On a Thursday in November, Susanna Mellor’s first-grade class was seated in a circle, ready to begin their morning meeting. That day, they started with a pinky greeting: everyone hooked fingers, forming a chain, and then Susanna turned to one of the students next to her. “Good morning, Thomas,” she began. The salutation passed around the circle, ending with a hearty, full-group welcome: “Good morning!”
Morning meeting is one of several practices recommended by Responsive Classroom, a student-centered approach to social and emotional learning (SEL) and effective classroom management. Lower School Principal Jij de Jesus explained that the division started utilizing Responsive Classroom in 2016 as a way to support Rowland Hall’s long-standing commitment to SEL, which is associated with higher academic achievement, improved teacher-student interactions, and higher-quality instruction.
Responsive Classroom gives teachers the tools to create truly joyful, safe, and inclusive classrooms. More importantly, it gives students more responsibility and ownership in the process of building a community of kindness, respect, and learning.—Lower School Principal Jij de Jesus
“Responsive Classroom gives teachers the tools to create truly joyful, safe, and inclusive classrooms that help our students thrive,” he said. “More importantly, it gives students more responsibility and ownership in the process of building a community of kindness, respect, and learning with their classmates.”
Morning meeting achieves this by engaging young learners in a welcoming atmosphere at the start of each school day. In addition to an inclusive greeting, the meeting includes a moment of sharing, a group activity, and a daily message. Whatever the day’s focus, teachers use the meeting to make sure each child is recognized and participating in the class.
“Responsive Classroom practices help build confidence and ease anxiety by fostering a sense of belonging and significance,” Susanna said. And, she added, as the school year progresses, its rewards multiply. “When they listen to each other, students feel that they matter. I see new friendships begin to bud, classmates work comfortably and easily together, and students take risks as they share ideas in class discussions.”
The Responsive Classroom Approach
Responsive Classroom, first developed by the Center for Responsive Schools in 1981, creates safe, nurturing learning environments through four key domains: engaging academics, positive community, effective management, and developmentally responsive teaching. Because Rowland Hall is focused on integrating SEL into our academic and co-curricular programs (we formally added it to goal 1 of our Strategic Plan in November 2018), incorporating Responsive Classroom into the Lower School curriculum was a logical choice. And it has made a difference.
“It's given our teachers more clarity and alignment when they consider how best to support students, structure learning activities, and promote positive behavior expectations,” Jij said. “Students, in turn, experience more consistency and are clear on why their actions matter for their own learning and for the learning of others.”
Rowland Hall is focused on integrating social and emotional learning into our academic and co-curricular programs; we even formally added it to goal 1 of our Strategic Plan in November 2018.
To drive student success, Responsive Classroom also emphasizes interactive modeling to teach the skills, strategies, and procedures that help kids thrive at school.
“Interactive modeling has made my classroom a more calm, efficient, and productive learning environment,” Susanna said. “When students watch and comment on what I do as I role-play a procedure, they actively deduce the steps by verbalizing them and listening to peers do the same. As a result, they have a firm and clear understanding when it comes time for them to begin the task at hand.”
Integrating Responsive Classroom into Established Practices
Responsive Classroom has helped Rowland Hall refocus many classroom practices toward the school’s overarching SEL goals. One example occurs at the beginning of each school year: developing classroom agreements. Unlike traditional lists of rules, classroom agreements are created in partnership, giving teachers and students buy-in on how their classrooms will run. While the agreements have been a part of the Lower School for many years, Responsive Classroom added another layer to the process.
“Using the Responsive Classroom approach has allowed my students to delve deeper into the process of exploring their own hopes and dreams, and how we can work as a group to help each other achieve our goals,” Susanna said. She explained that students become engaged, thoughtful, and passionate as they determine what will help them do things like learn how to read, try harder math problems, or even score soccer goals. “I notice students putting much more thought and reflection into this process, making it more meaningful and effective,” she said.
Collaborating on classroom agreements also makes it more likely that children will follow, and reference, those agreements during the school year.
“Students refer back to these agreements when obstacles arise and really demonstrate ownership of them,” said Susanna. “For example, when having a class discussion about erasers being damaged intentionally, several children commented, ‘That’s not following our agreement. We said we’d take care of our materials this year so that we could become better writers.’”
Classroom agreements are referenced regularly by instructors too. In Susanna’s morning meeting, for instance, students are asked which agreements they want to focus on and what actions they can take to make sure those agreements are honored. One student reminded classmates that they can meet their goal to keep calm in the classroom by walking; another observed that they can fulfill the agreement to try harder math problems by listening respectfully during instruction.
Using Responsive Classroom in New Ways
Responsive Classroom also inspires new methods to empower students. This fall, the Lower School used the foundation of classroom agreements in a new way: to create school-wide Winged Lion Agreements.
On September 6, 17 student delegates from grades one through five—one from each class—gathered in the McCarthey Campus parlor for the first-ever student constitutional convention. Delegates shared their classes’ newly developed classroom agreements with the group before beginning a discussion on agreements that could be applied to the whole school.
When students help make decisions about how the school runs, they understand their voices are valued and that they play a role in making school enjoyable for everyone.—Lower School Specialty Principal Linda Tatomer
Lower School Specialty Principal Linda Tatomer—who has completed all Responsive Classroom courses, including the Responsive Classroom for Leadership conference—led the discussion and was impressed by how the process unfolded. “When students help make decisions about how the school runs, they understand their voices are valued and that they play a role in making school enjoyable for everyone,” she said. “And because each student was a stakeholder in the convention’s outcome, they were serious about identifying meaningful goals.” She was also thrilled by the inclusion she saw in the room, especially by the way fifth graders mentored the first graders. “They really made connections and made them feel valued,” Linda said.
After thoughtful discussion, the group decided on five agreements for the year:
• Be kind
• Work hard and never give up
• Be safe
• Have fun
Each item was purposefully selected, down to exact words—for instance, the delegates chose the word “respect” because of its ability to encompass a wide range of areas, from personal behavior to how students should treat their surroundings.
Designing Better School Days with Responsive Classroom
Responsive Classroom further helps the Lower School team continuously reevaluate how to best meet students’ needs. One recent change to the school day occurred as a result of a February 2019 meeting with a Responsive Classroom consultant, who was sent to observe a full day at the school after Linda completed her training in the approach.
“One thing the consultant noticed was that our dining hall is very noisy,” Linda remembered. The consultant recommended a proven solution she thought would benefit the division: moving recess before lunch, an idea that the Lower School student support team had been considering for two years prior to the visit.
“The change would have numerous benefits,” said Linda. “Children could focus on eating, noise would go down, and no one would be racing to get outside.” After presenting the idea to an enthusiastic Lower School faculty in the spring, Jij and Linda began working on making the change for the fall. When it was time to introduce the schedule adjustment to students during the second chapel of the year, Jij, Linda, and Chuck White, the McCarthey Campus emotional support counselor, were thoughtful in their approach, using a similar style students had already experienced in the classroom.
“We asked, ‘What should lunch feel and sound like?’” Linda said. The team also emphasized the why behind the discussion so students would understand both the reason for change and its related benefits. “We talked about how we can all follow agreements to make school more enjoyable for everyone,” Linda said.
Using a dining table that had been brought into the chapel, Jij, Linda, and Chuck then modeled for students proper lunch behavior: entering the dining hall respectfully, staying seated facing the table, and talking at an appropriate volume. Each child was also given the chance to practice at the table.
Children have adjusted well to the change, Linda said. It was, she explained, an extension of the discussions students have become accustomed to—and, importantly, it reminded them that they each play a part in creating a respectful, safe, and joyful school for all.
“I’m really proud of them,” she said.
Responsive Classroom Resources for Parents and Caregivers
Responsive Classroom has been an influential tool in helping Rowland Hall meet SEL goals in the Lower School. Because we are committed to partnering with parents and caregivers in their children’s education, we have made many Responsive Classroom materials available in the parent section of the McCarthey Campus’ Steiner Library for those who are interested in more information about the approach.