Building a Positive Classroom Culture [4 Creative Ways]
I think most teachers can agree with me when I say: It’s a super complex process to establish a positive classroom culture. Every year is different. Each group of students has its own chemistry. And as teachers, we work to create a community where all students feel safe, supported and heard, no matter the dynamics in the room.
Community. This is something I feel incredibly strong about. Whether it’s where we live, in our classrooms, or even in our own home, we all have a desire to feel safe and heard. I want to belong to a positive community no matter where I am, and I believe that my students feel the same. One of the biggest compliments I received as a teacher came from the substitute teachers in the building. They would tell me how much they enjoyed being in my classroom because it felt kind, positive, and safe. Consistently.
I do have a confession. I 100% did NOT receive that compliment the majority of my first year of teaching. In fact, I’m pretty sure substitute teachers hid from me. I was young, and to say the group of students in my room was dynamic would be a total understatement. I spent most of that year figuring out how to create a positive classroom culture. The incredibly difficult journey that first year of teaching showed me the stark difference between belonging to a positive versus a negative, or even indifferent, classroom culture.
So what creates a positive classroom culture? I’ve thought about this a lot. There are numerous programs out there to help teachers with this complex journey, and I’ve tried many of them. From CHAMPS to PBIS, and every acronym in between, I truly believe there are four common and simple things you can start in your classroom right away, no matter what program you use. Let’s dive in!
Tip 1: Start the Day Right
Part 1 – Morning Handshake:
This first part of this tip seems simple, but I can assure you, it might be one of the most powerful and transformational things I ever implemented as a teacher. The morning handshake. Each morning, I would greet my students at the door. We would shake hands, look each other in the eyes, and say good morning. That quick moment with each student would help me get a gauge on how each student was feeling that day. The energetic handshake and gleaming smile showed me that a student was feeling up, ready for the day. A weak handshake and hung head showed me that a student was feeling less than ready and might need some extra support or checking in.
On Fridays, we would switch it up a bit with a high-five. Depending on your style as a teacher and age/dynamic of your students, every day might be a high-five Friday. It’s up to you!
The students loved starting the day this way, and I did too. It gave me a chance to individually connect with each student before the craziness of the day started. Even though it was just a brief moment, it was incredibly impactful.
Part 2 – Utilize a Google Form
After the morning handshake, the students would get themselves set for the day, fire up their Chromebooks, and head straight to our Good Morning Google Form. This Form was super simple, with only two questions (it was set to automatically collect email addresses):
- Here’s how I’m feeling today… (1 to 5 scale)
- This is why I feel the way I do today… (short answer)
Even as 5th graders, they would just need a couple of minutes, tops, to fill out this Form. I would keep the connected response Google Sheet open on my computer in the morning. So after the handshake, I could get even more information about how my students were feeling, in literally one glance. Sometimes I’d have students rate their feelings as a 2, but it was because they had to eat oatmeal for breakfast. But other times they rated a 2 because they were having trouble at home. Either way, I was informed so that I could validate my students’ emotional state when they entered my room each day, helping them feel safe and heard.
I understand that this tip is formatted for an elementary or middle school classroom, where we spend a lot of the day together, but these tips require little time and prep. All in all, you could have the handshake and Google Form completed in as little a 3 minutes. And the time spent will help pay for itself as it helps to build a positive classroom culture.
Tip 2: Set High Expectations and Boundaries
Even though they might act like it, students do not want to be in control. I promise. They push the boundaries to feel the boundaries and make sure they are there. Students feel safe when they’re in a room with clear, fair, reachable, yet high expectations. This sounds more complicated than it is. As the teacher, your role is to work with the students to create and communicate what is expected of everyone in the classroom.
At the beginning of the year (or semester), it is SO important to explicitly set the expectations for the classroom. I believe in working with the students. We can beautifully guide students to come up with a fair set of expectations. Together. Because of the collaborative nature of this process, instead of creating rules in my classroom, we created agreements. And because I started my career at an International Baccalaureate (IB) school, they were called Essential Agreements. (Side note, even when I taught at schools that were not IB, this name stuck – I love the collaborative nature to the name).
Creating agreements was a complex process and unique to each class, but it went something like this each time:
- The students would brainstorm what they expected in the classroom, of themselves and each other.
- We would look at the long list of ideas and begin to categorize them, grouping similar expectations together. Our school-wide expectations were to be safe, respectful, responsible, and kind, so we used these as the categories in which we sorted the students’ ideas.
- From this list, we would talk through an average day in our room, making sure we didn’t miss anything.
- No matter the year, no matter the group of students, we found a theme, the golden rule: treat others the way you want to be treated.
- We would then create a class contract that would start with verbiage something like, “We, the students of the 2019-2020 Christie Class, agree that we expect the following from ourselves and others:” The agreements would follow, with the golden rule at the top of the list. At the bottom of the contract, there would be a place for signatures: student, witness, teacher, and parent.
- If possible, we’d print the contracts on golden paper (to represent the golden rule). Each student. Once students collect all of their signatures, this contract would be stapled either into their planners, taped inside their desks, etc. Each year was a little different, but we made sure it was somewhere visible every day.
- I would print out an extra contract and have all of the students sign it. I would hang this contract with the class set of signatures somewhere visible in the room so we could refer to it as needed.
- Here is an example contract to help you get an idea. This was for a 5th-grade classroom, but it could be adapted for any grade – feel free to make a copy!
We rarely printed in the classroom, but this contract was so important and relevant for the entire year, so I found it worth it. It also gave us a chance to talk about what it means to put your signature on something – part of our curriculum later in the year.
It was always amazing to watch my students rise to meet the high expectations we set together…instead of push against boundaries they had no say in creating.
Tip 3: Create a Team Atmosphere
Right from the start, I help my students understand that we are a team. We are in this together. We are together more hours in a day than we are with our families at home (awake). And we have an entire year together. So we should be working and rooting for each other. Even if your time together isn’t so extreme (if you’re a middle or high school teacher), you and your students are still together often, so why not make the most of this time?
Here are a few ways we build this team mentality each year:
- Team name – Whether it was a special name the class came up with (Lightning Lions), or just a fun, consistent way to address the group (Christie Class), I was always sure that there was a quick, familiar way to address my students. It may seem small, but it helped us all feel like a cohesive team, day in and day out.
- Team building activities – We did these a lot at the beginning of the year, but we would also do them as needed throughout the year, whenever I felt like our team morale needed a boost. It was always time well spent. Here are a couple of examples, but this list could go on forever!
- Class puzzle – this was on one of the first days of school. I’d cut up a poster board into puzzle pieces. Each student would color one piece – the only requirement would be that the piece had to be completely covered in color. Once colored, the class would work together to put the puzzle together. Once the puzzle was together, I’d glue it onto another poster board, laminate it, and it’d hang all year, near our agreements contract.
- BreakoutEDU – phenomenal for team building. All year long.
- And the list is endless… (Share your ideas in the comments below!)
- Manners – This may seem small, but it is a HUGE deal to me. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the Midwest, but I whole-heartedly believe everyone should use their manners. A simple “please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me” can go a long way in the classroom. And in life! If we respect each other, we use our manners. Period.
- Class social media account – This may or may not be right for you and your class, but if it is, a class social media account can install an incredible amount of ownership and comradery in your class.
- Compliment each other – Shift the focus away from pointing out what other students do wrong by telling on them, etc., and towards “catching others being kind.” An example: the students could fill out a “Caught Being Kind” slip for a classmate and turn it into a bin. At the end of the week, you would pull a few out and read them as a class.
Just a side note: Of course there are times when students need to talk to the teacher about other students that aren’t following the golden rule. I just liked highlighting positive behavior as well, and as a group.
Tip 4: Be the Gauge in Your Classroom
As the teacher, it’s super important for you to be the gauge of the level of community in your room. If you start to see more low scores on the morning Google Form, less enthusiastic handshakes, more negative, isolating behavior throughout the room, then it’s time to regroup.
Depending on the severity in the slip in positivity, you could do one of the following:
- Class meeting – simply get together and chat it out. What’s going on? How can we improve? Sometimes this is all that’s needed.
- Breathing exercises – depending on the grade level, there are a variety of breathing exercises that might help students calm and come back together as a class.
- Brain Breaks – If your class is too calm, lethargic even, then breathing exercises might put your class to sleep. Instead, you could try a movement break like Go Noodle, yoga, etc. You could even just have everyone get up and move in place for 30 seconds. It’s amazing what a quick set of jumping jacks or running in place can do to get the blood moving again. And there’s no doubt that they’ll giggle with each other as they move – building that morale once again.
- Team building activity – maybe it’s time for something more serious and explicit. Enter another team building activity. There are so many out there, so you just have to find one that’s best for you and your class in that moment. One of my absolute favorites is the solo cup stacking activity. It can be adapted for any age.
At the end of the day, it all boils down to your classroom culture. I would go as far to say that it is the absolute most important thing you can establish in your room. Be consistent. Hold onto those high expectations. Because if your students aren’t feeling comfortable, safe, and heard, then how are they supposed to reach the incredible amount of content in the curriculum that’s thrown at them each day? And why not make your time together as a class enjoyable?
The tips above are designed to work with any “behavior program” you’re currently using. I’d love to know what else you do to create a positive classroom culture in your room. We’d all benefit if you’d share your ideas below! Remember, we’re all in this together – thank you!