We want children to thrive when they go to school. We want safe schools, places where students have a high sense of belonging, and a community that values its members. To me a positive school climate looks like peaceful hallways, engaging classroom learning, and robust spirit. Joy is at the heart of a great school. Community can be assessed by the smiles and laughter heard by students, parents, and staff. I try to find a moment of joy at least once a day.
On our first day of school I heard a number of students exclaim in the halls as they transitioned, “I love learning!”
On the second day, a student said, “I love grade one!” as he leaped in the air and clasped his hands.
On the third day, a grade two student stopped by my office and asked if he could have a sticker.
“What did you do to earn a sticker?” I asked. I keep some in my drawer and he remembered from last year.
“Well…I listened to my teacher. I was nice to my friend. I was good. It was a good day.”
“And what did you learn today?”
“To be a good friend.” Then he smiled proudly, beaming from ear to ear.
I nodded. “You did have a good day!” And I allowed him to choose a sticker from the drawer.
Trust the Research
To have a positive school climate we need to have high levels of structure and high levels of support. Our schools need rules and expectations to maximize learning, but they all need high levels of support to get there.
We are a restorative school. Our staff have been trained in restorative justice, a practice that involves students in resolving their own conflicts. This is a well-researched method for supporting a positive school climate. For restorative justice to be most effective, all staff need training and ongoing support.
My role as a principal is not just to respond to incidents, but to look at them as learning moments. What can we learn from this? The learning extends beyond what the students can learn. What can I learn from this as a principal? What can my staff learn from this? A student learning need can often highlight an adult learning need.
For example, if we take a classic situation of a school yard fight. We go through the steps of responding to the incident with the students. What happened? What were you thinking about at the time? What do you need to do to make things right? We help the students take ownership and to be part of the plan for restoring balance to the school.
Then: What piece do we own as adults? What role do we need to play in restoring balance? So, I can also reflect on the conditions in the yard at the time. Do our students have the capacity to play independently? How effective was the supervision? Is this an isolated incident or has the student had conflict with many peers? It’s my responsibility to investigate all the other stuff surrounding the incident. My response always includes a combination of pressure and support, looking at both us and them.
Now our school yard offers structured programming at recess. Students can choose to play a sport or game that is well supervised by a staff member. The staff member supports the students in learning the sport and in building their resiliency for when conflict may arise in the game. We learned that some students even struggled with losing, bursting into tears if one team was winning. Over time, the students learned how to cope better with naturally occurring conflict.
When we had some primary students struggling on the yard last year, we introduced them to Kelso’s Choices, a conflict management program for kids. A Child and Youth Worker met with the students a couple times a week to go through the process of dealing with big and small problems, role playing possible options. Teachers on yard duty were given key chains with the choice cards on them to use with students as they saw moments present themselves. We are blessed that our whole staff values a restorative approach and actively participates in offering students support when they need it.
The principal who preceded me also felt strongly about research-based methods for supporting school climate so the training and routines were introduced slowly over time. We are a Tribes Learning Community. Most of our teachers (and me!) have received Tribes training and spend time proactively engaged in community building activities. The mural in our hallway, in the centre of our school, is inspired by Tribes.
A number of our staff participate in annual Non-Violent Crisis Intervention (NCVI) training. This program offers a process for identifying and responding to triggers before behaviour escalates to a crisis situation. Last year we asked our support staff to lead our teaching staff through a Safety Plan and the COPING model. After years of using this approach for individual students, we decided to talk through how we could use this approach with all students, recognizing that many students have triggers in Phase 1: Anxiety. Throughout the morning we came up with some great strategies for identifying triggers in all students so we could intervene before things escalated. It was a powerful exercise.
Later in the year, our support staff (Educational Assistants and Child and Youth Workers) worked together on a PA Day to rewrite our School Code of Conduct into student friendly language. They decided to use a poem.
A positive school climate is nurtured through collaboration, reflection, and responsive restorative action. It honours the voices of all stakeholders. Conflict is natural and a part of life. It is something we will all continue to learn about. The Chinese characters that make up the word conflict mean danger and opportunity. So often we think about conflict as the danger. It’s our job as leaders to look at the opportunity in conflict.
Early in my career I was lucky to work with an experienced teacher who told me “you can either be part of the problem or part of the solution.” He was shutting down the negative chatter that can happen when schools are out of balance. He said: “If you complain and do nothing, you are part of the problem.”
This summer I read Chris Hadfield’s book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. He recommended three steps to follow when in crisis that I think work well for us in schools too.
1) WARN. Tell students and staff: “There is an increase of aggression on the school yard. We want to see more examples of kindness on our yard.”
2) GATHER. Put together a group of stakeholders (teachers, students, parents) who can bring insight or expertise to the issue.
3) WORK. Work the problem. As a team look for solutions for decreasing aggression on the yard.
Reflect What You Want to See
A popular behaviour management strategy is to “catch them being good.” One strategy I used last year was to take pictures using my iPhone as I was out and about the school of things that showed our students and staff at their best. Then I printed off the pictures and put them up on a bulletin board collage, collecting our learning and laughter from the whole year.
A few times a year at assemblies, we put together photo slideshows, reflecting back to the students what we want to see. Something as simple as photographs can build school spirit and reinforce the message of what type of school we want: a school with engaging learning happening every day and moments of joy.