Top of mind for most educators as they head into the new school year is, “What do my students need to re-engage in their learning?”
While there are many priorities to address, one of the first should be creating an inclusive and positive school culture — a space where staff, students, and families feel connected, supported, and involved in ensuring every student’s learning needs are met. Where teachers have enough time to plan their lessons, where educators have access to opportunities for collaboration and mentoring, and where students feel welcome and engaged in their learning.
School culture can sometimes be an afterthought, but it is actually an integral piece of a successful school or program — especially as educators work to re-engage students after a difficult year caused by the pandemic. It takes inspired, engaged teachers and staff to ensure students thrive. It takes a safe and supportive environment to nurture student growth. And it takes strong social-emotional skills for students to be positive and active participants in their learning.
Learn more about the benefits of a positive school culture and get practical tips for building morale, inclusivity, strong relationships, and a sense of safety and support within your building.
Benefits of Building a Positive School Culture
An inclusive and supportive school culture has many benefits and can support many areas you are likely prioritizing this school year. Developing a positive school culture can:
- Decrease chronic absenteeism. Research shows that schools have lower absentee rates when students feel their school culture is caring and supportive of them.
- Improve educational equity. A quality social and emotional learning (SEL) program — that includes quality professional development, coordination with Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), and equitable SEL assessments — can promote equity so all students are treated fairly and receive the resources they need to achieve.
- Reduce bullying. Studies show anti-bullying campaigns are most effective when they include school-wide training and awareness, classroom instruction and activities, and intervention.
- Increase academic performance: Many studies have found evidence that quality SEL programming promotes higher test scores and GPAs; increased graduation rates; meaningful connections between educators and peers; positive social behavior; and improved attitudes toward self, school, and others.
Build a Positive School Culture With SEL
Here are a few ways to keep students connected and learning in a safe, caring, and inclusive environment.
What School Leadership Can Do:
It is important to keep a close reading on the culture of your school. How are educators, parents, and students dealing with extra pressures caused by the pandemic, returning to in-person learning, etc.?
Here are some ways to support each group:
- Teachers and staff: Provide quality professional development that helps your staff build critical social-emotional skills. Support new teachers by pairing them with a veteran mentor teacher. Set up dedicated and regular times to ask for feedback, address concerns, and problem-solve challenges.
- Parents and families: Host in-person or virtual parent nights to help families continue to feel connected to the school. Conduct regular surveys to check in on how they are doing and ask for their feedback on areas that could use improvement.
- Students: Take time to address students’ social-emotional needs. School-wide activities may include whole-school assemblies where you address a particular social-emotional skill and give out personal achievement awards. Additionally, a school-wide competition can build morale and keep students connected. Contests can be anything from writing and sharing a poem to a community service project.
After you get a sense of your school culture, show staff, parents, and students you care about them by taking action to address and resolve concerns. Continue regular communication to keep connected with staff, families, and students and build school-wide morale.
What Teachers Can Do:
One of the best ways to keep students engaged and learning is to show them that you care. Empathize with students and consider all they have had to deal with because of the pandemic and in their normal lives. Some students might be experiencing financial hardship or increased domestic abuse, and students who were vulnerable or at-risk prior to COVID-19 are probably even more so now.
Here are some additional ways to promote a positive school culture:
- Prioritize building relationships with students. Strong teacher-student relationships matter now, more than ever. Some ways to build strong relationships include hosting regular morning meetings, making a point to get to know students, and providing opportunities for them to share their experiences, ask questions, or address a personal problem.
- Assess students regularly. Conduct a baseline SEL assessment to get an idea of students’ needs. You can use class data to determine one or two social-emotional skills you should prioritize. Individual student data can be used to tailor instruction and interventions. Throughout the year, conduct regular progress monitoring and quick checks for content comprehension. Be sure to use a quality SEL assessment, like the DESSA suite of assessments from Aperture Education.
- Encourage innovation in the classroom. For example, consider game-based learning, incorporate multimedia, and utilize assignments that promote student creativity. The Aperture Student Portal combines social and emotional self-assessment and gamified challenges and goal-setting for high school students.
- Incorporate Student Voice and Choice. Giving students voice and choice in their learning helps students feel valued and improves the school climate and culture. It also increases student engagement, empowers students to take control of their learning, and promotes positive outcomes. Learn more about student voice and choice and get four tips on how you can incorporate it in students’ learning.
Teachers play an important role in building a positive school culture by being a rock of support, a source of much-needed routine, and advocates for students’ needs.
By working together, we will get through the challenges this school year. Developing a positive school culture will make things easier. It will not only boost morale for students and staff, but also increase connectedness within the school, increase engagement, and improve academic performance.
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