A new school year and the importance of creating a positive classroom culture

Name tag/name mat- identity I belong really important – clues when chn bring parents/family members in to share means

Creating a positive classroom culture means giving students opportunities to feel like they belong and are valued. You’ll know you’ve got it right when the children want to share these experiences with one another and their families.

It’s a new school year and I’m pleased to report that things are going well. I am getting to know the children and the children are getting to know me. The ice is starting to melt. Order and structure is being established and learned.

My primary focus at the moment is on building positive relationships – between myself and the students, as well as between the students themselves. That’s because effective teaching and learning is premised on the quality of relationships and the quality of the interactions between the teacher and the students. I have already written about that. It’s all about making the learning ‘visible’.

Creating a classroom culture that is structured and ordered provides the social and emotional space that will allow a random group of individuals to grow into a kind and caring community.

I am glad that the research has been able to validate something that makes intuitive sense. And while the research seems to focus on the teacher/student relationship, I have taken it a step further by putting a lot of emphasis on building positive student/student relationships. In a vibrant, dynamic learning environment, children spend a lot of time interacting with each other. That could be via teacher prescribed, direct learning opportunities such as reading a book together or, self directed activities such as collaborating on building a tower of blocks or playing together at lunch time. And remember, this is all enshrined in our wonderful NZ Curriculum document. It defines learning in its broadest sense – academic and social learning.

When it comes to establishing a classroom culture, I think of myself as a ‘benevolent dictator’. Which may seem somewhat paradoxical when you consider all the emphasis that I put on the role of positive relationships. Creating a classroom culture that is structured and ordered provides the social and emotional space that will allow a random group of individuals to grow into a kind and caring community. That is the ultimate prize.

…all efforts put into building a positive classroom culture, are rewarded exponentially throughout the year.

By achieving that, it means that a teacher can be more effective – achieve better quality interactions. It makes it possible to be able to deliver dynamic, flexible and individualised learning programmes. But to do that, it is necessary to have a classroom that is structured and orderly. From order and rules comes spontaneity and joy – and of course, great learning.

Let me tell you a story.

How would you react if you walked into your classroom after morning break to find all the children jumping out of hiding places in the classroom and yelling “surprise”? That’s what’s happened to me over the last few years. I don’t know how or why this situation has arisen. But it got me thinking. That a group of 5-6 year olds could agree unanimously to do such a thing? That they could do it without someone spilling the beans? That they assumed I would also enjoy their surprise? And of course I did (until they wanted to keep on doing it everyday, that is). I laughed with them. I congratulated them on their inventiveness and creativity. And of course, I interpreted it as a sign that we had successfully created a kind and caring community. We were all on the bus, all going in the same direction. Magic!

It’s not personal. It’s not judgemental. It’s just about setting everyone up to succeed.

So building positive relationships is not just an important focus for the beginning of the school year. It takes priority throughout the year. Just like regular maintenance will help keep a car on the road for longer, a classroom culture needs regular maintenance as well. It’s not a task that can be ticked off after the first few weeks of school. It’s ongoing. I have learned that all efforts put into building a positive classroom culture, are rewarded exponentially throughout the year. It really is worth it. Typically, the best solutions in life are the ones that take the longest and require the most input. There are no quick, easy steps to creating a positive classroom culture.

Children arrive at school in different states of readiness. Some children arrive at school knowing how to read, how to relate to others. Some, less so. I use the beginning of the year to address any needs – provoke, listen, respond. Who needs help to turn the pages of a book gently? Who needs help packing up the classroom equipment? Who needs help sharing the blocks? The beginning of the year is the time to determine the ‘lay of the land’ and model the desired behaviour. It’s not personal. It’s not judgemental. It’s just about setting everyone up to succeed. 

Yes, we have a treaty in our room. Yes, the students and I have co-authored it. Yes, we have referenced it to the Treaty of Waitangi. But still, even after all that, that treaty is just words on a piece of paper, stuck (with varying degrees of artistic flair) onto a classroom wall. So we need to breathe life into it. We need to embody its intent with the words and actions we use in our everyday interactions.

I wonder whether the teacher in this video had a well written, well considered and well presented treaty on her classroom wall? While I don’t want to be a scare-mongerer or a John Holt, I really want to be reassured that classrooms are great places for learning as well as places for the human spirit to flourish.

So, let’s celebrate the good parts of our education system and keep looking for ways to improve.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

The desire to enjoy teaching

Listen out for those rich learning conversations

Listen out for those rich learning conversations

To really start enjoying teaching I had to stop giving a fig.

I had to stop spending time that I didn’t have, doing things that weren’t enhancing my teaching experience, and worrying that I wasn’t doing things the same as everyone else. I’d like to think that this is a process that leads to innovation. I’d like to think that it is this kind of approach that brings about change. When you have your eyes on a big prize, you don’t want to be distracted. Like, it’s easy to forget that women in NZ haven’t always been able to vote.

To really start enjoying teaching, I needed to start trusting myself. That felt an achievable first step because I had already been teaching for over a decade. Experience does matter. But I also started to listen to the children and trust what they were telling me. I started to give them a voice.

The external demands on teachers are incessant. But I realised that the children needed to be my focus. As much as possible, I tried to ignore all those things that acted as a barrier to me being able to get the best outcomes for the children. Once again, experience helps. I now know really well what a child should be able to achieve and what is developmentally appropriate. Children don’t need to be pushed to do stuff – not if it’s interesting, that is. And now I know that we can expect that great learning takes place in many different ways.

I now have a clear set of guidelines of what an innovative, vibrant, compassionate learning culture looks and feels like. I created these guidelines based on widely available research. The ‘provoke, listen, respond’ feedback loop is great because it provides an ongoing validation process of the research and of the teaching and learning that is going on in the classroom. It’s an organic but robust teaching pedagogy. I particularly like it because it is an emotional as well as academic process. After all, we are human – social and emotional creatures.

So actually, it’s not really true that I have stopped giving a fig. I am now just better at discriminating – identifying the things that are important and the things I really care about.

I’d also like for us to be able to discuss the things that, we as individuals, have little control over; the external barriers to learning – such as child poverty. There are plenty of external factors that undermine a teacher’s ability to deliver an effective education programme. Those same factors are likely to be the ones that diminish the ‘joy quotient’ that motivates teachers to turn up to class everyday and try to make a difference.

So, being able to distinguish from those things that we can and can’t control is critical. It’s critical that we don’t allow ourselves to get bogged down or distracted by the things that we can control. The things you shouldn’t give a fig about. By doing that we can start to work towards a consensus on the kind of education we want our children to be getting in the 21st Century. An education that is truly innovative; something that is possibly beyond what is currently on offer.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Will we ever agree on what the best education system for our children should be like?


"Look what I made."

“Look what I made.”

I overheard a conversation between a 10 year old and a 5 year old in my classroom recently. The 10 year old and the 5 year old were ‘playing’ with the geoshape blocks. The older child was admiring the younger child’s creativity and ability to build ‘stuff’. The admiration was genuine. I can assure you of that. It was also expressed with a strong sense of incredulity. Like in, ‘how do you do that’? I know that feeling. I often see myself struggling to be as creative as a 5 year old.

I hear these kinds of interactions and see this kind of creativity frequently. I now use these interactions to provide me with insight to, and as a validation of, my approach to teaching. It reassures me that the ‘provoke, listen and respond’ model of teaching is really appropriate for 5 year olds. I have made it my mission to nurture the creativity that these children bring to the classroom.

I am inspired by the likes of Glen Keane who explains the importance of holding on to your childhood. It was Picasso who said, “when I was young, I could draw and paint like Raphael. It’s taken me a lifetime to learn to draw like a child.” I am now applying this philosophy to my teaching; by putting myself in the shoes of the child – to create a child-centred learning experience. That’s what I can offer the children in my classroom.

But if only it could be that easy. There is resistance. But why? Why would you want to deny children the best education possible? And there lies the problem. We will never get full agreement on what the best education looks like. Although, I would argue that an education system that treats people with dignity and equity should be a non-negotiable. But society does not always treat people fairly, so is it any surprise to see that the education system can miss the mark, too?

That’s why I like to think of my classroom as a microcosm of a society that I would like to live in. It’s not always easy. There are conflicts and inconsistencies all around. The system sometimes suffers from rigidity. Children come through the door with different life experiences. They are people. And people are emotional/social creatures – fallible; with vast quantities of joy as well as complexity.

An opportunity to explore the factional views of education (and dare I say, ‘humanity’) presented itself recently in a ‘Humans of New York’ story about a young woman describing her experience as a preschool teacher. The responses to her story were informative. Some were very positive and understanding. Others, less so. The situation was not helped by the fact that the young woman’s story was a little lacking in context and therefore leaving it open for interpretation. Needless to say, I identified with the story intuitively, and understood what was intended –  a desire to provoke, listen, respond. To give the children the best learning opportunities possible; based on sound research.

The arguments that are dismissive of child-centred learning* can be summarised as follows. That children:-

  • need structure and strict guidelines of how to behave.
  • would just play all day if they were not forced to study academic subjects like maths and literacy.
  • need to learn to do stuff that they don’t like in order to be better prepared for life after school.
  • need to learn that life is tough and exposure to this reality early on in their life, they will learn resilience and gain mental fortitude.
  • are inherently naughty and we need to ensure that they learn to be compliant.

They represent a view of children that defines them in negative and narrow terms. Unfortunately, ‘deficit thinking’ of this kind, is prevalent throughout society and has a strong influence on our education system. I would also argue that it helps to explain the high rate of child homicide in New Zealand.

A learning environment that is genuinely child-centred is physically and culturally distinct. Respect and dignity are cornerstones of such an environment. It acknowledges children as being naturally curious and creative. It is a physical environment that is engaging and allows children to learn through exploration. Such an environment is not synonymous with an absence of structure or discipline, as some would like to have us believe.

Life is complex. We are human. We are social and emotional creatures. We are fallible. But firstly, we need to look beyond the ‘deficit thinking’ model. Children are not intrinsically naughty. They just haven’t learned or been taught the appropriate behaviours yet. And as I have previously noted, most of the inappropriate behaviours that I witness, occur when children are asked to do tasks that are beyond their developmental or interest level. So, the potential to reduce unwanted behaviours is clearly and firmly within the adult’s power to eliminate before they occur.

Secondly, a genuinely child-centred learning experience is a perfect opportunity for children to learn how to engage socially; to learn about rules and boundaries. It’s a perfect opportunity for teachers to teach the essential social skills; just like we teach the skills of literacy and numeracy. And I’m not necessarily talking about prescriptive lessons, but about creating opportunities to learn through experience, over a sustained period of time. Modelling and learning through experience, are always going to be more effective than telling.

In a classroom context, there are clear expectations of how we operate and engage. How we pack up. How we talk to one another. How we move about in the classroom. Respect and kindness are the foundation stones of the classroom culture. So when we witness behaviour that falls outside of that expectation, it is addressed with calmness and consistency. The child is supported to get back on track.

The ultimate goal here is to get to the point where the children are able to self-regulate. This is not always straightforward and may take some time. (Just ask any adults who misplace their phone or get speeding tickets on a regular basis). The existence of motivation to change is essential. It’s important to recognise that the teacher has the ability to provide the child with the rewards that generate the necessary motivation. Dependence on external rewards may be essential initially, but as the rewards for self regulation become increasingly internalised, these external rewards can be removed. (There’s plenty more to say on this topic, but it will have to wait for another day).

*Defining ‘child-centred’ learning is problematic. You may note that I sometimes preface that expression on this site with the word, ‘genuine’. Words and actions don’t always match. But being that you are on this site and are interested in this topic, I assume that you are familiar with what I am describing ,when I use the phrase, ‘child-centred’.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

Ease Education can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

A fresh approach to managing behaviour in the classroom

Getting the physical and cultural environment right.

Getting the physical, cultural, emotional and academic environment right

Overview: the science of behaviour

As adults, our job is to support children to manage their emotions and emotional outbursts, while also staying in control of our own emotions. It’s critical that as adults, we understand that the only behaviour we have control over is our own. But there are some things we can influence and control. These things are…,

  • the type of learning we require the students to do
  • how we speak to them, interact with them and react to them
  • the cultural and environment we require them to operate in.

It is also critical to understand that behaviour has a primary purpose. And that purpose is to communicate. Ultimately, behaviour is an invitation to the adult to find out what the child is trying to communicate through his/her behaviour. This task can be made easier when you understand that the purpose of behaviour falls into only four distinct categories…

Is the child/student….,

  1. wanting to avoid a request (“I don’t want to complete this worksheet.”)
  2. seeking attention (“I’m not feeling good, please reassure me.”)
  3. wanting access to something tangible (“I’m hungry. I want to eat my lunch.”)
  4. self-stimulating (repeated sensory behaviours more typically seen in students with autism.)

It is with this understanding that we can state unequivocally that there is no such thing as good or bad behaviour – there is either too much, not enough, or behaviour that is in the wrong time and place. eg. Punching is ok in a boxing ring but not in a classroom. In which case the question then becomes, how can you teach the right place and the right time to engage in punching?

The final thing you need to understand is that the best way to decrease a behaviour you don’t want is to increase a behaviour you do want. This is best achieved through positive reinforcement. That means focusing on the behaviour you want to see more of, and developing strategies around how to increase those kinds of behaviours.

Hopefully, it is with this understanding of the science of behaviour that you will become empowered to become a problem solver when dealing with problem behaviours in the classroom.  It means that you now have a framework for dealing with behaviour problems. Success will be determined by your ability to create solutions that fit within the framework outlined above.

Applying the science to the classroom

The primary goal of the teacher is to turn the classroom into the positive and sustainable learning environment that benefits all the students equally. Therefore, it’s critical to view managing behaviour as being about creating a physical and cultural environment that allows for, and encourages desirable pro-social behaviours. Creating the right environment provides opportunities for children to learn how to self-regulate, to make ethical choices and to show consideration for others (empathy). I would also argue that getting the social/emotional quotient right is the foundation of any quality ‘academic’ learning.

This approach seems to be a world away from a behaviour management system that relies heavily on strategies that attempt to minimise negative behaviours with the use of discipline and punishment. For me, the term ‘managing children’s behaviour” also has connotations of trying to maintain control and achieve compliance. And it seems as though this model is the default setting in classrooms as well as being the model that is prevalent throughout society.

Managing behaviour is really about creating a physical and cultural environment that allows for, and encourages desirable pro-social behaviours.

The approach that will lead to success for all students requires us to evaluate our expectations of the children; is the task I am asking them to do at their developmental level, is it achievable, desirable and genuinely engaging? The familiar behaviour strategies that teachers typically employ such as cajoling, bribing, and punishing will do little to rectify the core issues, if our expectations are not reasonable or realistic. Nor is it likely that these strategies will achieve lasting behavioural change. A successful behaviour management model requires a high degree of trust and a strong emotional relationship between the teacher and the students.

It’s important to appreciate that what is typically perceived as ‘bad behaviour’ is simply a case of undeveloped social skills. Children are not necessarily trying to be difficult or uncooperative. They really do want to please and behave in a positive manner. It is more likely that they are lacking the skills or ability to solve problems effectively.  So, assuming that the physical and cultural environment is genuinely flexible and supportive of ‘child-centred learning’, then the next step is to teach, explain and model specific strategies to support and guide children to manage their emotions and interactions.

A key element to this approach is called cognitive training. This means that children are told exactly what they should be doing and how they should be responding. They are helped to identify and recognise their emotions. They receive generous explanations of why certain behaviours are inappropriate and how they impact on others. This is an approach that requires the adult to be a very patient and consistent ‘broken down record’. Repetition and consistency of message and expectation is paramount.

It’s important to appreciate that what is typically perceived as ‘bad behaviour’ is simply a case of undeveloped social skills.

By using cognitive training, you are not focused on achieving compliance. Instead, you are focused on using communication and negotiation to encourage reasoning, respect and cooperation. As well as fostering a desirable classroom culture based on respect and empathy, it is also a way of teaching communication skills. The children are learning through modelling, rather than it being taught by a specific series of lessons. That’s essential. The children will learn best by using these skills and seeing the positive impact they have in their daily lives. These are skills that require high levels of emotional intelligence and they are skills that can be learned. It’s a win-win scenario.

As well as cognitive training, there are also the familiar strategies of inducement (“I’m sure someone as clever as you could tidy up those blocks.”) and rewarding desired behaviour (“If you tidy up those blocks, we can play your favourite game.”) Needless to say, as long as the inducements and rewards fit into the classroom culture that you are trying to achieve, then they are also effective strategies to use.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

Links to some resources that I used for this blog post and that you may also find useful can be found below.

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