How Positivity Can Improve School Climate & Culture


Positive narration is just one of an assortment of techniques used by educators in settings with Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS).

It’s a few minutes into class and most students are immersed in Bell Work. Kayla turns and whispers to her neighbor, who stifles a giggle. You’re annoyed. Kayla knows the expectations for this portion of class — you’ve given her plenty of warnings and consequences about this in the past.

Flashback to earlier this week, when the demerit you gave Kayla sparked a power struggle. Kayla ended up putting her head down for a big chunk of the lesson. Determined to get the behavior you want without losing momentum or riling Kayla up, you try something else:

“I notice that Christopher is silently working and almost done with his Bell Work. Way to be!” 

Kayla glances over at Christopher and picks up her pencil. Problem solved— Kayla is back on track, as are a few other stragglers in the room. You avoided correcting her publicly, sidestepped a power struggle and preserved your relationship with Kayla.

An added bonus: you feel good. Our energy flows where our attention goes. Making an intentional decision to pay attention to the positive things happening in class can boost your mood.

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There is Power in Positivity

The scenario above is an example of positive narration, a management strategy in which the teacher states aloud the behavior they want to see. The idea is to point out the good things happening in the classroom rather than correcting a misbehavior. Positive narration is just one of an assortment of techniques used by educators in settings with Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS).

PBIS is an increasingly popular method for classroom management that encourages teachers to recognize students for positive actions, as opposed to punishing them for negative ones. Positive approaches to classroom management are also foundational to social and emotional learning (SEL), response to intervention (RTI) and Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) programs. And you may have heard the related terms positive behavior support or proactive classroom management in professional development sessions before.

Terminology aside, these concepts and approaches share a core belief: the most successful teachers use positivity to engage, manage and motivate students much more often than they use negativity. 

Time and again, research has shown that positive approaches work in creating a safe, productive classroom environment. Traditional approaches to discipline — consequences, lectures and punishment — are simply are not as effective. Beyond their failure to change behavior or improve academic outcomes, they can cause rifts in teacher-student relationships and drain the joy out of learning.

Positive classroom management techniques can be either preventive or responsive. Examples of proactive solutions can be as simple as greeting students with a smile at the door or modeling expectations for partner work. Positive narration, demonstrated in the scenario above, is a responsive strategy, as is using proximity or issuing quiet corrections when kids aren’t meeting expectations.

Teachers can implement positive management strategies in their classrooms independent of schoolwide systems. However, we know that these tools work best when done in conjunction with schoolwide efforts to create a positive, safe culture. Schools that consistently use positive behavior strategies provide students with a safe and supportive climate and become centers for both academic and social-emotional growth.

The Case for Staying Positive 

There are a ton of factors that threaten to zap the joy out of a classroom. The pressures of standardized testing, long school days, and the stress and trauma students bring with them into the classroom can make it tough to stay positive. So why encourage teachers use it?

It works for students 

First and foremost, positivity works. Research studies over the past 30 years suggest that positive behavior approaches improve behavior in students. And in some cases, implementation of positive schoolwide behavior systems has led to an increase in student academic outcomes (Skiba & Sprague, 2008).

In one study, researchers found that students at a low performing middle school which implemented a positive behavior systems showed significant growth on state mastery tests, improving by 25% in reading and 11% in math (Nocera, Whitbread and Nocera, 2014).

That a positive climate translates to increased achievement shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. Companies have long focused on “climate” and employee happiness in part because they know it leads to greater productivity. Why wouldn’t the same hold true for kids? Students who feel safe and respected perform better.

Positivity is infectious, as is its absence. Take it from New Orleans middle school English teacher and Instructional coach, Nicole Hassumani-Carter, who notes that “kids truly feel the vibe of the room.” Hassumani- Carter says that it starts with the teacher.

“If I’m not excited and positive,” she says. “My students are not excited or positive.”

And the benefits go beyond report cards. In one study, research shows that a positive school climate can reduce chronic absenteeism (National Collaborative on Education & Health, 2015). Another suggests that school climate can influence everything from teacher tenure to dropout rates to school violence to higher scores on standardized tests (Kwong & Ryan Davis, 2015).

It’s good for teachers

As humans, our brains are more highly attuned to the bad stuff. It’s a psychological phenomenon called the negativity bias, and it’s just the way we’re wired. This is why one insult can plant itself so firmly in our mind, while dozens of compliments breeze on through. It’s also why the pain of lost money or friendships is stronger than the joy of gaining them and why the public is so drawn to negative news cycles.

Our brain understands bad information more thoroughly than it does good information, Kathleen D. Vohs notes in her research study, Bad Is Stronger Than Good. We pay more attention to it, and the memory of it sticks around for longer.

“Negative information receives more processing and contributes more strongly to the final impression than does positive information,” she writes. “Learning something bad about a new acquaintance carries more weight than learning something good.”

So it’s no wonder that we zero in on the few students who aren’t meeting expectations when the rest of the class is humming along unnoticed.

But taking some very intentional steps to change one’s outlook —  paying more attention to the bright spots — can have a significant impact on a teacher’s happiness on the job. Catching kids being good, celebrating positive behavior and being a supportive teacher feels way better than being the frustrated classroom leader who is always giving out demerits.

Beyond that, punitive approaches to discipline can harm a student’s relationship with their teacher, something that Hussamani-Carter is careful to avoid.

“Maintaining strong relationships with students is an added bonus for me,” she says, “My kids know that I have their best interest at heart, and they feel supported. This creates a positive atmosphere.”

Give it a go

The payoff for investing in positivity is clear, as are the risks for neglecting it. But with a ton of other things competing daily for a teacher’s attention, how can they make it a priority?

Infusing positivity into a classroom doesn’t need to mean a complete overhaul of systems. There are simple approaches any teacher can implement tomorrow.

Positive Narration

Teachers who use positive narration in the classroom call out examples of the types of behavior they want to see. If the expectation is that all students are quietly writing in their journals and pulling evidence from the text as they do, a teacher might say, “Raina is writing silently in her journal” and “I see Luis looking to his text for evidence.” These simple, objective statements do two things. First, they offer recognition to students who are doing the right thing. And second, they serve as a gentle reminder of the expectation to students who are not. More often than not, off task students will adjust course without the teacher needing to intervene.

Points system

Using a point system is a quick and easy way to celebrate kids for doing the right thing. Perhaps the most popular version of this strategy is a table points competition, where the teacher awards a tally to tables, groups or rows who are meeting expectations. Teachers should announce the kinds of behaviors that can earn students points and post this list in a visible part of the classroom. Ideally, the targeted behaviors are easily observable (transitioning quietly from group work to independent work, raising hands before speaking, etc.). Maybe the winning team earns a trip to the prize box, or are given erasers. Teacher might choose to reward winners with something less tangible like a homework pass or an extra 10 minutes at recess.

Posting stellar work

Kids get a ton of joy seeing their work posted publicly. Celebrating excellent work or significant growth is a great way to affirm students and encourage others to rise to the occasion. And the bulletin board doesn’t need to be the only place you show exemplary work. Consider taking a photo of an exceptional exit ticket and including it in your notes packet for the day. Want to highlight a student’s digital work? Pull it up on your projector and talk through what makes it so great with the class.

Celebrate MVPs

All kids feel good about being caught doing something great. Much like posting student work, pumping up students who are doing well sets the bar high for the rest of the class. It only takes a minute or so, but has an enormous effect on student morale. And it doesn’t always need to be about academics —- try congratulating kids for exceptional effort, or for demonstrating integrity or teamwork. Administrators can easily implement this at the school level by highlighting all-stars during morning announcements, assemblies or lunch.

A core part of a teacher’s job is cultivating a safe and happy classroom where learning can happen. On some days, staying positive can feel impossible. But using these and other techniques can make it manageable.

“We all know that teaching is hard work. This profession is not for the faint of heart,” Nicole Hassumani-Carter reminds us. “What matters most is that you are the constant. You control the weather in your room. Get excited about your lesson, remember that these humans in front of you are just kids, and be sure to celebrate the small stuff with your class.”

Alyssa Owens is a former English teacher and instructional coach. She currently lives in Melbourne, Australia, where she writes about education and edits curriculum.

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