Barbara Shea, Lower School Principal
Fifteen years ago when the Lower School adopted Responsive Classroom, teachers recognized the impact that the social/emotional lives of our students have on students' academic growth and saw the benefits of a program that addresses the development of social skills. We truly believe, and you have often heard us say, “students who are happy at school, learn best.” To be truly happy in school requires a set of social skills that allows students to navigate various friendships, to speak up for themselves and others, and to demonstrate respect and empathy for all members of the community. With our newly updated report cards, Responsive Classroom’s C.A.R.E. (cooperation, assertion, responsibility and empathy) clearly remains a priority in tandem with the academics. Not only does the School openly embrace all aspects of Responsive Classroom, but teachers go beyond this program when they regularly incorporate topics that include developing healthy friendships, work habits and organization, health and wellness, and “growth mindset.” Some of these “extras” are taught within the classroom by the teachers, some include outside speakers for various grade levels, and some topics are covered by Dr. Pager, school psychologist and director of Student Support Services.
Many families know Dr. Pager through the grade-level meetings that she holds twice a year to discuss the social/emotional milestones in a child’s life. Children do not mature in lock-step fashion. However, there are developmental expectations to be anticipated with each year, and knowing the continuum of growth that happens at each age is important for teachers and parents, alike. In the spring, Dr. Pager will also provide guidance to third- and fourth-grade parents about how they can talk to their children about their children’s changing bodies. Our goal is to support the family conversations and not be the ones to introduce new topics that first should be addressed at home. In addition, Dr. Pager is always available to meet with parents regarding questions about development or if family stressors appear.
Dr. Pager’s Lower School curriculum is based on a set of key topics at each grade level coupled with the flexibility to address specific issues that surface throughout the year. For example, each fall, Dr. Pager will introduce “stranger danger” with the younger grades to give them important skills in safety awareness. This will usually begin with a book that is read aloud to elicit student comments and questions. At the same time, at the kindergarten and first-grade level, there is a great deal of emphasis placed on creating a classroom community, as well as developing appropriate student behavior. Dr. Pager regularly observes students in class to get to know the individual children and to provide another lens in which to see classroom dynamics. Together, teachers and Dr. Pager may decide to focus on a specific behavior in the classroom or on the playground. This collegial approach and mutually supportive rapport with classroom teachers is one that has evolved with years of experience. When issues arise that may have an impact in the classroom, as in the case of the aftermath of this year’s election, Dr. Pager helps guide teachers in their conversations with students. The teachers' goal is to gather information from the students and to respond to their questions in a reassuring manner. We never want to offer more information than the students need or want.
To be sure that all new students to the school have acclimated well, Dr. Pager will meet with each one, making sure that every child feels part of our school community. Sometimes, a student will need a little extra care to connect with a friend or negotiate an ongoing relationship, so she will create small groups to model and develop strategies, such as good listening skills and the ability to compromise. Sometimes, it’s just learning how to calm down by breathing deeply and gathering one’s thoughts. In third and fourth grades, the topics are more solidified, and they take place in monthly meetings. The subjects that are covered can include respect, peer pressure, active listening, point of view, stress, computer use and pros and cons of online behavior, and an age-appropriate approach to the dangers of smoking and alcohol.
In addition, third and fourth graders learn the meaning of “social power” and how that can mean the difference between friendly teasing and mean teasing. Tattling and reporting become equally important topics. Tattling refers to the student who tells about other students' actions to get them in trouble when the action has no impact on any one person. (Holding a pencil when the teacher has asked that all pencils be put in the desks is an example of an action that may not be following the teacher’s directive but has no bearing on any one else.) Reporting ensures that our school environment remains physically and emotionally safe for all students. (If a student is saying hurtful things to another, that action negatively impacts not only that one student, but also the climate within the school.) But more importantly, Dr. Pager provides a forum in which students can discuss strategies to deal with the social issues that students may face. At this age, having students enact various scenarios is empowering; practice through role-play allows them to hone their skills. The more they practice, the easier it becomes to use the right words and actions in those difficult situations.
Lastly, in the spring, Dr. Pager and Ms. Carrie Donahue, (Middle School Counselor) meet with the fourth graders to talk about their transition to the Middle School, to explain what a middle-school day looks like for incoming fifth graders, and to give students an opportunity to inquire about their roles in the Middle School. These meetings also answer their questions and ultimately diminish anxieties regarding their move from one division to the next.
Responsive Classroom cannot eliminate all student issues. Some children will test the boundaries of friendships or seek to gain social power over others. The important thing is that Responsive Classroom, together with the teachers’ approach and Dr. Pager’s lessons, ensures that all students gain the skills to address the situations that arise, but also to recognize when an adult needs to intervene to ensure a healthy learning environment for everyone.