Strategies to Foster a Successful Classroom Community

by Rachel Lissy @ Ramapo for Children

As a professional development trainer with Ramapo for Children, an organization that provides youth programming and adult training for special needs students, I often offer feedback to teachers regarding their classroom and behavior management. Often, when teachers reflect upon a particularly challenging lesson or stressful period, they will get a faraway look in their eyes and pine for the possibilities of next September. As early as October or November they will rue the structures and expectations they did not put in place from day one. “Next year,” they tell me, “things will be different. I won’t make the same mistakes.”

It’s a commonly held notion in schools that the first few weeks of school are essential for developing a successful and positive classroom culture. Although the work of creating a positive classroom culture is never complete and requires relentless effort on the part of teachers, there are specific strategies and practices that, when introduced early in the year, help to foster a culture of learning and classroom community. Here are a few strategies for teachers to consider in anticipation of a new year:

1. Define the standards and purpose of your community and set expectations.
Articulate a vision from day one about the shared purpose of your classroom community. Link this shared purpose (learning new things, becoming critical thinkers, making friends, graduating from high school) to your classroom expectations. You should be able to link your classroom rules and expectations to the shared purpose of your classroom community. Post your expectations clearly in your classroom and refer back to them when praising or confronting behavior.

2. Establish routines.
Once the school year starts, it is often quite clear what behaviors interfere with our classroom purpose or get in the way of learning. However, we often get stuck with a “what’s wrong with this picture?” vision and fail to identify and clearly articulate the behaviors we want to see instead. For example, in an ideal world, what would you like your classroom to look like, feel like, and sound like? Zero in on a particular transition or time of day. Imagine exactly what you want students to be doing and when you want them to do it. Turn this “ideal world” vision into a clearly articulated routine. Teach this routine and post step-by-step instructions to reinforce it.

3. Anticipate problems.
Your “ideal world” vision is just that—an ideal. Before the school year begins, it is important to anticipate the behaviors and challenges that might puncture this ideal. What skills will students need to meet your expectations and participate appropriately? How will you teach these skills? What alternative activities or structures will you put in place for students with lagging skills?

4. Plan and create a productive environment.
Once you have set expectations, established routines, and anticipated problems, you can better consider how to organize your environment to minimize negative behavior and maximize desired behaviors. In particular, consider how you can manipulate space, time, people, and materials to minimize or respond to the problems you anticipate.

For example, many teachers find the period right after lunch to be challenging. Students are excited, conflicts may have emerged during recess, and students may have a hard time slowing their bodies down or transitioning from socializing back to learning. Accordingly, you might manipulate space by keeping the lights low and assigning seats. You might manipulate time by incorporating a calming routine, letting students read independently, or dedicating time for conflict resolution. Playing quiet music, having a visual and engaging “Do Now,” or a worksheet prepared and on students’ desks as they enter the classroom are examples of manipulating materials to encourage students to calm down and get focused.

Finally, for students who find the transition from recess to the classroom particularly challenging you might adapt your expectations. Have alternative activities available. For example, you might provide those students with some computer time or a classroom job, or suggest that they run an errand or get a drink of water before returning to class.

5. Create an atmosphere of belonging.
Relationships are essential to all the strategies described above. Students will be more likely to meet your expectations, follow your routines, and respond to your redirection if they feel cared for and valued in your classroom. Express interest in your students, notice their strengths, and reinforce positive behavior. Greet students warmly at the door and develop rituals and celebrations that acknowledge their contributions and build classroom community.
Here are some ways to build community and create a sense of classroom belonging:

Group goals.
Establishing class goals together encourages more student investment and pride in the outcomes. Often, students come up with class rules with the teacher in the first week of school. Goals allow the class to home in on specific expectations one at a time. For example, one week the class could focus on taking turns and another week on using kind words.

Group incentives.
When students are working toward a group reward (e.g., pizza party, game time), there is added motivation to cooperate and then to celebrate success. Incentives are particularly effective to motivate students through challenging tasks or times of day (e.g., transitions, walking quietly in line, or focusing on teacher instructions).

Regularly scheduled community meetings.
Check in regularly to identify classroom goals, revisit rules and expectations, and solve problems.

Student suggestion box.
Giving students a voice helps them feel like an important part of the class.

Class trips.
Going somewhere together outside the classroom allows students to bond as a group and to see each other in a different light. Trips can be a great relationship-building opportunity early in the year.

Displays of student work.
This acknowledges students’ talents, efforts, and progress.