Sunday, May 7, 2017

Building Positive School Culture

By Dana Truby

Life is about relationships. Building a positive environment in individual classrooms and throughout your whole school is too. It takes commitment and consistency from the whole team—administrators, teachers and support staff. But you can make it happen, even in the most challenging school environments.

Here are eight guidelines for improving your 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 (Lewis, Schaps & Watson, 1996).  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 first 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.

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.


by Jennifer L.W. Fink


Putting the Pieces Together

A positive school culture requires a positive approach, and Fenger administrators decided to go all in. Spicer’s title was changed from Chief Dean to Culture and Climate Coordinator. “The decision was made to shift my role and move me from working in the very negative world of zero tolerance to building relationships instead,” Spicer says.
But shifting to a new approach can be tough. Sometimes adults simply assume that kids who are behaving disrespectfully or aren’t doing what they’re told are “bad kids.”
“I had to shift my thinking,” Spicer says. “Because that’s how I thought.”
Fenger’s staff learned how to positively interact with students, how to explain their expectations and how to praise them when they were meeting those expectations. Teachers also learned how to correct students when they were not meeting expectations, which ultimately teaches students life skills that will help them, not only in school, but outside of school as well.
Because all Fenger staff members underwent training, consistency skyrocketed. All teachers and administrators had the same expectations, and they all used the same techniques, methods and language to teach and talk to their students. Over time, that consistency decreased the number of behavioral issues.
It’s also changed how students felt about school. Students who have learned new social skills are proud of their achievements. They feel empowered. “When we brought this system in, we had to put into our young people a whole new vocabulary,” Spicer says. “Now there’s power, because they have words for how they feel. They can actually name and claim what’s going on. They can say, ‘I feel this way and this is what I need to help me deal with this situation.’”
Ernest Fruge, Child Search Coordinator at Positive Connections, an academic and mental health treatment center in Calcasiseu Parish, Louisiana, saw similar effects when his center underwent a culture change. “We took a lot of the negative talk out of our school. Kids hear more positive talk,” Fruge says. “That’s what our students need, especially because many of them had been labeled ‘problem children.’”
As students and teachers developed skills—and confidence in their newfound skills —school culture evolved. Classrooms became more peaceful and disciplinary referrals decreased drastically. And students began using their skills in the hallway, on the playground and at home as well.
“We’ve definitely seen our youth take the skills out of the classroom and into the general area,” Spicer says. In fact, at his school in Louisiana, Ernest Fruge has seen kids as young as 5 and 6 use their newfound skills to show empathy and encourage positive behavior.
School culture has changed drastically at Fenger since 2009. “It’s night and day,” Spicer says. “We went from a school of fear to a school of faith in each other and faith in what we believe as educators. We’ve become one of the safest schools in the city of Chicago, and it’s not because we’ve added more police, more cameras or more security officers. It’s because we created structures and processes that help teachers and staff build relationships with these young people. We’ve built a sense of belonging and a sense of family.”

6 Steps to Success

  1. Set clear expectations. Uneven or unclear expectations set the stage for conflict whereas crystal clear expectations remove the potential for conflict because both the desired behavior and the management of unacceptable behavior are clearly understood. Agree on a basic set of behavioral expectations for your entire school, and communicate those expectations to all students and staff.
  2. Teach processes. The Boys Town Education Model includes 182 social skills, each broken down into simple, easy-to-understand steps. Borrow their approach: when you want students to do something, teach them the steps it will take to get there, and repeat that instruction, over and over, until students have internalized the process.
  3. Praise students for good choices. “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!” can confuse kids. Complimenting a specific behavior, on the other hand, reinforces that particular behavior.
  4. Build relationships. “Kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care,” says Ernest Fruge, Child Search Coordinator at Positive Connections, an academic and mental health treatment center in Calcasiseu Parish, Louisiana. “Building relationships with kids is one of the best ways to get them to come to your side.”
  5. Keep things small. “Kids are going to make mistakes. They’re going to say stuff. They’re going to do stuff,” says Robert Spicer, Culture and Climate Coordinator at Christian Fenger High School in Chicago. Avoid escalating small mistakes into big confrontations. Take a few minutes away from the situation, if necessary, so you can respond calmly, instead of in the heat of the moment.
  6. Be patient. It takes time for students (and teachers!) to master new skills. “Think about it in terms of sports,” Green says. “Some people have natural ability. Others learn how to hit the ball, but their form isn’t perfect. You’re not going to get mad at a kid because the first time you pitch to him, he strikes out. You’re going to pitch to him over and over and over again, and work with him on his form.”

We’ve been talking with the experts at Boys Town Training® about how administrators and teachers can transform school culture. One of the key places to begin is with the explicit teaching of social skills to all students. When academic and positive social skills are the norm, students and staff feel safer and happier, office referrals go down, and, best of all, there is more time for teaching and learning.  

Here are eight key social skills that all students need to be successful. Consider working on one or two skills with your class each week. Start by gathering students together and talking about the skill. For example, ask: Why is listening attentively important? What does it look like when a person is listening? How do we know? Work together to list the steps for each skill or behavior on chart paper or a whiteboard.   

Social Skill: How to Listen Attentively

Skill Steps:  
1. Look at the person who is talking and remain quiet.
2. Wait until the person is finished talking before you speak.
3. Show that you heard the speaker by nodding your head, and using positive phrases, such as “Okay” or “That’s interesting.”
Classroom Activity:  Invite students to tell each other jokes to practice active listening. Gather joke books from your school library or send students online to Aha Jokes to find their favorite funnies to share with their friends. Have students work in small groups taking turns in the roles of speaker and active listeners. Older students can practice sharing opinions on class reading or plans for college or career.

Social Skill: How to Greet Others
Skill Steps:
1. Look at the person.
2. Use a pleasant voice.
3. Say, “Hi” or “Hello.”
Classroom Activity:  Challenge your students to come up with 25 or more possible greetings they can use with each other, with you or with a classroom guest. Include greetings in different languages. Each morning, go around the room and have each student offer a greeting to the class.

Social Skill: Following Instructions
Skill Steps:
1. Look at the person.
2. Say okay.
3. Do what you’ve been asked to do right away
4. Check back in with the person.
Classroom Activity:  Play classroom games that help students to increase their ability to follow instructions with traditional games like Simon Says and Red Light, Green Light. Or challenge your students to a scavenger hunt around the classroom or school.  Explain that theirs is no way to succeed without following directions precisely. As with all the skills, have your students go through the steps every time you issue a request until they become second nature.

Social Skill:  Asking for Help
Skill Steps:
1. Look at the person.
2. Ask the person if he or she has time to help you.
3. Clearly explain the kind of help you need.
4. Thank the person for helping.
Classroom Activity: Asking for help can be difficult for many students and even adults. In a class meeting, have student practice this skill by taking a fun and playful approach. On separate notecards, write down situations in which a person is asking for help, e.g., “a man asking a stranger for help moving a piano,” “a teacher asking a colleague for help grading a huge pile of papers,”  “an astronaut asking for help getting out of his suit.”  Invite pairs of students to pick a notecard to act out the scene including all the steps!

Social Skill: How to Get the Teacher’s Attention
Skill Steps:
1. Look at the teacher.
2. Raise your hand and stay calm.
3. Wait until the teacher says your name or nods at you.
4. Ask your question.
Classroom Activity:  Start by asking your students: “What is the WRONG way to get your teacher’s attention?” Encourage them to demonstrate all the wrong ways—waving their hands in the air wildly, jumping up and down, calling out, etc. They will enjoy this! Then, have volunteers model the correct way to get your attention.

Social Skill:  How to Disagree Appropriately
Skill Steps:  
1. Look at the person.
2. Use a pleasant voice.
3. Say, “I understand how you feel.”
4. Tell why you feel differently.
5. Give a reason.
6. Listen to the other person
Classroom Activity: Disagreeing without arguing is a skill that many adults as well as kids and teens find difficult. Like all social skills, it takes resources and practice. That’s why going over the steps of each skill is so important. Give students the chance to practice debating and disagreeing when the stakes are low. For example, write a controversial statement on the board such as, “Rum raisin is the very best flavor of ice cream,” or “Rap is not music,” and invite your students to disagree politely!

Social Skill:  How to Make an Apology
Skill Steps:  
1. Look at the person.
2. Use your best serious, sincere voice.
3. Begin with “I’m sorry for…”, or “I want to apologize for…”
4. Do your best not to make excuses.
5. Explain how you plan to do better in the future.
6. Say, “Thanks for listening.”
Classroom Activity:  Let’s face it: apologizing is hard, but it does get easier with practice. Consider tying your discussion of apologies to a book you are reading as a class. From David Shannon’s picture book No, David! to Louise Fitzhugh’s classic Harriet the Spy, many stories lend themselves to discussions of social skills, mistakes, and apologies.

 Social Skill:  How to Accept “No” for an Answer
Skill Steps:
1. Look at the person.
2. Say okay.
3. Stay calm.
4. If you disagree, return to the subject later in a respectful manner.
Classroom Activity: Accepting “no” can be difficult when we feel strongly about a situation. This is a skill that needs to be modeled repeatedly as its draws on other important skills. In order to accept “no” gracefully, a child needs to be able to respect authority, see another’s point of view, and have self control. Write 5-6 situations on notecards and give them to groups of students.  Examples: The class wants to ask the teacher to hold class outside.  Asking your parents if you can watch an R rated movie.  Challenge students to model how they will ask, and how they will handle the answer.  Talk about how they could return to the subject with a respectful argument at another time.