Implementing Responsive Classroom Across a District: Tips from the Austin ISD

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Austin Independent School District

  • Austin, Texas
  • Public PreK-12 school district
  • Implementing Responsive Classroom since 2015

In 2013, after realizing that our students needed more than just academic skills, the Austin Independent School District (ISD) built a team to focus on social and emotional learning (SEL). Our district was having issues with disproportionality in terms of discipline referrals as well as special education referrals. We were also having repeated issues with faculty and students struggling with stress-related mental health issues. We realized that we were not preparing our students with the social and emotional skills they needed to navigate the stressors in their lives, and we were also not preparing our faculty to see our students through a social and emotional lens to ask “What’s going on with you?” rather than “What’s wrong with you?” Our district needed a paradigm shift, and an SEL approach would provide Austin ISD with the tools to make that shift.

One of our lead donors approached our new team and recommended that we attend a Responsive Classroom training institute. After completing the four-day Elementary Core Course, we knew this was the educational approach we wanted and we proceeded to implement it.

Austin ISD’s SEL team leads and organizes professional development opportunities for our district, including the four-day Responsive Classroom courses. The team prioritizes the scheduling of these courses, allocates appropriate funding, and includes Responsive Classroom training as a professional learning need in our annual grant requests. Through generous donations, we have been able to provide Responsive Classroom training to educators in our district each summer since 2014.

As part of an effort to build the capacity of educators, our SEL team collaborates with our SEL facilitators and campus administrators to set goals when implementing Responsive Classroom and other SEL-related objectives. They check in with individual campuses about their SEL goals and implementation, including Responsive Classroom integration, and provide ongoing support for their training.

With more than 80 elementary campuses in the Austin ISD, our SEL implementation is driven by each campus’s data, unique needs, and goals. We use an approach that best fits each situation to create safe, inclusive, culturally responsive, academically engaging, and equitable learning environments for the students and faculty.

One benefit Austin ISD has is our SEL facilitator structure. Each campus assigns two staff members to act as SEL leaders, and these facilitators participate in different SEL professional development offerings. They then take the information back to campus to share with their teams and help keep our district staff on the same page.

We have found that Responsive Classroom strategies offer systems and structures that enable our teachers to engage students in dynamic ways by utilizing process-centered feedback, effective teacher language, and energizers. The Responsive Classroom approach helps our teachers focus on building community, which we value deeply, and establish rules and procedures for creating safe and inclusive learning environments, which is the foundational element of our SEL work in Austin ISD.

Responsive Classroom implementation varies throughout Austin ISD due to the number of campuses. There are many schools in the district that do not yet have their entire campus trained. We have created an implementation plan that helps us gradually integrate Responsive Classroom into schools districtwide (see the Appendix: District Implementation Plan). We also try to model and share best practices through professional development and SEL facilitator training.

The SEL team also uses an annual survey to help campus leaders reflect on their SEL implementation and to develop goals to deepen campus integration. The survey is broken into four focus areas:

  1. Explicit SEL instruction
  2. Empowering campus leadership
  3. Coordination with family and community partners
  4. Coordination with climate and pedagogy

Educators who attend the four-day Elementary Core Course are consistently inspired to implement the strategies learned. Through anecdotal evidence, we have found that classrooms faithfully implementing Responsive Classroom practices have a strong sense of positive community, student engagement, organization, and calm.

Since the summer of 2014, over 800 of our educators have been trained in the Responsive Classroom approach. Each year we have had a waiting list, which demonstrates the demand for the training. After each course, we request feedback from attendees. We have found that:

This summer nearly 200 teachers are registered to participate, and we are excited to host the Elementary Advanced Course in our district for the first time.

We have found that the Responsive Classroom approach to teaching and discipline has helped support our SEL implementation by focusing on engaging academics, positive community, effective management, and developmental awareness. We have seen our schools effectively build community, integrate SEL practices into other academic content areas, empower teachers and campus staff, and create safe and inclusive environments. Because of the benefits our school district has seen, we recommend Responsive Classroom to other school districts that wish to integrate SEL strategies and techniques into their classroom and campus environments. Our classrooms are safe, joyful, and engaging learning spaces, and our teachers and students feel the difference. We are thankful for the changes we have seen, and we encourage other districts to implement the Responsive Classroom approach.

District Implementation Plan

Austin ISD created an implementation plan/guidance document for themselves as they work toward a more comprehensive integration of social and emotional learning in all of their buildings and classrooms. They have shared their plan in hopes that it may help other district leaders who support Responsive Classroom implementation throughout their district.

  • Create buy-in by reviewing campus data and setting goals based on the unique needs of each classroom or school environment, and identify areas in which Responsive Classroom can support these goals. This approach helps to create a sense of urgency amongst staff and school leaders.
  • Start small. You do not need to implement every aspect of Responsive Classroom all at once. It is beneficial to develop a tiered approach to rollout, making it bite-sized and attainable. This also creates an opportunity for ongoing conversation.
  • Develop a strategic plan regarding who will receive training and how they might disseminate learning objectives to other staff members. Determine whether you will roll out school by school, identify campus leaders, or ask teachers to voluntarily opt in.
  • Determine what improvements you would like to see throughout your district and create an evaluative assessment to document ongoing results.
  • Keep the conversation going. There are several ways to accomplish this:
  • Provide regular check-ins regarding implementation progress in classrooms or across campuses. Make any necessary adjustments to your goals based on results. This is a great opportunity to use Responsive Classroom printables for planning.
  • Lead discussions based on articles or videos. Using the articles and videos available through Responsive Classroom, you can engage in collaborative discussions with peers during professional learning community school meetings and staff meetings.
  • Offer a campus book study. There are many options offered through the Responsive Classroom library. Depending on your goals, you may want to engage staff in a book study of Teaching Self-Discipline, The Power of Our Words, or How to Bullyproof Your Classroom.