Build a Classroom Where Caring Is Common

By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.
Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

Build a Classroom Where Caring Is CommonA recent study by the Make Caring Common Project showed that 80 percent of middle and high school students surveyed stated that achievement or happiness was their top priority, while 20 percent said that caring for others was theirs. The same report found that, “youth are 3x more likely to agree with this statement: ‘My parents are prouder if I get good grades than if I’m a caring community member.’”


We also know that bullying and physical or sexual harassment continue to be major issues in schools. The 2016 election, one of the most contentious in modern history, made bullying and harassment something to be watched daily. Our children could not be protected from seeing adults behaving badly in the name of winning. It’s no wonder these behaviors continue to find their ways into our classrooms.

Throughout the last several decades, our society has become increasingly isolating. Due in part to the advances of technology, we are less likely to interact with an array of different people from different backgrounds. Just think about your social media usage—you can “unfriend” someone who doesn’t think like you or possess the same views as you do. Your social media accounts are full of like-minded people. This social distancing is affecting how our students interact and how they perceive their world.

We can make a shift in our students’ lives by infusing an ethics of care into our classrooms and schools. Nel Noddings, an American philosopher, was one of the first to define the theory of the ethics of care. Caring involves taking the needs and concerns of others into account as a basis for practice and character. Noddings believes caring should be a fundamental aspect of teaching, learning, and education.

Here are ten ideas for infusing caring into your classroom:

  1. Teach students to listen to each other. Listening skills help us understand others’ points of view, perspectives, and unique positions. One listening skill we can teach students is to reframe what they hear (“What I hear you saying is . . .”). Clear communication results in greater understanding.
  2. Everyone has a strength, and everyone needs support at some time. Help your students find the ways they learn best. Allow them to share learning strengths and limitations—finding others who can help them, or who they can help, in times of need. The more we learn about one another, the more we come to understand our connectedness.
  3. Set up study buddies or learning partners in the classroom. Pairs or small groups of students meet routinely to check in, seek help, ask questions, or review content. Buddies are responsible for:
    • collecting materials when one partner is absent
    • sharing notes or outlines
    • working together on projects or assignments
    • ensuring partners understand directions
  4. Implement service learning projects to help students understand the needs of others. Food drives, toy drives, and other mass service projects are a great start. Try going beyond these by having students research real problems or needs within their own community. Assist them in finding and implementing solutions that are respectful and uplifting.
  5. Build a classroom community where support and encouragement are the norm. When responding to others, students use supportive comments such as “Great idea” or “Interesting way to approach the solution.” Students also use encouraging language with each other, such as “You’ve got this!” or “Keep working at it, you’ll get it.” All students should feel safe and secure in taking intellectual risks. Additionally, collaborative learning groups help develop a sense of responsibility with and for others and provide opportunities for students to practice encouraging and supportive language. Be sure to give each group member an important role in the success of the outcome.
  6. Classroom norms (not rules) should focus on personal responsibility and the impact each student has on the whole class. Make norms affirmative rather than punitive:
    • Affirmative: A prepared student is a successful scholar!
    • Punitive: No book, no pencil, no learning.
  7. Give all class members a job or responsibility in the classroom. Make the classroom a community learning space where everyone has a purpose. Simple jobs like distributing materials to more difficult jobs like taking attendance or reviewing the prior class session are great ways to get all class members involved.
  8. A class pet or plant can build a sense of responsibility in students. Daily and weekly upkeep becomes the responsibility of each class member. Some students may not have a pet at home—caring for a class pet gives these students the chance to learn how to care for another being.
  9. Infuse caring into the content by highlighting individuals who represent the characteristics of caring: Eleanor Roosevelt, Maya Angelou, Harriet Tubman, Malala Yousafzai, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Hippocrates, to name a few. Choose people from different times, across various disciplines, and from all regions of the world. Also include everyday people, like the school secretary or custodian, as well as parents and grandparents. It’s even a good idea to honor students in the classroom who demonstrate the true characteristics of caring on a daily basis.
  10. As a class, take on a social rights agenda. Ask students to identify a social issue within the school community that they think they can make a positive impact on, such as a campaign to stop cyberbullying. Help students build awareness among their schoolmates, devise plans to make change, and commit to real actions.

When building a classroom where caring is common, the act of reflection is important. Students should routinely reflect on their thoughts, actions, and outcomes. Reflection can be done individually or in a group setting. The main question to ask is, “In what ways have I contributed to the common good?”

Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit Publishing. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.

Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Self-regulation Advancing Differentiation Revised and Updated Edition

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Suggested Resources
Biography Online for researching positive change makers
Utah Education Network: “The Classroom—A Caring Community” for ideas for making your classroom a more caring place
Ethics of Care for “sharing views on good care”

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About Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.

Writes the "Cash in on Learning" post series for Free Spirit Publishing.
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