Improving School Climate

Because of modern advances in brain imaging technology, over 90% of what we know about the human brain today was discovered in just the past 20 years [1].

Perhaps the discovery of greatest import, though, is the plastic nature of the brain – its ability to grow, develop, and change throughout our lives.  At no point is this ability greater than between the ages of 10 and 16.

The implications of this are extraordinary.  Prior to this discovery, it was believed that the brain was fixed and fully developed by age 12 [2].

We now understand that it’s our power as educators and parents to instill critical thought processes that beget success and happiness. This is especially true during these formative years when our kids are being exposed to life’s realities and forming their core being.

As my team and I have developed our social emotional learning solutions for schools, we’ve run into plenty of skepticism and resistance. Many people believe it’s simply not possible to transform a student’s character within a school environment.

Our research has proven that it’s not only possible, but a highly effective way to create a shift in young people’s thinking on a large scale.  It’s also one of our best means of addressing many of the significant social and emotional issues that permeate our society today.

While it’s true that good parenting has the greatest impact, our recent efforts show a tremendous ability to teach key attributes like Resilience, Grit and Optimism in academic settings as well.

In a recent Time Magazine article, 213 schools who have implemented SEL programs discuss the resulting improvements they’ve seen in students’ emotional skills, pro-social behaviors, relationships with others and attitudes about school.

Change the ways young people think about themselves, their environment and the future, and you’ll change the actions they take and the decisions they make starting today.

There is a rapidly expanding selection of social and emotional learning tools focused on this type of education.  More and more schools around the country are finding time to introduce mindset education to students.  The objective of these programs is to help students engage with concepts like personal growth, empathy, risk taking, accountability and gratitude.  Teachers are able to create open dialogues where students can share with and support one another.

Many schools and classrooms aren’t conducive to open dialogues in their current forms.  Disruptive and disengaged students can make collaborative sessions difficult, even impossible.  Intimidation, cyber-bullying and fear of peer reactions all create obstacles as well.

Transform the climate of your school to foster an environment where all students feel safe and have the chance to thrive. It’s a challenge that many educators around the country are tackling head on.

In our work, we’ve been fortunate to collaborate with some of the best educational leaders in the country.  Not only are these schools positioning students for greater success, they’re giving educators back the true gold of teaching:  the ability to build meaningful relationships with students and regularly impact their lives in a positive way.

Best Practices for Impacting School Climate:

Incorporating Common Values and a Common Language

The vast majority of teachers around the country deliver wonderful messages in their classrooms.  They discuss the need for their students to believe in themselves, be accountable, tap into their strengths and passions, and be kind in order to positively impact others.

We all know the importance of consistency and repetition, and no place is it more important than in the classrooms and hallways of our schools.

Great schools establish and integrate core values by creating a common language that all teachers and students utilize.  Building the character and values at the heart of success depends on maintaining clarity and consistency.

Incorporate Social Emotional Tools into Staff Meetings and Development

Just as students build barriers and walls around them, so do teachers.  There is nothing more powerful than a cathartic session where teachers openly share struggles, successes and failures – not just from their classrooms, but also from throughout their lives.

As Brené Brown says, “It is when we are vulnerable that we are most beautiful.”  Getting teachers to open up, share and support one another brings out the best parts of them, and instantly removes many of the impediments to a unified sense of community.

Whenever we ask teachers why they got into teaching, they invariably respond that it was their belief in or passion for helping young people.  With the incredible administrative burden placed on teachers today, it’s easy for them to lose sight of this purpose.

Create a close knit community of teachers to bring everyone back to this common goal.  Find 15 minutes in each of your staff meetings to encourage learning about each other.

Implementing Restorative vs. Punitive Discipline

I recently read a Washington Post article about one school principal’s experience with disciplining a student and the challenges of managing discipline issues.

What struck me were her comments about the responsibility of educators to not give up on any child, and to not take the easy path of suspension or expulsion.  Every child that’s allowed to go down that path is at severe risk of becoming part of the “school-to-prison-pipeline.”

The best schools we work with are very resistant to ever putting a child into this process.  Sure, it’s sometimes necessary, but it must be seen as the last resort rather than the go-to method of handling disruptive students.

“Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  Hanging in there with them and fighting the good fight to work through their issues rather than simply punishing may make all the difference in their lives.

Rather than direct punishment, a restorative process would involve asking students to reflect on what they did, determine what they would change, and then take action if possible to right the wrong.  Taking this approach goes infinitely further in fostering growth and accountability.

Giving Teachers Expanded Creative Expression

Many years ago, I read John Maxwell’s 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership.  One of the key principles was that great leaders tend to develop great leaders.  The best schools are those in which principals promote and reward teachers for taking leadership roles and infusing their own creative expression in their classrooms.

Sometimes, far too many processes and guidelines are put into place, which can stifle creativity in the classroom.  When a teacher is heavily involved in defining something, it creates one of the most powerful forces in the world:  a sense of ownership.  When an individual feels ownership, they are more motivated, more engaged, and much more invested in the success of what they’re trying to do.

Creativity is a fundamental human need.  Lack of creativity results in frustration and disengagement from life.

Give your staff the ability to be great.

The best leaders empower and allow those they’re leading to make mistakes. The best leaders learn from those mistakes and find the benefits of individuality. Make teachers the integral part of changing the school climate, by helping them become the best leaders.

If we are going to build character in our students and keep our best teachers doing what they do so well, we have to think about transforming school climate as a whole.  Think about how you can implement the ideas above to help improve your school’s environment from the ground up.

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