how to create a positive school culture

When you walk into your school in the morning, how do you feel, and what are the attitudes of the students and staff when they arrive to school? Some schools have an overwhelmingly positive culture — one that's evident from the moment you walk in. These schools exude school spirit and pride, and you can see it on the walls as well as in the classrooms and in the attitudes of the students, teachers and staff members. This is the type of school that has great academic records, happier students and satisfied teachers and staff. Achieving this level of positive school culture is possible, with a few key strategies.

What Is School Culture?

Also sometimes called the atmosphere, environment or climate, a school's culture refers to all of the attitudes, traditions and underlying influences in the school. It's based on the behaviors and beliefs of students, teachers, staff and parents, as well as the relationships and interactions between these groups. It involves the ways that students and staff members work together, and the set of values the school upholds. The school culture can create a positive or toxic learning environment, affecting students and their ability to learn.

Positive School Culture vs. Toxic School Culture

With a positive school culture, teachers are happy to come to work, and students are excited and ready to learn. Overall, positive experiences, satisfaction, happiness and academic success are all characteristics of positive school culture. Cultivating this type of school culture should be the goal for any school administrator.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is a toxic school culture. When negative values, behaviors and attitudes reign and the staff has become fragmented instead of acting as a team, this toxic school culture hinders learning and makes a school a place that students and staff dread. This is the type of environment that administrators should work to avoid, where the teachers, staff and students have lost sight of the goals and an air of hopelessness is pervasive.

Most schools fall somewhere in the middle of a perfectly positive school culture and a toxic one, and may have some elements of both present. An administrator can begin by observing, analyzing and understanding the current school culture, identifying which aspects are positive and which are toxic. Then a plan for improving the school culture can be implemented, taking action to reinforce existing positive elements and working to improve any negative elements.

Strategies for Improving School Culture

Transforming a school culture is no easy undertaking, as it can be difficult to change attitudes and behaviors, especially those deeply rooted in beliefs and traditions. But, even in the most challenging environments, a skilled administrator can turn around a negative school culture and transform the learning atmosphere of their school. Cultivating a positive school culture is the foundation of educational success and the learning abilities of all the students present. Here are some positive school culture activities and strategies for improving school culture.

Observe and Identify Current Culture

observe and identify school culture

It's a good idea to start by observing the relationships, attitudes and behaviors in your school. When you walk around your school campus, what kinds of interactions do you see? Do students seem excited to come to school? Take a look at the messages on posters, walls and in classrooms. Look for consistency throughout the halls and classrooms at the school, and identify the possible problem areas with the overall culture. If you have a good idea of the current school culture, it's easier to tailor your plan and target the specific problem areas that need improvement. Improving the school's culture takes more than posting a few motivational posters — school leadership needs to really pay attention to the details, finding personalized solutions to any problems with negative culture.

Determine the Vision for Your School

Establish a mission statement, if you don't already have one, and create a vision of your improved school as a goal. Check in with your mission and vision regularly to stay on track and watch for progress. Be sure your whole team is on board with your mission, including teachers, other staff members, parents and students. With a vision clearly implemented and supported, your school community can be united and work together at improving the school culture.

Be a Positive Role Model

As a principal or school administrator, you set the tone for your school's vision and should lead by example. Positive changes start at the top, and administrators can exemplify the positive attitudes and behaviors they wish to see in their teachers and students. A principal who has a positive attitude and is fully invested in the school's mission will help inspire teachers and allow them to feel supported. This also encourages parent involvement and students who enjoy learning and are excited to come to school.

Support Teachers and Staff Members

One of the most crucial aspects in creating a positive school environment is having all of your staff members on board with the vision, and ensuring they also exemplify the positive attributes in your vision. This, in turn, will help to inspire and encourage the students. When hiring new teachers and staff members, find candidates that understand the school's mission and have the positive attributes you want in your school. Pair new staff members with mentors who are leaders in your school culture. Support all staff members with ongoing professional development, and check in regularly for input and ideas from your team.

Foster Parent Involvement

Parents are an important part of a school culture, even though they have less direct involvement in the school than the teachers and students. When parents have positive attitudes toward — and confidence in — the school, they will influence their children's behaviors and attitudes, too. Provide clear and open levels of communication with parents and ask for their feedback and involvement.

getting parents involved with school culture

Don't just offer the traditional parent-teacher meetings, and instead find innovative ways to involve and include parents in your school activities. Ask parents to join committees, help with events and fundraisers and volunteer in the classroom. Find ways to also involve other members of the family like grandparents, siblings and more in school activities too, which can also promote inclusivity for all sorts of families. Hold informative workshops for parents with topics like helping with study skills at home or other interesting subjects that engage and involve the whole family.

Celebrate and Offer Recognition and Praise

Be sure to notice and recognize achievements and victories whether large or small. Any time you see positive behaviors and interactions, call it out with verbal praise and compliments. Spread excitement and encouragement by going beyond this, and provide other methods of recognition and positive reinforcement with certificates, awards ceremonies or a special bulletin board showcasing achievements. Handwritten notes or phone calls to parents are great ways to honor student achievement and involve parents.

Praise shouldn't be limited to the students — encourage and support your teachers and staff members with positive encouragement and recognition as well. Show gratitude toward staff members who go above and beyond, as well as parent and community volunteers. Provide outlets for staff and students to recognize each other, too.

Teach Essential Values

It's one thing to enforce behavioral rules and reinforce good behavior, but you should ensure your students learn these basics as well. Social skills and behaviors like sharing, honesty, listening to others, showing respect and many others are sometimes learned at home, but not always. Make sure your students are learning age-appropriate skills and behaviors at school before you hold them accountable for them. Work with your staff to identify the behaviors you want to work on, as well as the steps to teach them appropriately.

Related to this is the idea of social-emotional learning, or SEL, which involves the process of learning to manage emotions, show empathy for others as well as maintain healthy relationships and make good decisions. SEL concepts can easily be integrated into the classroom and can greatly improve the overall school culture.

Clarify School Rules

clarify school rules

Meet with teachers and support staff to determine the rules and behavior expectations for the whole school. It is important to have consistency across the board to promote unity in the school so that all classrooms share the same basic rules. Make it clear to students that this set of rules should also be respected in common areas like hallways, the gym, cafeteria and playground.

Use clear and simple language to define your school rules, and focus on the positive, with phrasing like "use inside voices" instead of saying "don't shout inside." Post the rules in classrooms and other common areas so that the expectations are clear. Also, be sure to have consistent consequences throughout the school for breaking rules. Choose effective, appropriate and positive consequences for misbehavior to use whenever possible, instead of punishments like detention. Examples of this in action include writing letters of apology or performing service for the school such as hallway monitor, bus monitor or cleanup activities.

Create Fun Traditions

To truly create a positive environment and have students that look forward to coming to school, be sure to build in plenty of time for fun. Encourage individual classrooms to have their own fun rituals during the day or week. In addition, plan school-wide events and contests that allow students to relax and enjoy themselves a little, so they can return to learning time feeling refreshed. Fun activities like movies and dress-up days not only provide fun entertainment but encourage team-building and school spirit. A little extra fun throughout the school year can go a long way toward improving the school culture.

Provide a Physical Environment Built for Learning

When trying to create a more positive learning environment, don't forget about the physical aspects of your classrooms and other spaces in the school. Everything from desk and furniture placement to the colors on the wall can affect the way a student learns and how comfortable they are in a space. You want your school to be warm and inviting, and a space where your students are open to learning.

Even the seemingly insignificant details like lighting, air quality and temperature can have a huge impact on the learning process. A classroom that offers a variety of lighting options may be best for learning, as some students do best in bright lighting and some when the lights are lower. Colors on the walls and furniture can also affect the feel of a room, influencing emotions and learning abilities.

Today's classroom often features more flexible seating options that are more conducive to learning, focusing and collaborating. Gone are the days of neat desks in rows, as other varied options are becoming more popular. Standing desks, group tables, lower tables with cushions or even floor cushions, exercise balls and bean bag chairs have become the norm in a more comfortable and vibrant classroom. Having multiple options in each classroom allows students to have variety in their day and find what works best for their study habits.

And it's not just inside the classrooms — take a look at the hallways, entrances and other common areas in the school. Are they drab and institutional, or welcoming, colorful and inspiring? The design of even these areas can have an impact on your school culture, welcoming students, teachers and guests to the building and creating excitement. Posters, banners and bulletin boards can be used to welcome and inspire everyone who comes in the doors.

Check in on School Culture Regularly

check in on school culture

After making some changes and improvements, don't forget to keep observing the school culture and note any changes. Check in with staff members, students and parents to gauge the success of your vision for the school. Schedule regular check-ins on the calendar to stay on top of the current school culture and take some time to analyze the current state. As you observe and analyze, make any necessary changes to the vision, plan and strategies to continue building the best, most positive school culture possible.

How School Planners Help Promote Positive School Culture

Providing students with school planners can help to teach organizational skills as well as give a boost to their study skills and grades. The planners help students keep track of important dates, homework assignments and more. And beyond organization, these school planners feature a positive character theme each month and can be integrated into your plan to build your school culture. Promote character traits like empathy, confidence and responsibility with the themed content available in these fun and colorful planners. Take your community building and school pride to the next level and customize your planners with school colors and logos. Shop online for community-building school planners, or contact us for more information.