, “which is why Responsive Classroom is a perfect fit for Shore.”

The methodology employs child-facing structures like Morning Meeting alongside teacher-focused strategies of language and behavior modeling to transform the tone and effectiveness of elementary classrooms. According to research conducted by the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, the Responsive Classroom approach leads to higher academic achievement, improved teacher-student interactions, higher quality instruction, fewer behavioral issues, improved student social skills, and deeper student engagement with learning. “At Shore,” explains Knox, “Responsive Classroom has given us a shared set of understandings and language to talk about our teaching with each other and with families. It’s helped us give names to many of the best practices we already use.”

Bookending the school day opposite Responsive Classroom’s Morning Meeting is “Closing Circle,” typically an opportunity to reflect and celebrate achieving the goals set in the morning. “Even if the day has been less than awesome or the class didn’t quite achieve their goals,” Knox says, “the Closing Circle helps children acknowledge the challenges but still take the time to do something fun so that all students, regardless of what happened during the day, go home feeling supported and upbeat.” Though students and teachers at the end of any given day may feel rushed, anxious, tired, or even hungry, the Closing Circle brings a sense of calm, safety, and community to the classroom, reinforcing a sense of accomplishment and belonging.

Between Morning Meeting and Closing Circle, “Energizers” give students a chance to move their bodies and have a few minutes of fun in the classroom when transitioning between subjects. Usually quick, game-like activities, Energizers build community by encouraging students to interact with one another in new and interesting ways. “Quiet Time,” on the other hand, provides a mental and physical break from high-intensity activities like physical education or recess. While there are no formal expectations during Quiet Time, most children use the break to draw, write, or work on a puzzle or origami. It’s a mid-day reset that “often gives children the boost they need to get through the end of the day successfully,” explains Knox.

Throughout the daily schedule, teachers employ other Responsive Classroom techniques to proactively support students academically and emotionally. “Interactive Learning Structures” are interwoven through numerous subject areas to push children to mingle and work with more of their classmates more regularly. “These are fun and creative,” says Knox. Small groups of students may be invited to discuss a social studies question in four corners of the room that correspond to four possible answers, or to take a “museum walk” to view and offer feedback on their peers’ completed projects. “Because children are expected to interact with each of their classmates on a regular basis,” Knox explains, “they quickly become comfortable working with anyone and everyone.”

Less visible but still crucial components of Responsive Classroom are what’s known as “Effective Teacher Language” and “Interactive Modeling.” To name and reinforce expectations, teachers use positive language to point out good choices, rather than negative or punitive terms. “Instead of ‘Don’t do that,’ or ‘Stop tapping your pencil,’” explains Knox, “teachers might reinforce behavior by saying, ‘I love the way Joseph is dabbing the paintbrush gently in the paint tin to protect the paintbrush.’ To remind students about classroom rules, they might ask something like, ‘Who remembers what it should look like and sound like when we line up for recess?’” Interactive Modeling is similar. Teachers use it to demonstrate expectations in a visible and concrete way. “We use interactive modeling all of the time at Shore. Sometimes it is used for academic procedures”—such as modeling how to use a graphic organizer, or how to sculpt with clay—“and other times it is used for more logistical or social purposes”—how to carry a tray in the Dining Hall, or how to manage a conflict with a friend.

“The idea in all of these practices,” Knox says, “is that if we are using them consistently in every place and space on campus, we have fewer behavioral problems and thus less need for formal discipline.” Even in disciplinary conversations, she adds, the approach is proactive and supportive. In the Responsive Classroom model, discipline is viewed through an empathetic, community-oriented lens. The primary goal when responding to misbehavior is not to punish students, but to end the negative behavior as quickly—and with as little disruption—as possible, so everyone can get back to learning. Equally important is helping students understand the effects of their actions. Here the focus is on repairing any damage caused, and giving students the social-emotional tools they need to make better choices in the future.

Ultimately, the Responsive Classroom methodology seeks to place responsibility for discipline and behavior regulation in the hands of students themselves, as they develop self-control and self-discipline and learn to be responsible, contributing members of a classroom community. This is why, says Knox, every Lower School classroom features a prominent display of “Hopes & Dreams” collaboratively created by students at the beginning of the school year. While children often record their academic aspirations—learning to write a story, becoming a better reader or mathematician—teacher coaching prompts them to identify larger goals such as being kind to classmates, demonstrating respect, and considering the needs of others. “These, in turn, serve as the foundations for student-created ‘rules’ of the classroom,” Knox explains. Teachers ask children to reflect on their shared hopes and dreams and to identify things they’ll need to do to achieve them, such as listening when others are speaking, keeping one’s hands and body to oneself, or using classroom iPads appropriately.

“When children make a poor decision or do something that conflicts with the class-created rules, they’re encouraged to remember that list of behavioral expectations they helped create at the beginning of the year,” says Knox. “We get students invested in regulating their own behavior by reminding them of the ‘why?’” When appropriate, teachers identify a logical consequence for disruptive or damaging behavior. For example, “A child who misuses technology by typing ‘bathroom’ words into a Google search may have to spend their next writing period in my office so I can monitor their technology use.” Lower School classrooms also have what’s called a “take-a-break” chair. Again, this and other behavioral interventions—such as having a child take a walk down the hallway with a teacher—are not used as punishment. Instead, Knox says, “They’re meant as a way to reset and recharge. We invite children to go take a break when their ‘gas tank’ for appropriate behavior has been emptied. They can refill and return with new energy and focus.”

Any visitor to Shore’s Lower School notices that energy and focus. “Students are more and more aware of their own behavior and how it affects learning and the health of the classroom community as a whole,” observes Knox. Even when challenges arise—project partners who struggle to work successfully together, unkind words overheard at recess, side conversations distracting from a math lesson, even a bathroom left untidy after use—students themselves often take the initiative to resolve the situation, using teacher prompting and the language and practices of Responsive Classroom to come to their own solution. Still, Knox insists, “kids are kids. Kids make mistakes, and Responsive Classroom shouldn’t be seen as a cure-all. It may help to lessen misbehavior and improve the classroom environment overall, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t bumps in the road.” Mistakes are a healthy part of growing up, explains Knox; they help us to learn how to act, how to communicate, how to organize, and how to plan. “What Responsive Classroom gives us is a positive, proactive, and consistent approach to supporting kids through whatever hurdles, successes, and learning moments they encounter. Most importantly, it helps kids rebound from any experience with a plan to be better, stronger, more organized, or kinder the next time around.”
    • A morning greeting in Grade 2

    • Morning Meeting in Grade 4

    • Solving math problems collaboratively in Grade 2

    • Hopes and Dreams in Grade 1

    • An Energizer in Grade 5

    • A game in Grade 4

    • Morning Meeting in Grade 5

    • An Energizer in Grade 2

    • A group activity in Grade 5

    • Closing Circle in Grade 4