The Responsive Classroom® Approach

The Responsive Classroom approach is an innovative way of teaching developed by the Northeast Foundation for Children (NEFC). Since the 1990s it has emerged as a nationally renowned method of teaching. The NEFC is a nonprofit organization founded in 1981 by a group of public school educators seeking to share the knowledge, skills, and philosophies they had acquired through years of teaching. The result of their combined experiences is the Responsive Classroom approach, which emphasizes the social, emotional, and academic growth of elementary school students in a strong and safe learning environment. The Responsive Classroom approach incorporates the students’ social and emotional growth into their academic learning, stemming from the notion that children learn best through social interaction and when they are explicitly taught social and emotional skills along with their academic lessons. The goal is to enable optimal student learning, and through the implementation and refining of classroom and school-wide practices, the Responsive Classroom approach has been shown to increase academic achievement in elementary school students, decrease problem behaviors, improve social skills, and raise the quality of instruction.

Inside The Responsive Classroom Approach

What does the Responsive Classroom approach look like? Across the country, this method of teaching is being incorporated into classrooms. Any elementary school can incorporate these principles and practices into their curriculum, thus reaching the widest range of students and transforming already existing classrooms into spaces of optimal learning. The Responsive Classroom approach builds social and emotional growth into an academic curriculum so that students’ education becomes truly well rounded--shaping every aspect of their lives.

Teachers incorporate practices designed to make the classroom more stimulating, challenging, safer, and happier. Some of these practices directly foster a sense of community, such as Morning Meetings to start the day, or increased communication with parents to involve the entire family in their child’s education. The classroom is also often physically rearranged to fit where children are developmentally and also to be conducive to safe, challenging, and joyful learning.

Teachers incorporate practices designed to make the classroom more stimulating, challenging, safer, and happier.

Elements of this approach also offer students a level of autonomy that involves them more in their own learning and helps them feel better about their classroom and their place in it. Students partake in shaping the rules of the classroom, and teachers engage children in discussions that help them understand what will happen when they forget or choose not to follow classroom rules. No matter which of several techniques teachers choose when responding to a child’s misbehavior, their goal is always to protect the child’s dignity while quickly stopping the misbehavior and restoring positive behavior so that all the children can continue learning.

To increase motivation and help get students excited about learning, teachers also give them some structured, developmentally appropriate choices about what and how they will learn. For example, for an insect study, third graders may be invited to choose which insect they want to study and whether they will represent what they learn by making a clay model or a poster.

A classroom where the teacher follows the Responsive Classroom approach is a positive space where students’ voices are heard and where they play an active role in their education. The teacher also becomes a facilitator, and through listening to the students and helping them work together, the values of cooperation, independence, responsibility, and accountability are further instilled.

Implementing the Responsive Classroom Approach

Who uses the Responsive Classroom approach? How can you learn the Responsive Classroom approach? Schools across the nation from every sort of environment have experienced its benefits. The quality of education, the increased engagement and performance of their students, and the decline in disciplinary problems all attest to the fact that this approach works. The NEFC, together with its Midwest affiliate, Origins, trains over 7,000 teachers each year. There are Responsive Classroom consultants working in over half of all states in the country. Through the Responsive Classroom Newsletter, a plethora of books and DVDs, and other amazing resources, many more people each year are learning more about it.

For schools and school districts interested in implementing the Responsive Classroom approach, NEFC offers a variety of services. Teachers (and administrators) can attend one-day workshops that introduce them to the approach or focus on particular aspects of it. They can also attend weeklong institutes that enable them to interactively explore Responsive Classroom principles and practices in depth. NEFC also offers contractual professional development services that can be adapted to a school’s or district’s needs, assistance in developing Responsive Classroom teacher leaders, a national conference, and resources for site-based study.

The Effectiveness of the Responsive Classroom Approach

So how well does it work? The Responsive Classroom approach has been researched by the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 considers the University’s findings from its first study to meet its rigorous standards for evaluation. Dr. Sara E. Rimm-Kaufman, who led the Social and Emotional Learning Study, or SALS, found that the Responsive Classroom approach had a noticeable impact on the academic and social skills of students. Specifically, she found that children in classrooms where teachers were using the approach had higher test scores in reading and math, better social skills, and a more positive outlook on school. Teachers also benefited. They felt better about themselves and more positive about teaching because of the effect they had on their students, and they collaborated with each other more. Both of these outcomes resulted in teachers delivering more high-quality instruction that ultimately benefited both students and teachers.

Dr. Rimm-Kaufman is currently conducting the Responsive Classroom Efficacy Study (RCES), a multi-year, $2.9 million randomized controlled trial involving 24 elementary schools, with special emphasis on math teaching and learning.