Responsive Classroom After School: Principles and Practices Reconsidered

This is the first post in a series on using the Responsive Classroom Approach after school. It’s my hope that it will be useful both to teachers who wish to extend their use of RC after the school day, as well as to teaching artists and community educators who may find RC to be as transformational for them as it has been for me. Please note, while I use RC, I am not formally connected to the organization.

Last year, when I was still working at Southwest Key, I discovered the Responsive Classroom Approach. Slowly but surely, Responsive Classroom (RC) has transformed my teaching. I’ve only run into one dilemma. RC was designed for use in the classroom, while most of my work is after school. So I began experimenting with adapting RC approaches to after-school settings, with good results. Now that I have my own classroom at the Boys and Girls Club, I’m dedicated to making my space one that reflects the approach.

For starters, I would like to revisit the Principles and Practices of Responsive Classroom, in light of using their work after-school. This will show, I believe, not only how using RC after school is possible, but also the unique advantages and challenges when using the RC approach this way. In each post in the series this week and next, I’ll go more into details on specific aspects.

Guiding Principles:

1. The social curriculum is as important as the academic curriculum.

This may actually hold more true for after-school settings. Without the same constraints on meeting academic standards, after-school programs are at liberty to focus on the social/emotional aspect of learning. This becomes more clear when used alongside other dimensions of RC. This also means that instead of “free time,” after-school hours can still involve learning.

2. How children learn is as important as what they learn: Process and content go hand in hand.

Speaking specifically to my work with theatre, taking a Responsive Classroom approach to these sorts of programs means that the emphasis on the learning process feels natural, and not simply a means to an end (like making a performance or passing a test). By closely connecting process and content, too, this allows for other benefits of after-school programs — like developing young people’s social skills — to become something intentional.

3. The greatest cognitive growth occurs through social interaction.

Simply put, after-school time for many young people is social time. If they are staying after school, or going to a program like the Boys and Girls Club, they go there at least partly to be with friends. Therefore, when learning can accept and even emphasize social interaction, then the learning process becomes something natural to what the young person is doing, and not something “forced” by a school.

4. To be successful academically and socially, children need a set of social skills: cooperation, assertion, responsibility, empathy, and self-control.

Again speaking specifically to creating an after-school theatre program, these skills are essential to working in an ensemble. In my experience, this also means that I can take the time to model and emphasize these skills because I’m not as worried about academic content. As I see it, where school are focused primarily on academics, after-school programs are free to focus on developing young people.

5. Knowing the children we teach—individually, culturally, and developmentally—is as important as knowing the content we teach.

This holds true for both in school and after school. I’m a big fan of the Boys and Girls Clubs’ emphasis on positive youth development, so I find that attentiveness to my students and their needs can naturally take precedence over whatever I have planned for that day.

6. Knowing the families of the children we teach and working with them as partners is essential to children’s education.

In after-school work, you may discover that a student has a talent no one has ever seen before. When this happens, make sure parents know, and work with them to nurture it. This is especially true for arts programs, since many schools are cutting budgets for those programs during the school day. Working with parents more generally may be a challenge, because they may not be around as much during after-school hours. Around the time that my students are leaving, I try to be closer to the front desk so I can talk to parents.

7. How the adults at school work together is as important as their individual competence: Lasting change begins with the adult community.

While not everyone I work with after school is aware of RC, there is the strong belief that we are role models for our young people, and should be proactive in their development. Because after-school has that focus, creating an adult community emphasizing the social learning is achievable. After-school programs are sometimes community-based, too, meaning that responsibility for the social learning of our young people returns to the larger community.

Classroom Practices

Now let’s turn to specific practices, and how they can be adapted for after school. Some of these topics I’ll cover more in depth over the course of the series.

  • Morning Meeting— it’s no longer a morning meeting when after school, but an opening circle (reminiscent of closing circles used in RC) is still a good idea. This especially holds true if you are a teaching artist who doesn’t see your students during the school day. (See my post here).
  • Rule Creation— RC emphasizes having students join in the rule creation process. I think this still holds true after school, especially given that after school is usually more social and less academic. Some ground rules still should be set by the teacher, I find, but as time goes on more responsibility can be passed to students. In other words, there are different challenges here, but it is still possible. (see my post here).
  • Interactive Modeling— modeling behaviors is just as important after school as it is during the school day. Because of the freedom to emphasize social skills and processes even more, interactive modeling is incredibly accessible after school. For arts programs, this is also useful in helping students learn the processes and procedures of an art form. (See my post here).
  • Positive Teacher Language— adults’ words have a profound impact on the lives of children, in school or after. After school, there is the additional pressure that students are there by choice, and that you may be the only caring adult a student interacts with that day. Students also may not see you as a “teacher,” if you are working in an after-school program. Positive teacher language goes a long way in gaining and showing respect. (see my post here.)
  • Logical Consequences— this practice is most clear for me through theatre games. If a student is not following rules, then they aren’t allowed to participate for a short time. Because theatre is a social craft, temporarily not being in the community is usually consequence enough. I find that logical consequences are harder to enforce after school. Because there is less structure, things can escalate quickly. I also find that after-school programs like to reward with candy or prizes, which is something I disagree with. Logical consequences teach that the learning or creativity involved is it’s own reward. (See my post here).
  • Guided Discovery— Responsive classroom says it best:introducing classroom materials using a format that encourages independence, creativity, and responsibility.” While after-school may not emphasize academic knowledge, that time is still useful for teaching skills for good learners, including guided discovery. However, getting students motivated with this process outside the school day is a unique challenge (see my post here).
  • Academic Choice— I find this to be incredibly important after school. Because students choose to be there, students should be able to at least guide the choices for what is done that day. I always have multiple options prepared as a result. This isn’t “anything goes,” but it does give students a sense of responsibility and empowerment. It also gives me opportunities to observe and learn  about my students (see my post here).
  • Classroom Organization— even though after school has less structure, having an open and organized classroom helps with success. Like in the classroom, I also use cleanup time in conjunction with some sort of closing circle (see my post here).
  • Working with Families— in my experience at the Boys and Girls Club, parents are involved in some capacity, and speak to the staff daily about their children when they pick them up, but are not around until students are leaving. Even so, this time is crucial for gaining insights into students’ lives. Some after-school facilities have their own protocol for reporting behavior to parents as well, so this is a good way to share with parents the rules and consequences in place in your classroom, as well as strengths you have noticed in their children. (See my posts here and here.)
  • Collaborative Problem Solving— This is another practice very compatible with theatre programs. Like in the classroom, students are encouraged to solve problems on their own using role play and conferencing. In my practice using RC after school, this goes hand-in-hand with both guided discovery and rule creation (see my posts here and here.)

In short,  the Responsive Classroom Approach is totally compatible with after-school settings. In my experience, having more freedom in after-school activities makes the environment even more conducive to RC techniques. There are unique challenges, but the more practice you and your students have with RC, the more manageable these are. Some principles and practices have to be adapted, but none are fundamentally changed or omitted.

Over the next two weeks I will be posting on:



  1. […] set a tone of respect, care, and openness, and you’ll reap the benefits tenfold. As I said in my last post, after-school time is still crucial for social and emotional learning. Opening Circles are a […]

  2. […] I said in my first post in this series, modeling behaviors is just as important after school as it is during the school day. While […]

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