Fostering a Positive School Culture - 8 Best Practices

May, 2014


There is no reason why schools cannot compete with Disneyland for the title “Happiest Place on Earth.”  Educators play a vital role in developing an environment that is conducive to learning, resulting in students who are competent, confident and compassionate.

In working with many schools, I have noticed several commonalities in those sites that have exceptionally positive and healthy school cultures that foster a love of learning and high levels of student achievement:

1. Caring and friendly staff, united by a common goal...developing relationships.

The most important component of a healthy learning environment is the attitude of the staff and their focus on developing positive relationships with students.  Dr. Rita Pierson shared in her TED Talk, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like, and research supports that sentiment.  From the school secretary, to the custodians, counselors, teachers and the administrative team, the attitude of the WHOLE staff will make or break a school.

Smiling, sharing, teaching, mentoring and patiently coaching students, makes a collection of buildings full of books and desks, a productive and enjoyable setting for learning. In addition, a shared goal of doing what is best for students, focuses the staff on what the real purpose of the organization is…a system designed to meet students’ social, emotional, and academic needs.

2. Teachers study and collaboratively use research-based critical thinking and comprehension strategies and model a continual love of learning.

Schools that have implemented best instructional practices such as essential questions, project-based learning, note-taking, pre/during/post lesson plan design and writing strategies, etc., develop a common vernacular for instruction, resulting in a a collaborative and productive instructional setting.

Best instructional practices also emphasize that teaching information is not the goal, but teaching students how to be independent critical thinkers, is.  Students appreciate the consistency in using common strategies across the content areas and they develop competence and confidence in consistently using the integrated methods.

3. Encourage a "Growth" Mindset Instead of a "Fixed" Mindset

Dr. Carol Dweck wrote the book Mindset; it has become a widely read non-fiction text in middle and high school English classes and for good reason.  She explains how students often develop a “fixed” or “growth” mindset during childhood; one is detrimental to learning and one is necessary.

A “fixed” mindset believes one is only as good as what he is born with~~if a child inherited math skills then he should be a naturally skilled math student.  But what if mathematical, musical, or athletic talents are not in the genes?  Should a person just not pursue excellence in those areas?  Of course not, but the “fixed” mindset believes that idea to be true.

We have all heard our students lament, “I’m just not good at math.” Or, “I’m not a good reader.”  Those are myths that must be debunked.  A “fixed” mindset believes there is no use in working hard to develop what is not inherent and that "fixed" idea shuts down learning.

A “growth” mindset is extremely beneficial to student achievement and it can be developed by modeling and practicing perseverance and hard work and praising effort and actions, not natural talent. When a student states, “I’m just no good at _______,” Dr. Dweck recommends we tell them to add “yet” to that sentence and then we explicitly teach the child the skills he needs to be successful.

This type of thinking focuses on improving our natural skills through grit and practice and it gives the student hope that if he does not first succeed, try, try, again. This "growth" mentality provides a sense of ownership in the learning process as well as hope in the fact that through practice and perseverance, we can increase our success in all areas.

4. Explicitly Teach Neuroscience & Model Healthy Habits

Many children think their environment is out of their control; it sometimes is as many don't have the freedom to make their own choices.  This feeling of helplessness can increase stress and emotional instability.  By teaching students how their brains work and what sleep, nutrition, exercise and stress management needs they have, they can make healthier decisions that will lead to increased success. They will also develop a sense of confidence as they understand they do have control over many aspects of their lives.  As the old adage goes…when we know better, we do better.

5. Implement Positive Behavioral Supports

When students are isolated or suspended, learning stops.  Consistent and appropriate school expectations are vital, and explicitly teaching appropriate behavior and self-regulation, greatly impacts student success.

In addition, frequently providing positive reinforcement, choices and personal connection, reduces discipline issues and recovers instructional time faster than a punitive system. (Sugai)

6. Encourage and Develop Leadership Skills in Teachers and Students

Strong leadership characteristics include: optimism, integrity, perseverance, critical thinking and collaborative problem solving and communication skills; studies show that these traits can be explicitly taught.

Leadership roles for teachers and students can take a variety of forms. For teachers, serving as a resource provider, instructional or curriculum expert, mentor, department chair, staff book club organizer, PD coordinator, tech support, committee member, coach, club coordinator and overall learning facilitator, are excellent ways for educators to flex their leadership skills and share and learn with others.

Student leadership may be fostered by providing leadership opportunities, communication and debate classes, LINK crews, peer mediation training, ambassador programs, campus and community projects and mock trials.

When the administrators are the only “leaders” on campus, a great opportunity is missed to share and expand the wisdom and resources that teachers and students have.

7. Implement the 4 Conditions for Learning

Studies have shown that there are four basic tenets identified in safe and productive learning environments:

1.    Students feel safe, both physically and emotionally.

2.    Students are supported through meaningful connections with adult caregivers on campus, anti-bullying campaigns, conflict management, counseling services and academic support.

3.    Students are challenged and engaged via project-based learning, meaningful assignments with real-world connections, and even opportunities that allow for late assignments and retakes so students can show improvement.  The goal is for student work to be excellent in quality, even if it takes a few times to get it right.

4.    Students are taught to be socially capable by learning about emotional intelligence, persistence, healthy habits, communication, and responsibility and then provided opportunities to showcase their skills at school and in the community.

8. Communicate & Increase Parent & Community Involvement

Schools and districts cannot over communicate their resources, opportunities and great successes.  Emails, banners, updated websites, texts and phone call blasts are effective ways to share what is happening.  

When educators do not communicate, the public fills in the blanks and sometimes the blanks are not positive or even accurate.  Control the message.

There are a variety of ways to tap into a school’s community resources and reach out to parents.  Offering “Parent University” sessions to parents in basic mathematical, writing, note-taking and comprehension strategies, is very beneficial.  Neighborhood and campus beautification days, Job Fairs, local business partnerships and mentoring, chess and art clubs with community members acting as mentors, etc., are all ways to connect the school with the families and community and improve the culture.

As with any “systemic” change, improving a negative school culture can be a daunting task, but it can be done.  Perhaps tackling just one idea at a time makes the challenge manageable. The positive outcome makes the task worthwhile as there is simply far too much at stake to let negativity, politics and personal agendas infect the true “happiest place on earth.”

Julie Adams, Adams Educational Consulting,