March 2019: School Culture

The Key to Positive School Culture

LARRY THOMPSON, M.Ed.

School leaders wear a multitude of hats: they lead staff in curriculum and instruction, they deal with budgets and raise money, they help staff understand and respond to the impact of trauma, they involve parents, they maintain and update facilities, and so much more. The hidden expectation on school leaders is to make students behave – while building a positive school culture!
School culture consists of many components. As leaders we often hope that teambuilding, great food at meetings, a one-percent raise, an open-door policy, new paint in the lounge, additional technology and frequent communication will be enough to create a positive school culture. The hidden culprit behind a negative school culture is often the challenges created around school discipline issues.
Managing student behavior is an area where most educators receive minimal training through their college experience. I often meet people in my travels who share with me that they left the classroom due to student behavior issues. Principals often have been highly skilled, while teaching, at managing their own classrooms – but never understood exactly what made it easy for them. Although most initiatives have value, successfully managing the behavior of students may have the greatest impact on student achievement, staff morale, parental support and the overall school culture.
Spending most of my days in school buildings throughout North America, I can usually “feel” the culture of a school fairly quickly. I am confident that if I can feel this, students, staff and parents are well aware of it too.
School culture is based on relationships. When relationships are in conflict, the culture is impacted. If a teacher does not feel supported regarding how he dealt with a student behavior, that creates conflict. If a student does not feel “listened to” in a situation, that creates conflict. If a teacher does not know what to do and feels she has no help, that creates conflict. If the teacher feels as though the principal did not provide enough punishment, or that the student was rewarded for negative behaviors, that creates conflict. When a teacher feels out of the loop regarding how a student’s behavior is being addressed – once again a conflict.
If you doubt this, let me share some discussions I have heard over the last school year from three different perspectives: teachers, administrators and students.

TEACHERS: “This kid likes going to the office, I think they
play games in there.”
“One student came back to my room with candy. That’s not a consequence!”
“The principal made him say he was sorry, but I don’t think he meant it.”
“When are we going to do more than just talk to these kids?”

ADMINISTRATORS: “That teacher sends every kid to me
to deal with. Maybe they should just talk to
the student.”
“This will be hard to explain to the parents.”
“I don’t have time to deal with this teacher’s class all day long!”
“I can guess which teacher sent this kid.”

STUDENTS: “They just don’t like me and treat me like
I’m stupid.”
“We don’t do anything in this class anyway.”
“I don’t mind detention, I can do my homework there.”
“I wasn’t the only one! Other kids pushed in line too!”


Most of us are professional enough that we don’t allow these conflicts to be outright ugly. However, we may share our frustrations with one another, and this slowly begins to sour the culture in the school.
In my book, Roadmap to Responsibility, I discuss how I am convinced that it is time for schools, educators and administrators to “shift the goal from making students behave, to promoting responsibility.” This leads us to the question I am often asked, “Can responsibility be taught?” My answer is yes! But first, educators must become masters of challenging moments with students – those moments when the student is refusing to cooperate and the teacher’s blood pressure is elevating.
Teachers’ skill levels can definitely be improved when it comes to “leading” challenging moments. By learning and utilizing a guided conversation we call “Give ‘em Five,” educators can become highly skilled in leading students through challenging behavioral moments.
To establish consistency and confidence so that everyone knows how to handle these tough moments, preparation is key. Staff must have the skills to “close the exits” that students may take which lead them away from growth and keep them from “owning” their problems. Give ‘em Five™ is not a script; teachers use their own words to keep a child on the road to growth and not allow the brain to exit.

Give ‘em Five uses five themes:
Support
Expectation
Breakdown
Benefit
Closure

We no longer depend on a consequence to solve the problem; instead the student is coached to solve their own problem. Once this skill is acquired, it brings a calibration to the office referral, and a process that is much more consistent when the office intervention is needed.
In education, we have seen the traditional models of classroom management come and go. More consequences, less consequences, clip charts, point systems, stickers, more rewards, less rewards etc. I often challenge schools with this question: If these things did the job of changing student behavior, why are we still having this discussion? These attempts often look like they work, but usually only for students who really didn’t need the system in the first place!
The kids with whom most educators are frustrated are not motivated by traditional systems. Being placed in schools with very significant behavior issues, I began to realize that traditional methods of discipline were doing very little for behavior change, and a desire grew within me to find something that could really guide the student to make the needed changes.
After accepting a principalship in a challenging alternative school, where most students had been in legal trouble, had experienced trauma, had low motivation for school, and the staff was worn out, I began to seek a real solution for this school discipline issue. These students had few skills in managing their anger or frustration. Through my experiences in this setting, I discovered that people – not just students – tend to avoid personal growth in six basic ways.
I call these “Exits from the Road to Responsibility.” When a person is stuck on an exit, we seldom get them to focus on their needed growth. For example, if a student continues to argue “But other people were doing it too!” that student is demonstrating that he is stuck on the Consistency Exit. Haven’t we all seen a student given a consequence at this point, in hopes of making him assume responsibility for his actions? Yet, the student continues to complain about others doing the same thing after the consequence has been served. (The administrator may even receive a call from parents saying that their child was not the only one involved.) This is why a process for helping staff recognize and close these Exits is so critical.
Most behavioral issues we are experiencing are tied back to the student’s lack of self-control. As a former special education teacher, I am aware that students may have a diagnosis, and our expectations and accommodations must be appropriate. However, we still want to see all students increase their ability to demonstrate great self-control. Think of this in terms of the process of strengthening one’s self-control “muscles.” Our self-control “muscles” strengthen when we use them, but will remain weak if they are not used.
Imagine a student with a weak self-control muscle. It may look like she can’t get herself to do things that she doesn’t enjoy, can’t control her anger, struggles to control giving best effort and so on. Ask yourself, how many of my students truly can’t do the task, and how many can’t get themselves to do the task? Students who can’t get themselves to do the task lack self-control. To help these students reach their potential, we must help them grow the self-control muscle.
I have had the opportunity to watch this self-responsibility, self-control model transform the schools where I was the principal, and I now have the privilege of watching schools throughout North America transition to this model. From private schools to juvenile prisons, we have seen dramatic improvements in student behavior, resulting in increased academic performance. This past year, I have been made to feel welcome in many Jewish Day Schools, and I have witnessed the passion for helping students reach their full potential. I believe that working together we can give educators better tools for addressing challenging moments with students, help close the exits that students often take off the road to responsibility and provide students the gift of self-control. The school culture we all desire is within our reach. 
©AccuTrain Corporation. All rights reserved.

Larry Thompson, M.Ed., author of Roadmap to Responsibility and Give ‘em Five, is often called upon to deliver keynote presentations for state and national education conferences because of his knowledge, humor and passion for assisting today’s students. He has helped thousands of educators and schools throughout North America break away from their traditional discipline models to a model that creates a responsible climate and responsible students. Larry has served in a wide variety of roles in education – from special education teacher to alternative and traditional high school principal. As creator of the Responsibility-Centered Discipline program, Larry understands that systems must be created that can be realistically implemented and sustained.