Tricks of the research – creating a positive classroom culture

As a middle school teacher of a high needs school in an urban district – I have been inundated with training on this topic. It can be overwhelming and sometimes even contradictory, so I wanted to break it down into easy steps especially for early teachers to not make missteps in that first couple crucial weeks.


There are three basic parts to building a classroom culture:

  1. Rules that students should know and follow
  2. Positive recognition for following rules
  3. Consequences that students get for not following the rules

Many early teachers rebuff the idea of so much structure, but without it, students are clueless as to what your expectations are. Remember, they are still forming their understanding of what is appropriate and what is not so if you don’t explicitly lay it out, they really have free range to make it up themselves.

In the first week, teachers should lay out their plan, send it to administrators to stay consistent and to parents so they know what your expectations are.

Part 1: Setting up rules

Rules follow a simple format: “What” you want them to, “When” you want them to do it and “How” you want them to do it.

Safety and responsibility. Basics of the classroom on how students can stay safe in your classroom and responsibly use materials. For example, “Check-out pencils on the board before taking one.”

A schedule. Seems obvious – timeout the whole period or day in chunks. Although lessons may be different, students should know generally what they are doing and when. This should be done even in Pre-K and verbalized everyday.

Transitions. In your schedule, think about how you want students to go from one location to another. Remember to indicate “how” students should make the changes – can they whisper or talk at a level 1 volume? Should they be silent? Should they go with a partner?

Group norms. If students are either seated in groups or will be in-groups, what are the roles of each person? What are the expectations when one thing is to be shared amongst all students?

Part 2: Positive Recognition

This part is probably the most important in setting up a nurturing classroom culture. This will help students to feel motivated and to build connections with you. The basics are:

  • The 5 to 1 rule – for students and their parents, remember to offer 5 pieces of positive feedback before every 1 negative. Otherwise our psychological constructs can think you are “picking on us” or “have something against us” — which is a difficult direction to come back from.
  • Positivity is NOT praise – give an accurate reflection of what the student did, such as “you quickly and quietly finished that worksheet” not “great job finishing the worksheet.” Overly glorifying statements lose value with overuse and should be reserved for exceptional feats.
  • Positive narration – as students are sent off on a task, positively narrate who is on task by reiterating the instructions. For example, “I see Jolie is opening up her notebook to page 4 and starting on the Part 1 assignment quietly. I see Tyler taking out his notebook without talking and getting ready….”
  • Incentive systems – incentive systems are useful to acclimate students to new rules & help them build skills they may not otherwise have. Consider offering class-wide incentives but also individual incentives to allow for personalized praise. Think about what is the target number of points students should aim for. Kred Rewards offers an easy to use points system which takes minutes to set-up and use. The target is set at 5 positive points per student per day. You make a digital rewards catalog with special privileges and rewards that students can explore and redeem when they’ve earned the points.
  • Positive communication with students’ families – this is critical in the first couple of weeks – especially for students who may show signs of potential challenges later. No parent wants the first note from a teacher to be something they need to fix – so use the early months to send LOTS of positive communication. Aim for two times per week.

Part 3: Consequences

Firstly, your hierarchy of consequences should not be made up on the fly. The worst thing you can do is say “ok, so now you can’t go to recess” and the student is befuddled as to how their actions led to that result. Create a couple categories where you will apply consequences – like “not following rules” and “disruption”. Then create a sequence of consequences. Elementary should have a 5 step process and middle and high need only 3. A couple tips from the research:

  • Verbal warnings are not a part of your consequence hierarchy – they should be done but first in the form of positive narration to give the student an opportunity to get back on track and then quietly to the student to personally redirect their actions.
  • Consequences should feel natural. If I am disrupting students and my consequence is being a group I don’t want to be in, it probably won’t work well. For disruption think about what the student is missing and the consequence should be making up that work – for example, if they missed a lesson due to talking, they should be asked to read extra work or reflect on the topic independently to catch up.
  • The first warning should be a written warning to the student.
  • For both elementary and secondary, the parents should be called once the student is asked to leave the room or go to an administrator. These go hand-in-hand.
  • Send these consequences home and ask students to sign a contract agreeing to these. Some teachers ask students what appropriate middle (2nd or 3rd tier) consequences can be after the written warning but before they are sent out of the classroom.

In an effective classroom, most of the work is reinforcing positives and consequences are delivered quickly, succinctly and without argument. That is, the student may argue, but teachers should not be in the business of negotiating and arguing. Use a soft and even tone and when possible and always always try to take students aside to have a one-on-one after the consequence. Having a bad day doesn’t mean you don’t get the consequence but reinforcing that you care and that you want them to succeed is critical for tomorrow’s success.

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