A strong, positive classroom culture supports children’s social and emotional needs and development. Children thrive in a community where everyone contributes and everyone is valued. The classroom culture is created through the language we use, the responsibilities we encourage, and the procedures we teach.
A purposeful classroom culture teaches children the social-emotional skills they need to succeed in the world – in and out of school. These skills include understanding and managing emotions, setting and achieving goals, feeling and showing empathy for others, maintaining positive relationships, and making responsible decisions.
When we are thoughtful about our classroom culture we ask, “What do all my children need to grow and thrive?” Use this information as you plan, model, and reflect on the culture you have – or want to develop - in your classroom.
Reflect on Your Classroom Culture
A positive, caring classroom culture doesn’t “just happen.” It emerges as a result of thoughtful reflection and purposeful planning and actions. Here are some questions to get you thinking about your current classroom climate. Take some time to reflect on your own practice, recognizing all the great things you are already doing, and noting any areas where you would like to grow.
Do all the children in your room feel valued and included in the classroom community?
- What are some of the things you do to build strong, positive relationships with all of the children in your room?
- What are some things you do to get to know your children’s families and include them in the life of the school community?
- What are some things you do to learn about and understand children’s home cultures and communities? How do you use this information to adapt your language, instruction, and culture?
- Do your children feel that they have a say in how the classroom works? Do you talk about your classroom community as something that all children are part of, participate in, and responsible for maintaining? Would they say “we are all in this together”?
Do children in your room have an opportunity to discuss their ideas, thoughts, and opinions with each other?
- What kind of language do your children use with each other? Do they know how to start conversations, ask for help, disagree politely, and encourage each other?
- How have you taught children to speak to each other? Do you model, give them time to practice, and reinforce what is going well?
Do the children in your room feel responsible for their own learning and behavior?
- Why do children follow “rules” in your room? What happens if they don’t?
- Do the children in your class behave the same way outside of the classroom as they do inside the classroom? Why do you think this is?
- How do you teach classroom expectations/rules? How are they stated? How are they reinforced throughout the year?
- Do your children understand why being responsible for themselves, others, and their classroom contributes to a positive classroom culture? Why is that important?
- Do you think children feel that you believe in their ability to overcome challenges?
Do the children in your room have procedures and routines for all of the materials, processes, and spaces in your room?
- Which classroom procedures are working well? What makes them work well? How do you know when a current procedure needs to be enhanced, improved, or changed?
- Which procedures do you still need to establish (as evidenced by what children do not know how to do and/or what they are not doing)? Sometimes it can be helpful to close your eyes and imagine the perfect classroom. What does it look like? What are the children doing? What is the teacher doing?
- During which parts of the day do children seem to have difficulty moving from one activity/space to the next? Are there any portions of the day when instructional time is lost due to poor transitions?
Getting Started with Classroom Culture
Here are our recommendations for first steps you can take to build, change, or enhance your classroom culture.
Use a variety of strategies to build relationships with all children.
Greet children in the morning, call them by name, communicate at eye-level, etc.
Building a positive relationship with your children is at the foundation of effective teaching. Positive teacher-child relationships build trust, help the children feel secure, and increase the level of cooperation. Positive teacher-child relationships will also positively contribute to your children’s intellectual and social development. When the children feel safe, they are more willing take the risks necessary for effective learning to take place. Children learn best from teachers that they like.
- Stand by the classroom door each morning and greet each child by name. Give high fives. Inquire about their pets, after school interests, and siblings.
- Stand by the door at the end of the school day and say goodbye to each child. Try to recall a positive experience from the day.
- Speak respectfully to the children. Conduct one-to-one conversations at eye level when possible.
- Get to know your children via direct conversations with them and their parents, by reading their writing, and by “kid watching.” Find out about their out-of-school interests and activities.
- Include books in the classroom library that reflect your children’s interests. Call each child’s attention to those books that are well matched to that particular child.
- Read aloud books, such as Something Beautiful, that encourage children to share their thoughts, feelings, and ideas.
- Acknowledge their birthdays, out-of-school events and accomplishments, and family celebrations (e.g., new baby, parent returning from military service, etc.).
Create a classroom that feels welcoming, joyful, and safe for children and families.
Creating a safe, joyful, and welcoming classroom is one of the most important things that you can do to promote learning. Children need to feel safe in order to learn. They need to feel secure in order to want to engage and participate. Children feel safe in an environment that is orderly, consistent, and predictable. They develop a feeling of belonging when they contribute to and help to build the positive environment. Parents feel welcome in classrooms in which the child is happy and has positive feelings. Parents are more likely to cooperate and become allies in their children’s education when their children are feeling safe and welcome.
The classroom community is built upon the shared values of kindness, responsibility, and empowerment. Take the following steps to ensure that these fundamental values permeate the classroom.
- Model and teach kindness through positive and empowering language, respectful interactions, and mini-lessons.
- Construct and consistently reinforce procedures and responsibilities to give the children a sense of contributing to a positive environment.
- Empower the children to take risks by viewing mistakes as learning opportunities and focusing on the learning process (not the product).
- Recognize and celebrate successes with classroom culture, so that the children will understand the importance of these shared beliefs and demonstrate them consistently.
Use the language of “we, us, and our” to build community.
Use inclusive language that invites the children into the community of learning. When you use “we,” “us,” and “our,” you make each child feel like a valued member of the classroom and send the message that “we’re all in this together.” The children will learn that group processes are an essential part of learning and of society as a whole. “We language” sends the message that all members of the class belong, are collaborative partners, and are invested in each other’s success.
- Engage the children in creating a class promise. Decorate the promise with the children’s photos or self-portraits. Have each child sign the class promise.
- Engage the children in “The Power of Three” mini-lessons to help develop and instill the idea of “our classroom.”
- Create classroom jobs to help the children understand that they have a responsibility to contribute to the smooth running of the classroom.
- Schedule and conduct regular classroom meetings to give the children a forum to express ideas and take part in the decision-making about classroom life.
Gain children’s attention before giving directions using verbal and non-verbal cues.
Learning to follow directions is one of the important life skills that your children will learn. Following directions is at the foundation of everything they do at school. However, you can’t give the children any directions until you gain their attention. Primary classrooms are busy places, and your children are likely to be deeply engrossed in engaging literacy tasks that you have provided. Teaching the children to quickly respond to one of several attention-getting signals will help to maximize instructional time. You’ll need to teach both verbal and nonverbal signals because there are times, such as indoor recess, when there is too much going on for the children to hear you.
- Teach the children whimsical signals to stop and listen. You can use a call and response signal such as: (a) You say, “Macaroni and cheese,” and the children respond, “Everybody freeze.” or (b) You put your hands on your head and say “Hands on top,” and the children respond, “Everybody stop.” Some teachers clap a rhythmic pattern, and the children repeat it. Or you can say, “If you can hear my voice, clap once, twice, three times.”
- You might want to use a nonverbal signal such as raising your hand. Teach the children to raise their hands and stop talking when they see your raised your hand. When other children notice, they’ll raise their hands, too. Eventually, all hands will be up and everyone will be quiet.
- When the children comply with the request to stop and listen to instructions, compliment them for cooperating.
Teach children procedures for material, processes, and spaces.
Procedures are routines for using and understanding all aspects of the classroom. When planning which procedures to teach, analyze all of the class’s materials (leveled books, art supplies, etc.), areas (classroom library, whole group meeting area, etc.), and processes (how to put books away, how to line up, etc.). List the procedures associated with each one. Procedures can be co-created with children’s input. They are shared with the children through mini-lessons, using language that is specific, predictable, and consistent, so that the children understand exactly what is expected. Discuss the purpose (to maximize instructional time) of performing procedures routinely and accurately, and give children ample time to practice each one. Knowledge of procedures promotes children’s independence, which results in reduced transition time and, therefore, more time for instruction.
- Identify the procedures that children will need to learn to have the classroom run smoothly and efficiently.
- Carefully plan procedural mini-lessons using a procedural lesson planning template.
- Rehearse mini-lessons to ensure that you are using precise and effective language.
- Call the children to the large group meeting area to teach the lesson.
- Tell the children why you are teaching the lesson and how it will help them and the class.
- Practice the procedure as needed.
Co-create, post, and regularly reference procedural anchor charts.
Anchor charts are created for the procedures that children need to have ingrained in long-term memory. When any procedure is taught, the teacher should consider whether an anchor chart is needed as part of the planning process. These charts are co-created with the children, are written in language that is positive, clear, and concise, and are regularly referenced during instruction. The class decides together where to post the chart, so that it is visible and easily accessible. Children are taught how to use anchor charts with independence, so that procedures become rituals. Creating, posting, and regularly referencing procedural anchor charts promotes responsibility and greater understanding of all routines in the classroom.
- Create anchor charts for the procedures, responsibilities, and beliefs/values that children need to have ingrained in long-term memory.
- Co-create these charts with the children. They must be written in language that is positive, clear, and concise.
- Decide together with your children where to post each chart, so that it will be visible and easily accessible.
- Teach the children how to use the anchor charts.
- Regularly reference the anchor charts during instruction.
Work with children to develop appropriate, consistent, and fair responsibilities (instead of rules) for expected behaviors.
Teacher and children establish responsibilities together as a guide to all expected behaviors in the classroom. These responsibilities build and support classroom community, and they empower and encourage all children to be responsible. In contrast, “rules” often focus on obedience and cause power struggles. At the beginning of the year, the teacher and children create a list of responsibilities together, stated in the positive, so that the focus is on what children should do rather than what they shouldn’t do. Two examples are, “Share materials” and “Raise your hand when you want to speak.” Expectations are high but realistic to the particular age group. After the list is complete, the children are taught that any positive experiences or challenges that arise in the classroom can be categorized by three main responsibilities: responsibility for yourself, others, and the classroom (“The Power of Three”). These responsibilities are modeled, practiced and reinforced on a daily basis. As responsibilities become an integral part of classroom life, children will want to contribute responsibly to their classroom, resulting in an increased love for learning and school.
- Use The Power of Three board to teach procedures, responsibilities, beliefs, and culture lessons throughout the year.
- Create the “Power of Three” display together with the children:
- Take Care of Yourself
- Take Care of Others
- Take Care of our Classroom
- Build the Power of Three slowly over time.
- Plan and implement responsibility or procedural lessons for most (if not all) of the mini-lessons that are listed under Take Care of Yourself, Take Care of Each Other, and Take Care of Our Classroom, using language that is specific, predictable, and consistent, so that the children understand exactly what is expected.
- The teacher and children use “take care of” language as much as possible throughout each day and reflect on The Power of Three daily.
State responsibilities positively.
Avoid “no” and “don’t.”
Maintain a positive environment in your classroom by helping the children learn responsibilities instead of demanding that they follow rules. Focus on what the children should do, not on what they shouldn’t do. Staying positive will encourage the children to act responsibly. Help the children understand that in their efforts to be responsible, they will make mistakes. These mistakes are learning opportunities and evidence that they are trying. By focusing on positively stated responsibilities, you can help your children be more accountable for their own actions and feel a sense of belonging to a classroom community.
- Develop a list of responsibilities for the children. Keep the list short and general, so that the children are not overwhelmed.
- Share the responsibilities gradually via a series of mini-lessons on “The Power of Three.”
- State the responsibilities in simple, positive language, such as, “Be kind to each other,” instead of “No hitting.”
- Use precise and specific language that is kid-friendly.
- Build in “power breaks” throughout the day to reflect on, highlight, and celebrate responsible behavior.
Model self-regulation throughout the day.
Appropriately express and label emotions and feelings for children.
The most powerful lessons that we teach children are through our own actions. Children truly learn what we do rather than what we say. Our children use us as a model of behavior. You will experience a range of feelings and emotions during each school day throughout the school year. There will be times of joy, frustration, disappointment, anger, and sadness. The way that you react, respond, and express those feelings during those times is an authentic teaching and learning opportunity. Through your modeling, your children will learn to appropriately label feelings and express their own feelings.
- Engage the children in creating a “feelings chart.” Talk about the range of feelings and the appropriate responses to those feelings. Have the children make drawings showing a given feeling, or even have a child act out the feeling and snap a photo. The feelings chart will help give “names” and images to a wide range of feelings.
- During read alouds, frequently have the children identify a character’s feeling on the feeling chart.
- When you experience an emotion and respond to it, take advantage of the teachable moment. Talk to the children about what happened, how you feel, and what you did and didn’t do.