Editor’s note: The Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently launched “The Acceleration Imperative,” an open-source, evidence-based resource designed to aid instructional leaders’ efforts to address the enormous challenges faced by their students, families, teachers, and staff over the past year. It comprises four chapters split into nineteen individual topics. Over the coming weeks, we will publish each of these as a standalone blog post. This is the fourth. Read the first, second, and third.
Feeling safe and valued is vital to a child’s development. Learning suffers when students fear for their safety, worry about being bullied, or don’t sense their teachers have high expectations for their success. In a healthy, supportive climate, students are engaged and take intellectual risks. They follow well-established rules and norms for behavior that their teachers and school leaders model and maintain. Such a community is characterized by positive relationships between teachers and students, a place where genuine respect is the norm, and where all students feel they belong.
The same is true for adults—both the teachers and families who make up a school community. In a nurturing culture, educators and family members share candid exchanges based on mutual interests and respect. Their social and emotional needs are part of the equation, too.
This climate does not occur magically—rather, it must be cultivated through deliberate school-wide strategies, expectations, and rules. A safe and supportive school culture should reflect shared values and take into account the communities and cultures students bring with them to school. And it must include sound classroom-management practices and developmentally appropriate supports, including social well-being and mental health interventions. This will be particularly important—and challenging—in the post-pandemic era, given the significant trauma so many students likely experienced over the past year, especially those growing up in poverty.
- Establish and maintain authentic, candid relationships with students and their families that reflect and show respect for their communities and cultures. In-school activities like greeting individual students by name, and making time for regular check-in conversations can be helpful, as can family-outreach strategies like calling home to share a positive report from a school day or surveying parents on their opinions of the school.
- Uphold a consistent, shared code of conduct in which students and adults are expected to work hard, show respect for the rules and one another, and make positive behavioral choices. Focus efforts on preventing disruption, including recognizing and rewarding positive behavior and providing mental-health supports to students who have experienced trauma and may struggle with self-regulation.
- Set and communicate high expectations for all students and provide access to these goals through universal supports, such as after-school office hours or tutoring that is open to all.
- Guard against racially biased discipline, including by carefully tracking and analyzing data on misbehavior and the school’s response, including office referrals and in or out-of-school suspensions.
- Consider assigning instructional duties by subject-area strength or “looping” students so they work with the same teacher for more than one year.
- Adopt practices that support teachers’ emotional well-being, such as informal socializing, regular check-ins, and limits on evening emails.
Positive relationships between students and teachers are at the core of a successful classroom environment, one where students feel seen, work hard, and treat one another with respect. We know that when there are such relationships, students are happier and more likely to thrive. A positive school climate is correlated with beneficial student outcomes on many measures, including attendance, assessment outcomes, high school graduation rates, physical health, and adolescent pro-civic behaviors.
But it is important to understand that strong relationships don’t mean friendship-like bonds or generic feelings of being liked. The Search Institute’s Developmental Relationships Frameworks provides a sound model for educators looking to create school climates that foster learning. It is based on five elements: express care, challenge growth, express support, share power, and expand possibilities. In this understanding of climate, teachers don’t just express care for their students, they envision and communicate ambitious possibilities for their futures and provide the challenges and supports needed to realize that potential.
This all rests of skillful classroom management, which minimizes disruption and sets clear rules and expectation for behavior and success. Students feel safer and behave better when they know that there are transparent norms in the classroom, and when they know what the consequences will be if they make a mistake.
The National Council on Teacher Quality, in its overview of the research, stresses that positive relationships are developed not through friendship but through a teacher’s implementation of “fair rules and productive routines.” In other words, teachers need to create a structured, positive environment for students in order for the relationship to be a positive one. Concrete strategies for classroom teachers can be found in “Reducing Behavior Problems in the Elementary Classroom,” a practice guide published by the Institute of Education Sciences that affirms the importance of teaching and reinforcing consistent rules and routines, positively reinforcing appropriate behavior, and imposing consequences for negative behavior. In addition, principals and other school leaders should occupy a steady presence in the school’s halls and classrooms, which can prevent disciplinary problems from occurring.
The starting point is to ensure that students are highly engaged in learning by choosing high-quality, rigorous curriculum that is content-rich, interesting, and culturally relevant, with instruction that connects all students to it. In elementary school classrooms, this tends to mean trading out disconnected literacy skill-building activities like “making inferences” for text-based learning about high-interest topics like the Underground Railroad or explorations in space. Relationships and rules are key, but rich content and effective teaching also help to create orderly and purposeful classroom environments.
Schools with safe and supportive climates also take into account the holistic needs of teachers and students. Engaging, high-quality instruction is key, but so are opportunities for physical activity and unstructured, student-led games and playground time. Daily schedules should have time for exercise outdoors.
Delpit, L. (2013). Multiplication Is for White People: Raising Expectations of Other People’s Children. The New Press.
Epstein, M., Atkins, M., Cullinan, D., Kutash, K., and Weaver, R. (2008). “Reducing Behavior Problems in the Elementary School Classroom: A Practice Guide (NCEE #2008-012).” Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.
- Provides the evidence base for the idea that clear rules and expectations that are reinforced deliberately by teachers improve student behavior.
Greenberg, J., Putnam, H., and Walsh, K. (2014). “Training Our Future Teachers: Classroom Management.” National Council on Teacher Quality.
- Draws heavily on research-backed classroom management practices and identifies five key strategies that teacher candidates should master: establish rules, build routines, reinforce positive behavior, impose consequences for misbehavior, and foster student engagement.
Hamre, B., and Pianta, R. (2005). Can Instructional and Emotional Support in the First-Grade Classroom Make a Difference for Children at Risk of School Failure? Child Development, 76(5), 949–67.
Jacob, B., and Rockoff, J. (2011). “Organizing Schools to Improve Student Achievement: Start Times, Grade Configurations, and Teacher Assignments.” Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution.
Manning, J., and Jeon, L. (2020). “Supporting Teachers During Re-Entry.” Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Institute for Education Policy.
Nelson, B.S., and Hammerman, J.K. (1996). “Reconceptualizing teaching: Moving toward the creation of intellectual communities of students, teachers and teacher educators.” From Teacher Learning: New Policies, New Practices. The Series on School Reform. McLaughlin, M., and Oberman, I., eds. Newton, MA: Center for Development of Teaching
- Provides a framework for the idea of classrooms as “intellectual communities” that are the ultimate end of the rules and relationships that foster positive behavior.
Oliver, R., Wehby, J., and Reschly, D. (2011). Teacher classroom management practices: Effects on disruptive or aggressive student behavior. Campbell Systematic Reviews. 4(1), 1-55.
- Summary showing how strong classroom management systems based on clear and transparent rules can reduce disruptive student behavior.
Quin, D. (2017). Longitudinal and Contextual Associations Between Teacher–Student Relationships and Student Engagement: A Systematic Review. Review of Educational Research, 87(2), 345–387.
- Review of 46 studies on the impact of strong relationships between teachers and students that decisively shows positive impacts on academics, attendance, positive behavior, and many other areas.
Roorda, D., Koomen, H., Split, J. and Oort, F. (2011). The Influence of Affective Teacher–Student Relationships on Students’ School Engagement and Achievement: A Meta-Analytic Approach. Review of Educational Research, 81(4) 493-529.
- Looks across 99 studies to investigate the associations between affective qualities of teacher–student relationships and students’ school engagement and achievement to find evidence of the major impact of positive relationships on academic success.
Simonsen, B. Fairbanks, S., Briesch, A., Myers, D., and Sugai, G. (2008). Evidence-based Practices in Classroom Management: Considerations for Research to Practice. Education and Treatment of Children. 31(3), 351-380.
- Summary of research that finds evidence that setting and reinforcing clear expectations for behavior is an effective classroom-management practice.
Skinner, E., and Belmont, M. (1993). Motivation in the classroom: Reciprocal effects of teacher behavior and student engagement across the school year. Journal of Educational Psychology, 85(4), 571-581.