Relationships come before everything. Building a positive environment in individual classrooms and throughout your whole school is a matter of cultivating and maintaining relationships. It takes commitment and consistency from the whole team—administrators, teachers and support staff. You can make it happen, though, even in the most challenging school environments.
Here are eight ways for improving school culture based on the Boys Town Education Model, which has helped hundreds of troubled schools turn their school culture around.
1. Build strong relationships
Your success at creating a well-managed school depends more than anything else on the quality of the relationships that teachers forge with students. Staff-student relationships influence everything—from the social climate to the individual performances of your students. The research on this is clear. When students feel liked and respected by their teachers, they find more success in school, academically and behaviorally. Conversely, when interpersonal relationships are weak and trust is lacking, fear and failure will likely start to define school culture.
Building strong relationships needs to be a whole school priority. How do you do it? Teachers need to have time to talk to their students in and out of the classroom. The goal should be for every adult in the building to maintain a high rate of positive interactions with students and to show genuine interest in their lives, their activities, their goals and their struggles.
2. Teach essential social skills
How to share, how to listen to others, how to disagree respectfully—these are the kind of essential social skills we expect our students to have. But the truth is they may not have learned them. Whether it’s 1st grade or 11th grade, we need to be prepared to teach appropriate social and emotional behaviors.
“You can’t hold kids accountable for something you’ve never told them,” says Erin Green, Director of National Services Operations at Boys Town. “Behavior should be treated like academics, and students should be taught the skills they need to execute desired behaviors.” These behaviors and values include honesty, sensitivity, concern and respect for others, a sense of humor, reliability, and so on. Together as a staff, you should identify the social skills you want your students to have and the step-by-step routines to teach them.
3. Get on the same page
Every classroom environment contributes to your school culture. Sometimes, for real change to occur with students, it’s the adults who have to change first. Together as a staff, you need to create a shared vision of your school. That means developing consistent school rules and ways of defining and meeting student behavior. When students believe that the rules are fair and consistently enforced, it goes a long way toward building trust. Inappropriate behavior shouldn’t be laughed off in one classroom and punished in another.
4. Be role models
At school, students learn by watching just as they learn by doing. Observing the actions of others influences how they respond to their environment and cope with unfamiliar situations. Think about what messages your staff’s behavior communicates. For example, research has shown that when a student is rejected by peers, the rejection is more likely to stop if the teacher models warm and friendly behavior to the isolated student. The opposite is also true. As educators, you set the tone.
5. Clarify classroom and school rules
Classroom rules communicate your expectations to your students. They tell students “this is the positive environment you deserve. This is the standard of behavior we know you can achieve.”
Positive rules help create a predictable, stable environment that is more conducive to healthy interactions. Ideally, classroom rules are simple and declarative (e.g., “Be respectful and kind”). And they don’t need to address every possible problem. You don’t need a rule about gum chewing or water bottle use, for instance—your policies on these issues should be clear from your overarching expectations for good behavior. Most important, rules need to be consistent across the building. The same expectations need to apply in the classroom, the gym and the cafeteria.
6. Teach all students problem solving
Problems will always come up inside and outside of school. Students are much more likely to recognize and resolve them appropriately when we teach them how to do so. Problem solving can also be used retrospectively (with the luxury of hindsight) to help students make better decisions in the future. The Boys Town Education Model uses the SODAS method to teach students the general skill of problem solving.
SODAS is an acronym for the following steps:
S – Define the SITUATION.
O – Examine OPTIONS available to deal with the problem.
D – Determine the DISADVANTAGES of each option.
A – Determine the ADVANTAGES of each option.
S – Decide on a SOLUTION and practice.
7. Set appropriate consequences
Establishing classroom and school-wide rules and procedures is an important step in any effort to bring more structure to your school. But of course, students will push the limits and you’ll still need consequences. Effective consequences show young people the connection between what they do and what happens as a result of their choices or actions. Consequences need to be appropriate, immediate and consistent. Equally important, they need to be delivered with empathy, not in anger.
You might think about the current consequences for inappropriate behaviors and how their connections to the offenses can be strengthened where necessary. For example, having a student serve detention for misbehaving on the bus isn’t necessarily the best consequence. Instead, the student might write a letter of apology to the bus driver and serve as “bus monitor” for one week. You might even consider Restorative Discipline as a school-wide program.
8. Praise students for good choices
Kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care. Many of our students, especially those who struggle, don’t receive nearly enough positive feedback in the classroom or in their personal lives.
“When kids are taught with a proactive, praise-heavy approach, they tend to do better,” says Erin Green of Boys Town. But be specific. Generic, overly generalized comments such as “Good job!” don’t really help. Complimenting a specific behavior (“Thanks for showing respect to our visiting guest”), on the other hand, reinforces that particular behavior. Challenge your whole team to give 15 compliments a day, or 25 or even 40. You might just be amazed at the difference it makes.