The Responsive Classroom:
A Practical Approach for Teaching Children to Care
by Dr. Belinda Gimbert, Teacher Educator,
from The Teachers.net Gazette
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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
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
Responsive Classroom practice was developed by the Northeast
Foundation for Children. There are seven guiding principals
underlying the approach and six practical teaching strategies.
The social curriculum is as important as the academic
How children learn is as important as what they learn: process
and content go hand in hand.
The greatest cognitive growth occurs through social
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
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
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
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
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
Join small groups in a constructive way and invite others to
Greet and include others (not only friends) in conversation
Work on projects, solve problems, and play games with input
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
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
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