The Nurturing Educator

My Gracikins is attending her new school! The short bus arrived on time this morning and picked her up.  She was so excited to go that she got up at 5:45 AM.  I heard her tromping around in her boots at 6:30.  She loves it.  She’s the only girl in her class of 7 students, and two of the boys are sweet on her.  George, the boy who offered her one of his Christmas cookies during our school tour, has already engaged his wingman to ask Grace to “go with him”.  Grace is shocked.  She is a 12 year-old girl through and through.  She asked for a leather journal and Calico Critters for Christmas.  Oh, and she thinks that the Barbie doll that looks like Grace Kelly from Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief” is the best Barbie doll…like ever! She wants nothing to do with boys.  Boys are fine to have as friends, she says.  They are less complicated and more predictable, but “what on earth do you do with a boy when you go with him?” she earnestly asked.  Indeed.

The school tour went off without a hitch sans my district representative.  This program uses Howard Glasser’s Nurtured Heart Approach combined with Classroom Economy in their classes.  I watched it in action, and it works quite well with this population of students.  I have ordered a few of Glasser’s materials so that I can use them with Milly (my ASD girl) and continue the approach with Grace at home for consistency.  So many schools use the Responsive Classroom approach, but that approach did more harm than good to Milly.  Plus, as lovely as it looks on paper (and I almost drool with admiration when I read about it), it is not implemented properly much of the time.  It requires a shame-free, non-reactive, non-controlling personality who does not struggle with rigidity issues of any sort for proper implementation not to mention a smaller class.

I’m fortunate in that I have access to extremely educated people in the academy who have devoted their lives to studying cognitive development, psychology, and education.  I was able to ask a certain department head of education at a certain well-known university what his opinion of the Responsive Classroom was.  He specializes in childhood and adolescent cognitive development and psychology as well as special education and the teaching of math.  He said that it looks good on paper, but it’s rarely implemented well.  He’s not a fan.  He explained that it was created in response to the self-esteem movement begun in the late 1960s.  You know, “Why Billy, you’re such a good breather! Everyone look at Billy breathe! Isn’t he special!” We see this addiction to self-esteem everywhere in American culture.  Look at the language of the Academy Awards: “And the award goes to…” as opposed to “And the winner is…”  Americans don’t want to feel like losers even if they’ve lost.  Everyone must be a winner.  Everyone has to get an A even if it’s only for effort.  The Special Snowflake Syndrome fueled by entitlement which is, ultimately, fueled by this addiction to self-esteem (because there isn’t much apparently) is what the educational system is battling.  Their solution has been the Responsive Classroom where there is no longer praise.  Be gone “Good Job!” and “Well done!”  Now a child is asked, “What do you think?” and “Tell me about what you’ve done here?”  (What do you suppose an ASD child would think of these questions?) My professorial resource said that it’s a good approach for high schoolers and college students  but not for young children who are in desperate need of nurturing.  Developmentally, elementary school children need to be told that their work is done well.  They still require nurturing from adults, a pat on the back, and the reassurance that comes from the safe adults in their world.

One of the bigger problems that exists with the Responsive Classroom is the Take A Break chair.  The Take A Break chair is a chair in the classroom where students go when they are unable to engage in learning.  Theoretically, it’s much like a sensory break.  If the student is antsy, unable to stop talking, distracting other students, or even distracting themselves, then they are to take a break from the educational environment by sitting in this chair until they can re-engage–in full view of  their peers.  Do you think this actually works out properly in reality? My professorial acquaintance flipped out when he was told about the Take A Break chair because he knew instantaneously what I have learned through observation.  The Take A Break chair is a Dunce Chair.  I have yet to see more than one teacher use it appropriately.  I’ve seen teachers scream at students to go sit in the chair.  I’ve walked by classrooms and seen children shaking and crying in that chair.  That chair is used far more as a shaming tool to force compliance than it is as described in The Responsive Classroom curriculum.

Using shame to force compliance is effective because it works quickly.  That is the dark side of the Responsive Classroom.  Students are taught to make choices that will benefit the group.  Classroom rules are created together at the beginning of the year so a sense of classroom ownership and even citizenship exists at the outset.  One is trying to teach children that the reward for effort is the result of the effort itself–not praise.  Be good for goodness’ sake.  Be good and make good choices for the collective.  Classroom harmony is a goal.  This is why group punishments are used so often.  When one or two students refuse to obey–as in stop talking–the entire class might miss recess.  Group pressure to force the obedience of the few.  This is how this approach is used in our district particularly at the middle school level.  A few students annoy a teacher and misbehave so the teacher makes the entire class late for their next class and informs the class that the reason they are being punished is due to the behavior of Student 1 and Student 2.  If they would like to be on time tomorrow, then they ought to go and speak to these two students.  It’s inappropriate to say the least.  It encourages mob bullying.  If a couple of students didn’t like Student 1 and Student 2, then they would feel permitted by their teacher to teach the two insolent students a lesson.  After all, those two students were in violation of the Responsive Classroom and didn’t honor the good of the collective.

I can tell you that an ASD child–my ASD child at any rate–does not do well in this type of classroom.  Her self-esteem is very low.  She apologizes all the time.  For everything.  She has no sense of a job well done.  She is riddled with self-doubt.  She believes that if she misses one problem on a math worksheet, then she must be stupid.  This is not due to our home environment, and, for the record, I don’t think that self-esteem is the end goal of proper parenting.  I do believe, however, that we should like ourselves, not loathe ourselves.

When Grace went on her school tour and observed how the teachers interacted with the students she asked, “Where’s the Take A Break chair?” Her soon-to-be teacher said, “Oh, we don’t do that here.  That’s not good for a person.” Grace smiled with relief and said, “Oh, I’m so glad.  Everyone here is so respectful and nice.  You’re not mean at all! All the teachers at my other school never say nice things.  They yell at us and send kids to the Take A Break chair all the time.  It’s really awful.  So, you’re not going to lecture us and tell us how awful we are all the time?” The staff just stared at me with wide eyes and then smiled at Grace and shook their heads.

I know that there are devoted followers of the Responsive Classroom approach.  I think it does have its good points, but, for my two special needs children, it has not worked.  It also requires a lot from the teachers who use it; possibly more than some teachers have within them.  For special needs children like Grace and Milly, I would recommend the Nurtured Heart approach.

For a third grade overview of the Responsive Classroom, here’s a link.

The Nurtured Heart Approach–link to website.

Interesting and short article–Classroom Economy vs. Responsive Classroom


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