Knowing Your Kids & Building Community – Resource Edition

As a follow up to the last post, this series continues with resources to help you know your students and develop a sense of community in your classroom.


Knowing your children individually, developmentally and culturally is key to developing a community of learners. This allows for a sense of community and significance and some good old-fashion fun.  In turn, this makes everyone – students and teachers – more willing to take risks that deepen both relationships and learning. It’s also essential for you to keep both the chronological and developmental ages of your students in mind when implementing curriculum.


Here are some fantastic resources to keep these  factors in mind:

  • Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4-14 – offers a general overview of child development. Great for both teachers and parents.  Don’t forget to check out Chip Wood’s blog, too.
  • The Birthday Cluster – an exercise recommended by Chip Wood for understanding the difference between the chronological and developmental ages of your class.
  • Making Kids Comfortable – a thoughtful article from Edudemic on how your efforts to make students feel comfortable can be enhanced.
  • Ask Your Self Why? – Responsive Classroom consulting teacher Candace Roberts reflects on her vision for the school year and how the physical environment sets that stage.  She also writes about Envisioning Your Classroom.
  • Remake Your Classroom – Edudemic shares  video from  the folks The Third Teacher Plus shows how teacher’s have enhance their classroom space to invite collaboration and deep learning in cramped spaces. It’s sort of like the old HGTV “While You Were Out” show meets 21st century learning.

What resources do you use in understanding child development and building community?  Share in the comments section below!


Lisa Dewey Wells


5 Ways to Prepare for Your Community of Learners


As we embark upon a new school year it seems a teacher’s job is never complete. There will always be more to do or another way to do things.  Like starting  a large jigsaw puzzle, it can be daunting and overwhelming to consider all of the pieces that need to be put into place.  But soon the straight edges will be in place and the intricate and unique design of this years class will be visible.

Most are tasks at this time of year are  easily identifiable – setting up the classroom, teaming with colleagues, contacting families and planning both short and long-term. There are also the soft skills that need to be planned for. These are the skills and traits that mark schools of the future and need to be both embedded into your curriculum and taught explicitly.  Pat Bassett outlined these in his TEDX talk (well-worth a bit of time when you’re ready to be inspired).   In the context of the start of school, these “soft skills” and hallmarks of 21st century schools might include:

  • Getting to know each other
  • Learning how to be in school and work together
  • How to communicate effectively and respectfully
  • How to ask questions and seek answers
  • How to be a critical consumer of information
  • How to care for materials and individuals
  • How to listen
  • How to help and be helped
  • How to manage stress
  • How to celebrate accomplishments, both individual and group

Before teachers and students can dive into the rich and complex higher-order learning that will be required in the 21st century, a foundation must be carefully laid. You can do some homework and reflection to build that foundation before students arrive, carefully crafting the infrastructure.  Then the shape and tenor of the class can be  constructed cooperatively  around the framework you design. This foundation needs to have several layers:

  • An understanding of the people in your class (individually and in a broader context)
  • A vision for community building that sets the tone and responds to the needs and strengths of individuals and the class
  • Hopes and dreams that evolve into goals for each member and the group
  • Proactive strategies for discipline and an expectation that rules will be forgotten and broken
  • A solid understanding of the content you will teach

Much of the foundation you need can be shaped in the teaching practices and foundational ideas of Responsive Classroom.  Here’s a brief snapshot of how each of these 5 elements of your foundation are supported and enhanced by this approach. Continue reading “5 Ways to Prepare for Your Community of Learners”

Toddlerhood, Take Two (Boundaries, Autonony and Power)


Last time I wrote a bit about how challenging it seems to be a teen in Happy Days, Freaks and Geeks and True Life.   These challenges also bring some wrinkles (a.k.a. the temptation to whack your head or someone else’s)  to parenting.  It can be helpful to re-frame this phase of development where the learning curve is steep,  the terrain is rocky and riddled with unexpected twists, crevasses, vistas and bumps.  There’s a lot of maturating struggling to unfold as tweens are driving toward independence as they prepare for full independence.

I see many similarities between this phase in life and toddler life.  This realization brings some much-needed levity into the picture and often occupies my mind while I bite  my tongue.  Here’s part one of a series on teens, toddlerhood and navigating the road to independence together.


Teens are pushing boundaries and testing the water to see where and what they can control. They are looking for the gray areas in which they can explore. They need just enough leeway while you’re still playing gatekeeper to test the waters.    It can be tempting to let conflicts escalate or to surrender your parental power rather than to truly listen, collaborate, compromise or to stand your ground. They’ve got to learn how to follow the rules, what level of risk they are comfortable with and more importantly, how to make solid choices, live with the consequences,  and fix problems.   When they see there are times they allowed to make choices and share power, they learn the real give-and-take of respectful, caring relationships. They  need to know they are loved and cared for, but yet, we are still the parents. Continue reading “Toddlerhood, Take Two (Boundaries, Autonony and Power)”

Looking Back, Looking Ahead- Development is Still Crucial

Finding the Passion

Arnold Gesell (1881-1960)  is one of the most well-known researchers in the field of child development.  Much of his work, from the Yale Clinic of Child Development and later at the Gesell Institute of Child Development, was based on the simple premise that behavior is a function of structure and that humans develop in a patterned, predictable way.  Gesell and colleagues studied children for decades to gather “norms,” i.e. normative patterns of behavior and hallmarks from their clinical observations. Even though this data was collected nearly a generation ago, it has been refined and updated, and it remains very much the same today as when it was identified.  At each developmental stage, researchers were able to identify characteristic patterns of:

  • Mental and physical organization
  • Social and emotional behaviors
  • Play interests and activities

It was found that these behaviors involve a combination of interaction between child and environment (including other people) and acknowledged individual differences, however, developmental sequences were proven to be similar from child to child and across varying cultures.  Following Gesell’s retirement, Dr. Louse Bates Ames, Dr. Frances Ilg, and Dr. Janet Learned continued his work by founding the Gesell Institute of Child Development and to this day, the institute examines the concept of developmental age  and school placement.   From their website:

Understanding stages of child growth and development and using this knowledge to interpret behaviors, plan appropriate curricula, and manage the classroom are essential to quality teaching practices. Such understanding is also integral to quality parenting, and in implementing best practices in all professions working with children.

Development is a complex process that can be understood when attention and focus is given.  This takes an understanding of child development, solid interpersonal skills, and an openness to observe behaviors so that a clear picture can emerge. When school placement, curriculum and instruction are based on developmental age, a child is given the opportunity  to be successful with the skills and experiences they have to date, with an eye toward nudging them to take on challenges they can reasonably attain and therefore, grow. Continue reading “Looking Back, Looking Ahead- Development is Still Crucial”

Responsive Classroom is like a Map Because it Guides Our Journey

processing new teaching tools

As I sat down last month to prepare a week-long course for my colleagues at St. Anne’s School, I was reminded of the first Responsive Classroom course I took in 1996.  Back then, I was moved and inspired, affirmed and challenged and excited with a powerful, youthful zeal.  My enthusiasm was unmatched by those colleagues who did not attend the course with me. I was met with everything from skepticism to “oh yeah, I know that stuff…” to “gee, could you tell me more in case I want to try it one day?” Like any of the warrior poses in yoga,  I stood strong and firm; I wrestled with my own strengths and faults so I might balance and support my use of Responsive Classroom with a sometimes  dissimilar way of thinking.  This struggle fueled me to understand and refine my teaching and to share it with others.

Over the years, I moved to St. Anne’s where this approach was valued and incorporated as a strategic initiative that unfolded over fifteen years (and continues!).  The Responsive Classroom approach is the vehicle for which the school’s mission as an Episcopal school  has been able to unfold organically with a deep commitment by the adult community.  The school and teachers keep a careful eye on child development as we designed our curriculum and classrooms.  It impacted the way we scheduled our days, how we honed our teacher language, and how we viewed parents and families as partners. This approach is a natural complement to the mindset and daily life at St. Anne’s.  Our students know what it means to care of themselves, each other and our environment.  Adults know and believe that this is a process which is influenced by many variables, but that we are village charged with raising these children to be thoughtful contributors to a range of communities.  When I see our children asking tough questions, thinking critically about information they uncover, and then showing equal determination and sensitivity when dealing with peers or social justice issues, I know the work on our social  curriculum is validated.  (This has recently supported by research – just click here to read more.)

Even though these teachers are philosophically on board and geared up to learn more, my  job wasn’t  going to be easy.  The course content is challenging (volume and breadth) and every participant brings his own set of experiences and perspectives to share or develop.  Questions arise as teachers analyze and synthesize new information into their own experiences and knowledge.  Like any good teaching, I was as prepared with the content as best I could, checked on all the nuts and bolts, and took the leap, knowing I was in good hands if I were to free fall.

Thanks in large part to the thoughtful sequencing and the training I received, the week unfolded smoothly. What was obvious, but unexpected, was the burning desire so many expressed to have more time to hash out concepts, brainstorm application of the approach or child development, or begin planning the school year. Minds opened, perspectives changed, questions about practices and strategies arose, things that had been in place suddenly made sense. The energy and excitement among these teachers was inspiring.

Like sending a 16 year-old off for her maiden voyage as a licensed driver, I felt like a big part of my work was done, but I worried whether I had prepared them well enough.  I had laid the foundation by sharing information, fielding questions, challenging participants to think critically and to see themselves implementing pieces of this approach.  I had also stumbled, forgotten details and realized there were areas I need to talk less, listen more, refine my explanations and even ease up and laugh a little more.  This is all part of the learning process made  possible within our community of learners willing to take risks.  We’d all felt a sense of both validation and challenge, because we had taken the time to get to know each other, agreed to support others and be compassionate with those who were here to learn and grow.

teacher collaboration

Teaching – in any form or capacity –  can be complex, messy, challenging, and rewarding. There’s much to learn in the Responsive Classroom approach, but each step towards approximation of mastery of both social and academic skills is a step forward.  If we’re to position children for the best possible academic and social outcomes in school, teachers need to the tools to do the same.  We need colleagues who have the similar  philosophies and who will be supportive and provocative in our quest to refine our practices.  The critical next step is for follow up – including self-reflection, continued learning, and collaboration among teachers and administrators and coaching from mentor teachers.  As the research shows, thoughtful implementation of this approach yield strong academic and social gains.  Our work is not finished.

As we closed out our training week, I asked participants to generate similes about their experience. Each of the examples below are as unique, genuine and heart-felt as the person who uttered them. They all speak to the complexity and commitment to learning that we now share.

Responsive Classroom is like a motor because it has lots of moving parts.

Responsive Classroom is like a map to guide our journey.

Responsive Classroom is like a ladder because you take one step at a time.

Responsive Classroom is like hole at beach; each time you dig out and can see things, it gets refilled.

Responsive Classroom is like music you have break down to play it well.

Responsive Classroom is like lava lamp; just as I get a hold of one blob, there’s another one floating out there I try to grab!