Not too long ago, Education Week published a short article about recent research connecting use of the Responsive Classroom approach to academic gains. The gist of the research was this: If you implement Responsive Classroom with fidelity, your students will learn more. I can’t say this surprised me one bit. I’ve been observing this in my classroom for a long time now. Responsive Classroom and its middle-school counterpart Developmental Designs offer ways of intertwining social and emotional learning into just about every moment of the school day. It revolves around the belief that the social is just as important as the academic in the curriculum, and the way in which educators communicate with students is the critical vehicle for advancing social learning.

It would be natural to wonder how there could possibly be time in the already jam-packed school day to throw the teaching of social skills into the mix. You might picture a scenario like many of us have seen, where a series of compartmentalized, one-off lessons on buzzwords like “responsibility” or “courage” are taught to young children along with a story or writing activity. Responsive Classroom is not a curriculum. It doesn’t work this way. It doesn’t even call itself a “program” but rather an “approach.”

This distinction is significant for me because rather than being a top-down series of strategies or practices, it is actually a way of being in the classroom for teachers and students. It begins with the morning meeting, which is basically a tool for creating an atmosphere of acceptance for each individual in the group while also creating a whole-group identity of which students can be proud to be a part. Each morning, students in the class greet each other, share significant events or ideas, and participate in a game designed to build confidence and validate the identities of each individual while also reinforcing academic topics. As I just wrote that sentence, I was struck with the fact that many people reading it might think that was preposterous. How could one possibly achieve all that in one 20-minute morning meeting every day?

Of course, you really can’t. Morning meeting is only one component of the way of being that Responsive Classroom can help create, and doing it well involves constant concerted effort in communicating well throughout the day. However, morning meeting really does wield a great deal of power.

A few years ago, I had a boy in my class who was extremely anxious. He put a great deal of pressure on himself to be academically perfect in every way. Every mistake was a huge failure, and he rarely laughed or smiled. Over the course of a year of morning meetings, I watched him learn to take risks. At first, just participating in a morning meeting game was too much for him. He often passed on his turn and chose to watch. But, as the year evolved, he began to dip his toe into the water of social being. The warm words of encouragement from his classmates along with some validating giggles at his unique sense of humor were all he needed, and by the end of the year he was contributing silly ideas for dance moves in one of our favorite games.

The same trajectory was occurring for him academically. At the beginning of the year, he would only play it safe, despite his brilliance. If an answer wasn’t clearly correct, if there was any grey area in an idea at all, he just couldn’t bring himself to offer it. Being a part of a productive, meaning-making conversation was terrifying to him, and, as a result, we all missed out on learning from him. However, as he emerged socially, he also learned to take academic risks, which are critical to real meaning-making in the classroom. His anxiety melted away, and he learned to embrace his mistakes as a part of a necessary process to academic gain.

Think about all of that, about 21st-century learning goals, and the ultimate purpose of sending kids to school. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills provides a learning framework that includes “communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity.” If we want our kids to do those (critically necessary to the future of the human race, I think) things, we have to provide them with safe places to learn and be. Places where huge piles of mistakes are honored as the progress-promoters they can be, rather than badges of shame. Responsive Classroom done well can provide this.

Now think about what would have happened to my anxious little boy in a different classroom situation and a million others like him whose potential for solving problems is wasted instead of nurtured. We don’t need a study to tell us what those consequences are.

Aimee DeFoe, former Assistant Principal and Second Grade Teacher, Kentucky Avenue School