Creating a positive social climate in your classroom

Bullying, harassment, cyberbullying, and their horrific impact have been in the headlines again recently, with the usual hysteria, hand-wringing, and finger-pointing. Here’s an effective, common-sense, process-oriented approach to creating a positive, caring, and respectful classroom climate. This material comes from a chapter in Becoming a Win-Win Teacher that focuses on positive alternatives to the ineffective and destructive strategies most often used in school (which had been described in the previous chapter).

We’ve all heard the statistics: Thousands of students stay home from school each day because of threats of violence, harassment, and aggression from peers.22 Teachers consistently complain of having to deal with disruptions and distractions brewed in rumor and interaction—in the hallways, on the playgrounds, in off-campus hangouts, and increasingly, online.23 The impact of social violence on students—including teasing, exclusion, scapegoating, malicious gossip, and verbal and physical aggression—as well as a common lack of effective coping skills or psychological strength to deflect these attacks, makes teaching a challenge and learning nearly impossible.

“Students must be free from fear and able to fully devote their cognitive and emotional abilities towards their learning endeavors,” wrote Michele Borba.24 That is, kids simply cannot learn when their brains are consumed with threat and stress. Nonetheless, cognitive priorities here too will suggest that you bury your head in curriculum guides and testing schedules, relegating responsibility for addressing social issues outside the school’s purview. But we’ve seen far too many headlines to forget what can happen when we ignore this pain, dismiss these issues, or participate in a culture of meanness by tolerating it when it happens right in front of us.

In a win-win classroom, teachers recognize the importance of the social environment and the impact a sense of community can have on learning and student behavior and attitudes. They pay attention to how kids treat one another and know they have the power to make a difference. While win-win teachers may have to contend with the political expediency of security measures, they understand the limitations of what Jo Ann Freiberg referred to as “Band-Aid approaches to school safety,” particularly in the absence of any attention to more positive efforts to improve school climate.25 And win-win teachers know that if they’ve already taken some of the strategies mentioned in this book to heart, they’re well on their way to reducing many of the problems that occur when kids aren’t respectful and tolerant with one another.

Willingness

It would be hard to argue with people who have noticed what Michele Borba described as a “steady rise of impulsivity, depression, suicide, violence, peer cruelty, and substance abuse” or the “growing rise in disrespect for authority, incivility, and vulgarity, and cheating and dishonesty.”26 But despite evidence of the truth in such social commentary, don’t for a second imagine yourself helpless to present other options for your students. The good news is that schools can make things better when they try, and even programs targeted to a specific problem can have positive outcomes far beyond the original intention. A report by Robert Hahn concluded that “school-based programs for the prevention of violence are effective for all school levels, and different intervention strategies are all effective. Programs have other effects beyond those on violent or aggressive behavior, including reduced truancy and improvements in school achievement, ‘problem behavior,’ activity levels, attention problems, social skills, and internalizing problems such as anxiety and depression.”27 Leadership training programs have had similarly broad results. Although leadership was once “solely considered an innate tendency,” contributor Mike Smith asserted, “leaders are not born, they’re made. Leadership can be learned and taught.” And these skills happen in the context of the community you create in your classroom.28

Borba quoted Lonnie Athens, a professor of criminal justice, saying, “Although the community cannot guarantee a good family to every child, it can guarantee them a good school, and a good school can go a long way in making up for a bad family.”29 You are, for many of your students, the best game in town, one of few opportunities for them to see an alternative to win-lose patterns so familiar in the media, in their families, and among their peers. But nobody learns win-win strategies in a vacuum, so be prepared to address your attention to their social behaviors and know that your time will be well spent.

Advocacy

You don’t necessarily need formal programs or lesson plans for building social skills, although they certainly exist. Some of the most powerful lessons you teach will come from your own modeling—how you interact with students and other adults, as well as your reaction to incidents between kids that you observe or overhear. If you act as an advocate and speak up any time you hear examples of bias, insult, or general meanness, you model behaviors that give kids permission, as well as the language, to do the same.

Unfortunately, in many instances, you are very much in the minority. Research points to infrequent intervention on the part of adults and reveals that the majority of incidents of social, verbal, and physical discrimination and violence are either ignored, accepted, or denied—that is, when adults admit an awareness that these incidents are actually happening. Even worse, there are widespread reports of adults using similarly discriminatory words themselves (including homophobic, racial, and ethnically offensive terms) or laughing when they overhear kids use them.30

“The most dangerous deadly weapons in our schools each and every day are words,” said Freiberg. “That’s where it starts and that’s where we can manage it.” She cited research that indicates 90% of the school community hears putdowns, slurs, and degrading language on a daily basis. Now granted, for a lot of kids, this language is used so casually and regularly in their worlds that some may not even realize how powerful and hurtful these words can be. But even if their intentions are not particularly malicious, someone has to speak on behalf of sanity, because language is powerful, can be hurtful regardless of intent, and the majority of time, adults just let it slide. “Unless school personnel interrupt degrading comments, challenge the biased assumptions, and educate students about differences, we are likely to see perpetuation of bullying behaviors, harassment, and intimidation,” Freiberg admonished.31 We need to teach kids to stand up for tolerance and respect when they see violations occur. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”32 While aggressive kids and their targets tend to figure prominently in research, school policies, and intervention programs, let’s not forget the power a group of bystanders can bring to a potential incident, as well as the overall climate of the school.

A simple sentence like “We don’t say that here” or “Please don’t use that word around me” sends a strong message without attacking or judging anyone. Repeat as necessary. Even if they only see it as a standard of behavior for your room alone, you have introduced a reality that requires the conscious, deliberate use of respectful language and opened the possibility of this mindfulness extending beyond your classroom.

Two more comments about the power of language. Freiberg recommends focusing on meanness instead of using the word bully. “Labels matter. ‘Bully’ or ‘bullying’ is a negatively charged word. No student wants to be called a bully, no parent will claim that his or her child is a bully, and no school happily admits that there is any bullying in that school. This reality stems not from the fact that certain behaviors have been experienced, but rather because of the connotation of the concept itself.”33 People are much more likely to be willing to address a problem with students being mean than they are to accept the need to deal with a bullying problem. Furthermore, an approach using this language frees you to address minor social infractions and inconsideration before these give way to more serious incidents.

Likewise, I much prefer the word target to victim when talking about kids on the receiving end of meanness, exclusion, or discrimination. Although many people use the words interchangeably, the word victim suggests a sense of abiding powerlessness that is not present in the word target—which implies a greater potential for control of the situation, including options and assertive ways out.

Building Tolerance and Friendship Skills

Anyone who dismisses the nastiness some children experience as acceptable rites of passage needs to appreciate the impact that exclusion, rejection, and other forms of attack can have. “When we feel rebuffed or left out, the brain activates a site for registering physical pain,” reported Daniel Goleman.34 School connectedness includes aspects of social acceptance and feeling welcome in school. But Robert Blum, Clea McNeely, and Peggy Rinehart discovered that “nationally, four percent of students reported that they had no friends. There were socially isolated students in every school studied.”35 In addition to being vulnerable to all the negative outcomes associated with disconnectedness from school, Katz believed that isolated students, the kids who lack the protection of social allies, often appear the easiest and “safest” ones for more aggressive kids to target.

Behaviors do not change on their own, however, and kids don’t pick up many prosocial behaviors on the streets. Fortunately, some school personnel are beginning to address the need to build friendship skills and social intelligence in their interactions with kids, if not in the curriculum directly.36 The process doesn’t have to be complicated or formal and, in most instances, will simply be built into the way you run your classroom. For example, anything you do to accommodate your students’ power needs in positive ways (such as offering choices, soliciting and using their input in your plans, or providing accommodations for individual learning styles) significantly reduces the need for them to get power needs met at the expense of others. In other words, few kids need to hurt or disempower other kids to experience a sense of autonomy and control when those needs are being met constructively in other areas of their lives.

For a strategy worth its weight in gold, find opportunities for your students to help other students through a peer-helping, mentoring, or tutoring program. We can teach tolerance and respect by giving kids opportunities to work with others toward some shared goal. Some of my most challenging students ended up being some of the most effective, mature, and responsible mentors in a program that assigned upper elementary volunteers to help out in the kindergarten.37 Stay attentive, continue to remind kids about “how we act, talk, and treat one another in here,” accommodate power needs, and offer activities where all kids can be helpful and competent, and in short order, there’s a good chance that you’ll start noticing significant and positive changes in the social culture of your class.

22. The number 160,000 was quoted in numerous resources in the late 1990s and early 2000s, though current research suggests that this statistic was stable through 2009. Albow (2009); Bluestein (2001); Cody (2007); Sugar (2000). Looking from another angle, Debra Sugar (2000) cited a study that indicated “over twenty percent of school children are frightened through much of the school day and bullying occurs every seven minutes.”
23. Cody (2007) defined cyberbullying as “the use of technology, such as cell phones and the Internet, to harass or humiliate another person or group of people. The number of children on the Web is also increasing. Eighty percent of students in grades 5–8 are online at least one hour per week” (para. 2). Also, a slide show on the home page of the WiredKids Web site (www.stopcyberbullying.org) offers specific examples of cyberbullying, including setting up Web pages to vote for the fattest or most unpopular kid, stealing a password and locking the child out of his or her own account, posing as someone else and spreading rumors, pretending to be someone the child knows, sending anonymous death threats, sending hundreds of text messages to run up a phone bill, posting mean things on the child’s Web site guest book, posting provocative information about the child on hate sites or pedophile sites, spreading hateful messages (anonymous or signed), and hacking into a child’s computer to steal information, send viruses, or post false reports to the child’s Internet service provider (costing the child his or her account). Aftab and Wired Safety Group (n.d.)
24. Borba (2002, p. 3).
25. Freiberg (2007c). Freiberg included using security devices such as surveillance cameras, metal detectors, ID tags, clear or netted book bags, locker restrictions, and profiling software among her examples. She affirmed that this approach leads to students’ perceptions that they are unsafe in the school, that the school is a repressive environment, that the school is a hostile environment, that students are basically prisoners in the school, and that there is good reason to be fearful while at school.
26. Borba (2001). This conference handout, “Building Moral Intelligence: Our Last, Best Hope,” is an excerpt from Borba’s 2001 book Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues That Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing.
27. Hahn et al. (2007). 28. Smith (2007a, p. 1). 29. Borba (2002, p. 2). 30. Bluestein (2001); also Freiberg (2007c).
31. Freiberg (2007c). Freiberg cited research by the Surgeon General in which “only fourteen percent reported that someone intervened always or most of the time with homophobic language use. Only twenty-seven percent reported that someone intervened always or most of the time with
racially or ethnically offensive language use.” Debra Sugar (2000) commented, “When teachers ignore homophobic comments, turn the other cheek to racist jokes, or surreptitiously smile when a student is being teased, they are teaching values.” Let’s pay attention to how people in our environment treat one another and be sure that the values we communicate in our responses to hurtful language are the ones we really want to teach. Bluestein (2001).
32. Aftab and Wired Safety Group (n.d.).
33. Freiberg (2007b, p. 3). Freiberg suggested asking parents or guardians “if they are purposely raising a bully and no one will answer yes. Ask any child if he or she is a bully and the result is the same. However, if you survey the same group of adults and inquire if their children are ever mean to anyone else (call someone a name, make fun of someone, laugh at another person, or tell someone they can’t sit with or play with someone), honest affirmative admissions are common. The very same [children who say] they don’t ‘bully’ will admit that the very same behavior was ‘mean’ and ‘not nice.’ Everyone is mean from time to time. For some reason, owning up to being ‘mean’ is perceived to be more descriptive and neutral and far less threatening than describing the very same person or act as being ‘bullying.’ Bullying carries heavy negative emotional baggage; mean does not. . . . Educators would do themselves a great service if in practice these words were treated as other offensive and inappropriate language” (pp. 6–7).
34. Goleman (2006, p. 13).
35. Blum et al. (2002).
36. Goleman (2006, p. 10). Social intelligence is “the aptitude that makes us smart in our relationships. Empathy and social skills are the two main ingredients of social intelligence. This includes being able to read a situation to know how to make a good impression and being able to sense another’s feelings and intentions” (p. 10).
37. Bluestein (1980).

Excerpted from chapter 12, “Create a Win-Win Classroom,” from Becoming a Win-Win Teacher, by Dr. Jane Bluestein, © 2010, Corwin Publishing, Thousand Oaks, CA. The section in this chapter (which focuses on positive alternatives to ineffective and destructive practices common in schools) is titled “Building Community” in the book.

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See handouts and excerpts from The Win-Win Classroom:

Guidelines for Offering Choices
Guidelines for Reinforcing Positive Behavior
Positive Consequences
Self-Assessment
Dealing Successfully with your Students’ Parents
Getting Away with Success
Motivating Cooperative Behavior
Handling Negative Student Behavior
A Report Card for My Teacher

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