Posts By: Ali Hearn

6 Ways to Foster Positive Attributes in Our Youth!

Ali Hearn

December 19, 2014

It becomes increasingly easy for teachers to point out the traits in students that they wish were “different” or “do not want to see” as the year goes on. Can we just as easily describe the traits or characteristics that we want to experience from our students? Can we identify what positive attributes we try to foster in our students to help create a safe and supportive learning environment? And what can we do to help elicit those characteristics from our students? Lets take a look at our students from head to toe to see which characteristics will help create a positive school culture and how we, as educational professionals, can help create it!

What we can do as educators to help create an environment that helps support positive traits in our students:

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Ideas and Tips

Think about the last school leadership team meeting that took place in your school building. This can be any kind of a meeting where the voices of leaders from your building/district were present, representing key stakeholders. Who did you see sitting around the table? You may have seen: a grade level teacher from each grade in your building, a representative from special education, a representative from the PE department, art, music, technology, a social worker, a psychologist, a speech pathologist, a teacher’s aide, a cafeteria worker, a bus driver, a resource officer, a secretary, etc. If the aforementioned voices were not present at your leadership meeting, (you are not alone, there are a lot of stakeholder voices that schools are notorious for leaving out of leadership meetings) this would be a great opportunity for you and your team to consider inviting any one or all of these important voices to your next leadership meeting that takes place. However, with that said, there is still a key stakeholder that has been left out of this list — students. Although students are our participants, clients, customers, consumers, teammates, etc. they are often one of the first voices to be left without a seat at the leadership table for collaboration, decision-making, assessing needs, planning, creating action plans, etc.

Why are the youth who fill our hallways everyday, who receive our curriculum that we worked on tirelessly all summer, who motivate us to be better educators and people ourselves, not sitting at the table next to us? Although our youth know our classrooms inside and out, understand the nuances of many of the individual teachers and staff at large, live and breathe the school climate and culture, why do we still think that they will not be able to contribute to our critical conversations?

Not only do our youth need to be at the table while we are developing systems, analyzing school data, and implementing academic and behavioral practices to help support them, but they need to be asked their opinions, thoughts, feelings, and perspectives every step of the way. It is important to ask not one or two students (often pulled from student council or student leadership), but ALL students. There are several different ways to create a larger student voice at the table and involved in the critical decision-making that is taking place in our schools. Here are a few to consider:

  • Invite students to be leaders on leadership teams throughout the school, where their voice is equal to others on the team.
  • Send out student surveys throughout the year regarding items such as school safety, discipline, acknowledgments, etc. Share the results with the staff and students throughout the year.
  • Create a student voice committee. Invite students from all different corners of the building to be on this committee. Try to make sure that all the different voices of the youth in the building are represented, not just the faces that are typically seen. Ask this committee for their opinions regarding all different kinds of decisions being made in the building.
  • Ask a forum/roundtable of students to give their feedback on the student handbook. Use their feedback to make appropriate adaptations in the handbook, and let the staff and student body know that this took place.

Now, imagine your next school leadership team meeting. You are sitting next to the principal on one side and a student from the building on the other side. Which student will you choose to be at the table with you?

Teach ALL: Think positive. Be proactive. Nurture partnerships.

The voice comes over the intercom on the plane that you sat down on just minutes ago. The common message we have heard one hundred times comes over the loudspeaker. “…A passenger should always put on his or her own oxygen mask on before helping children or other persons requiring assistance.” If only this message could come on in our homes, maybe through the tv, to remind us to take care of ourselves first in all of the other areas of our lives!

There is nothing more important than taking care of YOU – physically, emotionally, mentally, etc. Successfully taking care of ourselves allows us the ability to better support those around us from 7:30am-3:00pm Monday through Friday (and the other times as well). However, so often the days turn into weeks, the weeks turn into months, and suddenly we have lost ourselves in lesson plans and paper grading, test scores and IEP meetings, progress reports and open houses. Some may refer to the feelings that can start to arise as feeling “burned out”, “spent”, or for some even feeling “compassion fatigue”. Whatever the feeling is, many of us have felt it before. It might be before winter break, before spring break, before summer break, or with no break in sight at all. We may feel physically or emotionally drained. There doesn’t seem to be enough gas in the tank to keep us running.

What do you do to take care of you?

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Although it has been unintentional, I realize that my actions have led to families feeling disengaged from the school environment. This statement may cause some to be shocked, angry, or defensive — however, I believe it to be the truth (at least with regards to what I have experienced during my time as an educator).

Beginning as early as pre-school we start inviting families to come to school-based “meetings” to discuss behavior and academics. Instead of this experience being about working together for the student, I have noticed that these meetings often feel more like a lecture for the parent, as the school team members have typically met and dialogued before this meeting and appear very confident and clear on what it is they are about to tell this parent. If a student is considered “a behavior issue” or “low performing”, these meetings will likely take place with greater frequency, longer duration, more intensity, include more unknown acronyms, and quite possibly leave the parent feeling worse than they did pre-meeting. Unfortunately what began as a well-intentioned series of meetings from the school-team and a hopeful family needing assistance, over time, can result in a tired, frustrated and disengaged family.

It is now time for the student to enter high school, where he or she possibly requires a higher level of social, emotional, and academic support than his or her same-aged peers. The English teacher has concerns, attempts to call home, and the school team is shocked and can’t understand how those parents can be so unavailable to come in to a meeting with the school team?! I know that I have had those thoughts and even said those words more than once.

It is no longer acceptable for educators to say:

“The parents won’t come to a meeting.”

“I called three times, they clearly don’t care about supporting their child’s educational needs.”

“I would try and call, but it doesn’t matter. They won’t come anyway, and even if they do, nothing will change.”

I have realized that it is essential that as professionals, we stay at the table with our families and never stop trying to engage. It needs to be an unconditional process.

School, family, and community partnerships are critical to students’ academic, social, and emotional outcomes. These partnerships need to be nurtured. When we start working with a family, we don’t know what their own educational experiences have been. They could have been very negative, causing them to be hesitant to partner with educational entities. We also may not know their past experiences with their own children in school up to this point. If there is any information that we do have regarding this family, it is likely that it has been passed down by other school professionals, causing us to make assumptions without ever having personally listened to the parent’s story.

All parents want to see their students be socially competent, academically successful, and able to positively contribute to our society. If you see resistance from families in the engagement process with school entities, try and give them the benefit of the doubt that they ultimately do want what is best for their child. We have to actively work to engage our families and nurture strong partnerships for the benefit of our youth. This partnership is critical. Stay at the table and continue to engage.

Ideas to consider:

  • Offer school materials in multiple languages to meet the demographic of your student/family population.
  • Send home positive communication regularly — don’t wait for something bad to happen to chat with parents
  • Offer to meet a family at a neutral site (i.e. coffee shop or library) to talk with them about school matters. This approach can take away negative feelings associated with the school, and may ultimately get them into the school building at a later point in time.
  • Never stop trying to meet with a parent/family. Consider having meetings at times the family chooses, rather than the school team.
  • Start a parent/family/community resource center. Allow there to be a safe place for these key stakeholders to come to school and receive information.
  • Offer meetings quarterly for parents/families to learn about important school items/topics. Think of multiple opportunities/ways to invite parents/families to these events. Consider having dinner and childcare available to make it more likely that they can attend.
  • Have a parent/family member on leadership teams throughout the building/district. Their voice is critical to our work.

Would love to hear your ideas for keeping parents engaged!

As humans we crave expectations, clarity, and common language. It feels good to go into a situation (especially a new situation) knowing what to expect and what is expected of you. People of all ages, from children to adults, feel more confident and capable when they know what to expect in different settings.

Consider being invited to a social gathering such as a dinner party. You might find yourself asking certain questions: “What is the dress attire?” “What kind of dish shall I bring?” “How many people will be in attendance?” Answers to these questions would allow you to be proactive with your behavior and appropriately organize for the upcoming event. Additionally, these answers would give you the confidence to walk through the door of the host’s house knowing that you will be socially, emotionally, and behaviorally appropriate to meet the expectations that have been established for the occasion.

It is critical to have clearly defined expectations in a school setting. Expectations allow a common language to exist and help to ensure appropriate behavior throughout the entire school-site. Students, teachers, administrators, parents, family members, and community members all want to know what is expected when they walk through the doors of a school building. They may not always express this desire, but it would be difficult to find someone who would not want to know what is to be expected. The nature of human behavior is to want to do what is expected in different settings in order to appropriately fit into the established social norm.

Here are a few suggestions I’ve learned over the years:

  • Creating clearly defined expectations for the different settings of your school-site (i.e. bus, front office, hallway, cafeteria, gymnasium, classroom, playground, etc.) can help ensure comfort and security of those entering the building and can help create a safe and supportive learning environment for students.

  • Do not assume that everyone already knows the expectations of a given setting. It is important to establish these expectations with all stakeholders and then teach the behaviors you want to see, just as we teach academics. The truth of the matter is no one wants to show up to a hundred-person black tie affair in ripped jeans and a t-shirt holding a six-layer taco dip that feeds four.

  • Be proactive! Set the stage for this school year and help everyone in your building feel part of a positive school culture.

Would love to hear your ideas on setting expectations in the comments below!

When entering a store, we typically know which door to enter through, where to make our purchase, and which door to exit through. When entering a restaurant, we typically know which door to enter, whom to ask for a table (or where to get one ourselves) where/how to place our order, where/how to pay, etc. If we cannot easily figure these answers out for ourselves, we know exactly who to ask to get the answer quickly.

Systems exist everywhere in our world. Some systems are more official, documented, and/or sustainable than others. For example, the fact that we all have to get a new sticker for our license plates each year, or that we can only park in that parking space between 12:00pm and 3:00pm on Wednesdays and Saturdays are official, documented, and mandated systems. Figuring out who sits next to whom in the teacher’s lounge during lunch or which lane to drive in on a four-lane highway are less official systems, not documented at all, yet still fall under the umbrella of being somewhat “understood” by the general population. Typically, when systems are put in place it makes processes, routines, and outcomes more effective and efficient.

Schools are no exception. There are many smooth-running systems that are currently in place in every school building. Where and when to turn in grades, where and when to enter attendance, where and when and with what materials to show up for Institute Days, PLCs, staff meetings, etc. These are established systems that help the adults in the building do their work of supporting youth more effectively and efficiently. These routines, calendars, documents, communication trees, policies, processes, etc. were created, established, and then taught/documented so that they could be sustained by other adults for years to come.

Consider a teacher’s classroom as well as the entire school at large. Do you/your school have effective systems in place? For everything? Chances are that some things are systematized and some things are more haphazard in nature. If you were to aggregate data surrounding these different systems (or lack-there-of) you would probably find that when effective systems are in place there are more positive outcomes than when systems are lacking.

In the next 2 months, consider establishing 1-2 systems around something in your classroom or building where a system does not already exist?

  • Decide when you will make a positive contact home.

  • Decide when you will send someone to the office or handle it within the classroom

  • Decide how often your staff will acknowledge one another.

  • Decide how often your staff will acknowledge students.

  • Decide how often/when you will look at data in your classroom.

  • Determine are roles and tasks documented? Could some of the work you do continue if you left your school building? Or is there a lot that you do to help the school function that is not documented- thus no one would be able to pick up and support the youth where you left off.

Remember when you were little and you were one of the last three standing in a heated game of “Simon Says”. It was down to the wire and you moved your hands to cover your ears while the other two stayed crouched down low touching their toes? That moment…”ahhhh” (slow, loud sigh of defeat). It feels so bad to be out of sync, not in line, off the beat with the rest of the group. Systems help adults (and ultimately our students and families) to feel better, to have expectations, to have common language, and to work efficiently and effectively. Everything we do in our work is made up of tiny little systems that come together to create the “powerful machine” that is our school. The more systematized we can make things, we will ultimately be helping to create a more effective, efficient, and positive school culture.


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