Fostering Empathy & Kindness: “Responsive Classrooms” in our Lower School

It’s 8:30 a.m. Look inside any of our preschool classrooms, and you’ll see the children and teachers are gathered on the rug for Morning Meeting. They begin by acknowledging each member of the classroom community shaking hands while making eye contact and addressing each individual by name: “Good morning, Emily.” “Good morning, Hilal.” There will be a sharing experience, which gives each child an opportunity to speak in front of the group and celebrate each personal’s individuality. The teachers will also introduce and model an activity that the children will have a chance to do during our work time.

It’s 8:30 a.m. Look inside any of our preschool classrooms, and you’ll see the children and teachers are gathered on the rug for Morning Meeting. They begin by acknowledging each member of the classroom community shaking hands while making eye contact and addressing each individual by name: “Good morning, Emily.” “Good morning, Hilal.” There will be a sharing experience, which gives each child an opportunity to speak in front of the group and celebrate each personal’s individuality. The teachers will also introduce and model an activity that the children will have a chance to do during our work time.

This Morning Meeting—which has structure, predictability, social interaction, and expectations for behavior—is an element of Responsive Classroom®, an educational approach that has been shown by research to improve not only children’s social and emotional skills, attitudes, and behavior but also their academic performance.

Developed over more than 20 years by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Schools, Responsive Classroom (RC) is underpinned by several key principles, including the idea that social and emotional curriculum is as important as academic curriculum; that how children learn is as important as what they learn; that great cognitive growth occurs through social interaction; and, that to be successful academically and socially, children need to learn a set of social and emotional skills: cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control.

RC has been an element of D-E’s Lower School teaching and learning for more than 10 years, but this year it has been implemented division-wide. Among other things, that means that if you peeked into any Lower School classroom at 8:30, you’d find a developmentally appropriate Morning Meeting, each featuring a similar format involving a greeting, sharing, a group activity, and morning message.

Morning Meeting is just one way an observer would see RC practices in action. D-E teachers are also building into the day Energizers, which are short, playful, whole-group activities that might involve dancing or other movement; Quiet time, which includes a pre-recess huddle, in which all children gather in a circle together on Mr. Rocky’s Field or the Purple Playground; and Closing Circle, a final few moments of reflection at the end of the day. In addition, Lower School teachers in each classroom work with students together to establish classroom rules and individual goals.

Lower School teachers say there are many benefits to implementing RC in their classrooms, teaching, and instruction.

teacherGrade 3 teacher Michelle Sussmann says, “From my perspective, the RC approach gives me a way of addressing my students’ social emotional needs that matches with my philosophy of education. Students also gain so much: they make better comments as they listen, commenting on what the person speaking said as opposed to making a comment about themselves. They learn cooperation, they learn and practice good sportsmanship, and they learn not to laugh at others. [In short], they learn empathy and caring.”

Kindergarten Teacher Tricia Fiore states, “I believe that RC actually spurs empathy and kindness because the children are getting to know each other in new ways; you are constantly weaving in manners and how to treat people.

There is definite consensus among teachers that RC has created a sense that everyone in the Lower School is “on the same page.” Teachers say that they are much more cognizant that all students in the Lower School are their students, and not just those whom they directly teach, benefitting from their guidance and attention regardless of when and where this takes place, including during lunch, in the hallways, as well as in their classrooms.

LS Learning Specialist Sophia Dorner, explains, “Children are being held accountable for engaging differently in shared space (not talking or whispering, as well as walking, not running, through halls). This creates a sense of peace throughout Drapkin Hall, [which transfers into calm within our classrooms]. As we interact within a community that has respect for each other, and we teach the very youngest of our students children about judgment, it is easier to do this with something as simple as setting a constructive tone to our learning environment.”

The end result is that teachers create a community where all students are given the opportunity to succeed, because, in the words of Kindergarten Teacher Katherine Augustus, “all expectations are clear. Students are not only learning how to be a part of a community, but they are also learning life skills they will need to know for their everyday life outside of school. The RC approach creates a community of learners where all classrooms share common beliefs. Teachers are even taught to use a neutral tone when responding to misbehavior. This allows students to learn that mistakes are a part of everyday life and it’s how you respond and grow from your mistakes that make you a better person. Teachers are also taught to use logical consequences to help fix children’s problem. If you spill milk you are going to clean it up. Logical consequences teach students responsibility that they can apply to their lives.”

LS Principal Kim Lewis points out that RC dovetails nicely with approaches to teaching and learning that have long been a part of D-E. “I believe that elements of RC can be found in the Middle School Homebase and the Upper School Advisory programs,” she says. “It is our hope that the LS children will continue to expand their sense of voice and self-confidence when interacting in those structures.”

Ultimately RC is a perfect fit with D-E’s mission. Notes Tricia Fiore, “Together, each class also comes up with rules that the students strive to do their best to abide by. Each class has hopes and dreams that are goal-driven. The children try their best to attain these goals, and they are seeking excellence—which is what our school mission is all about.”

“Our schools must provide effective teaching that can build students’ academic muscle, grit, resilience, and courageous spirits for the extraordinary times that are ahead. [Managing] a classroom where children are actively engaged in their learning, participating in lively dialogues, and developing higher-order thinking is vastly different from managing a classroom where children are expected to be compliant completers of worksheets. Teachers today need tools that will enable them to inspire students to do their best work and thrive as contributing citizens in an increasingly complex world. Just as students need a set of skills to equip them to succeed in the 21st century, teachers need a set of tools to be effective teachers of 21st century learners.”

– Lora Hodges, Executive Director, Center for Responsive Schools

Excerpted from “The Responsive Classroom Approach: Good Teaching Changes the Future”.  Learn more at:

Using RC to Build a Sense of Community

loraine-yaminBy Loraine Yamin and Mary Cushman, Preschool 3 Teachers

By following the principles and practices of the Responsive Classroom, we hope to build a sense of community. We slowly and intentionally introduce students to the routines and activities in the classroom, we work together to develop a set of classroom rules that the children agree upon and sign as a contract, and we create an environment where respect and excitement for learning thrive.

Developing social relationships and gaining an awareness of self is also an important part of the Responsive Classroom. Many of our activities in the Lower School help students to grow in these areas. One activity was creating our sunshine wall. We began by painting paper to become our sun. Next, the children thought of words and phrases that make others feel happy. Some of the words and phrases they thought of included, “please hug,” “thank you,” and “sorry.” Also known to the children as “sunshine words,” the children helped to think of these words and then wrote them on a strip of yellow paper that became one ray of our sun. The children also drew and painted their own beautiful sun. The preschool 4 children continue to think of new sunshine words to add to our wall and try to remember to use these phrases with each other.

As part of our “All About Me” unit, the preschool 4 children also learn about each other and about themselves. Each child had a turn to share his or her “me, family, fun” page and answered his or her classmates’ questions. We displayed all of the pages on our bulletin board (see above)for the children to continue to learn about each other. Such activities emphasize both self and other, individual and community, and both listening to others and finding one’s voice.

How and Why D-E Fully Implemented RC

By Kim Lewis, LS Principalflowers

During the 2015-16 school year, The LS Responsive Classroom Professional Learning Committee met and conducted a “needs assessment” about places where we could improve if we had utilized RC throughout the division. They conducted teacher interviews and observed students in a variety of settings.  After presenting their findings, and looking at our aspirational school mission, core values and profile of a graduate, there was overwhelming consensus that we learn more about RC and implement it in the LS.

In June 2016, the full LS faculty participated in a four-day RC training that outlined the tenets of the approach. Following that training it has been incumbent upon us to have other important faculty checkpoints this school year as we implement the some important elements of the program. Our fall faculty meetings have been dedicated to talking about what’s working and where faculty need support. Learning and growing together has helped to spur a collective learning experience among the faculty.

After just one semester of divisional implementation of RC, we have seen some great results. Having shared language, improving student transitions, establishing a community feel in each classroom, and providing a greater sense of connectedness with special area teachers are some of the important benefits we’ve realized.

RC’s Far-Reaching Effects

By Susan Abramson, LS Assistant Principal

Every school has to manage the behavior of its students to create a positive learning environment. Children need to be taught such things as:

  • How to respectfully walk through a building in which there are lots of different people doing lots of different types of work
  • How to share materials and resources in the classroom, on the playing fields and throughout the day and life
  • How to resolve conflicts respectfully
  • How to use positive language throughout the day to create and maintain a climate of safety and respect

RC does not just react but anticipates and works to create a safe, respectful, caring school climate, giving students the social competencies they need to minimize bullying type behaviors before they become elevated.

fallRC emphasizes high, fair and consistent expectations for behavior and learning. It comes from a very positive, kind, caring place with goals that are 100% aligned with our mission statement. It also expects that everyone in the community will take responsibility for his or her own actions. The mistakes made along the way are intended to be learning opportunities for everyone. One of my favorite parts of RC is the language of a do-over; when mistakes are made, there is an opportunity to reflect on where the breakdown was and once this is identified, there is chance for a do-over.

Helping teachers and our school continually improve efforts to help children acquire stronger social and emotional skills means that there will be a ripple effect on all of their learning and behavior. Using a consistent program strengthens the program, of course, since the sum becomes greater than the parts. Moving away from a fragmented, teacher-by-teacher approach means that we are taking on a shared responsibility for the emotional health, academic profile and emotional well being of all LS students, not just the ones who are in front of us that particular year. Using RC school-wide helps children develop the mental and moral capacities that lay the foundation for preventing bullying.

I think the whole school can agree that we want our students to be living, working and learning in a caring community where children feel safe, where they know what the expectations are and where adults help them meet those expectations.

Research-Based Results

In 2011, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) conducted a meta-analysis of 213 school-based, social and emotional learning (SEL) programs involving 270,034 kindergarten through high school students. Compared to controls, participants in classrooms using the Responsive Classroom approach demonstrated significantly improved social and emotional skills, attitudes, behavior, and academic performance that reflected an 11-percentile-point gain in achievement.

Earlier research by the University of Virginia has also found that teachers’ use of RC is associated with greater student achievement in math and reading, regardless of socioeconomic background; greater gains for low-achieving students; improved social skills in children; Improved teacher-student interactions; and more positive feelings toward school among children and teachers. Findings are from the Social and Academic Learning Study (2001–2004) or the Responsive Classroom Efficacy Study (2008–2011).

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