Five Ways To Improve School Culture

Here is a scary thought: “the United States prison system forecasts its space needs based on current discipline data captured in our schools.” And even scarier is the fact that “this number has nearly doubled since 1974, with a notable escalation in the mid-1990s as zero tolerance policies were put into place.” (7 Mindsets; Teaching Mindsets, Changing Lives)

The indirect consequence of misbehaving students is the influence they have in helping create a negative school culture (broadly defined as “the norms within a school that can be influenced by a school’s teachers and principal” Short & Greer 2002) Education researchers have found that academic performance is closely related to school culture. (Alsbury 2008)

Therefore, how do principals and staff go about reducing behavior issues and yielding achievement gains? Here are five suggestions to help put you on that road:

  • Build strong relationships. Relationships come before everything. Commitment to cultivating and maintaining relationships in individual classrooms and throughout the whole school is imperative to help build a positive environment. Staff-student relationships influence everything. When students feel liked and respected by their teachers, they find more success in school, academically and behaviorally.
  • Change perspectives. Most schools have a building full of great teachers and great students. Often what needs to happen is to examine the great people and instructional practices. Teachers need to believe in the futures and capabilities of their students. To change school culture at a fundamental level, you must change the way its staff thinks.
  • Be consistent. Oftentimes, for real change to occur with students, the adults have to change first. Consistent and fair school rules and consequences go a long way toward building trust with students. Inappropriate behavior shouldn’t be laughed off in one classroom and punished in another.
  • Teach problem-solving strategies. Problems are bound to occur. When students have the right tools in their box to deal with these issues, they are much more likely to recognize and resolve them appropriately. Students who have a relationship with those in authority are more likely to have a positive outlook on themselves and their future. The bond of trust and fairness with more of a focus on restorative (making things right) vs. punitive and exclusionary approach creates more desire in students to work through problems.
  • Praising students. Kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care. Many of our students, especially those who struggle academically and/or behaviorally, 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 they know when it is genuine praise, so be specific. Instead of saying “Good job!” say “Thanks for showing respect to our visitor”, e.g. Remember to say whatever helps to reinforce the particular behavior you are addressing.

It is absolutely essential that educators in this current era take a serious look at their own school culture and determine whether it is toxic or positive and what changes they may need to make. The future of so many is at stake.


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