Every year, educators around the nation are asked to improve. And that’s regardless of how well – or poorly – their school(s) most recently performed. It’s practically a given that gains in student outcomes are continually expected. Whether it’s better test scores or higher engagement or gains in specific subject matters, community stakeholders will always ask for more. Usually, the intentions behind this are good and well; “good enough” won’t cut it when it comes to our nation’s children and our collective future.
What’s also equally true, but only compounds the pressure, is the ever-growing squeeze on education funding. Per 2018 figures from the American Federation of Teachers, K-12 education is drastically underfunded in every single state in the U.S., with 25 state governments shortchanging K-12 education by $19 billion over the last decade. By and large, we have yet to make up the ground that was lost during the financial crisis: 25 states spent less on K-12 education in 2016 than they did prior to the recession.1
Essentially, every year, educators are asked to do more with less: to improve student outcomes with fewer staff, fewer resources, and fewer dollars. It’s a grim reality...but it’s not hopeless. Because improving outcomes – with less – is happening, all over the country, every year. Educators are finding a way, and school climate improvements are playing a huge part.
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How safe, supported, challenged, and accepted students feel can define a school’s climate. And it’s well-documented that students learn best when school climates are positive.2 What’s especially promising, the federal Department of Education’s National Center on Safe and Supportive Learning Environments (NCSSLE) highlights, is that student outcomes and teacher well-being improve when school climate improves. Research findings on this include:
The research indicates that improving school climate can be a clear way to improve student outcomes – suggesting school climate investments are well worth making. But how can educators spend on climate when they’re already strapped for time, resources, and cash?
There are multiple factors that contribute to a school’s climate; the government’s National Center on Safe and Supportive Learning Environments identifies 13 different major indicators.10 And targeting each factor with a comprehensive plan could easily send district and school leaders in 13 different directions – which is neither cost-effective nor always possible. But what is cost-effective is targeting the one thing that impacts nearly every area of climate: student behavior.
Since how students behave or act across a campus intersects nearly every climate indicator, reframing the approach to student behavior is a high-leverage way to shape school climate. And to influence behavior in the most cost-effective way, many educators recommend focusing staff time, training, implementation and on-going energy into a singular behavior plan. That helps target more climate influences by spending or exerting fewer resources.
Improving student behavior to influence school climate isn’t just a theory; it’s a daily practice at schools across the nation. As makers of the student behavior improvement tool Hero, we at SchoolMint see this all the time. And so we asked our customers to share.
Happy to help their fellow educators do more with less, Hero schools have lent their strategies and success stories to this guide. What follows are the different areas of climate NCSSLE outlines, plus the tactics schools are successfully using to 1) influence each climate area and 2) produce positive outcomes.
Four of the major climate indicators highlighted by the NCSSLE focus on safety. At a basic level, all students – to effectively learn – need to feel safe from exclusion, physical harm, verbal abuse, teasing, and gossip. For that to happen, it’s recommended that:
This first group of climate indicators naturally intersects with a school’s discipline policy – and especially how it’s enforced. When discipline is enforced disproportionately, when minority students are suspended more often than their white counterparts for example, entire subgroups won’t feel safe on campus.
Adding Behavior Redirection to a student behavior plan is an effective way to both reduce the disciplinary incidents that negatively impact safety indicators and to equalize the enforcement of discipline. With a digital tool like HeroReady, redirections are standardized either school- or district-wide, so incidents, whenever or wherever they occur, are met with consistent, established actions.
With a discipline policy that “lacked structure,” Rutherford High’s Assistant Principal Andrea Banks and her team struggled with enforcement. In June of 2018, the school adopted Hero for student behavior redirection – and they’ve seen discipline incidents drastically reduce ever since. Banks believes it’s because teachers and administrators campuswide have “bought in” to Hero and are using the tool with fidelity. “Students were really craving that structure before,” she believes, adding with Hero, the discipline culture is now more objective and fair. As a result, discipline referrals in total are down by 88% from the year prior. In the spring of 2018, the school had 133 out-of-school suspensions on the books for the 2017-18 school year. But by the spring of 2019, there were only 34 suspensions for all of 2018-19.
Supportive teaching practices are instrumental to growing high-quality learning environments. NCSSLE identifies them as:
Today, more and more student behavior programs are including some form of Positive Behavior Reinforcement. Whether it’s structured around PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) or another framework, Positive Reinforcement is about recognizing students for exhibiting the productive behaviors a school is trying to cultivate. It’s educators providing encouragement and constructive feedback to students through individual attention – the heart of NCSSLE’s Supportive Teaching Practices.
Student behavior tools like HeroRise make Positive Behavior Reinforcement easier to give. With Hero, for instance, staff, teachers, and administrators use the digital platform to recognize productive or positive behaviors as individual students exhibit them throughout the day, usually by giving Hero points (which students can redeem for perks). Effective because it’s a schoolwide solution, Hero can help create a culture of support that starts in class and ripples through campus.
At Boynton Beach High School, educators began using Hero in 2018 to nurture productive learning environments through Positive Behavior Reinforcement – and it’s been a factor in the significant academic improvements they’ve seen. Dr. Presley Charles, the school’s Assistant Principal, believes Hero has been instrumental in creating “a paradigm shift on how we approach issues such as tardiness (to school and class), remaining in class, and staying on task in class.”
Now, they’re encouraging students through supportive practices and giving Hero points for the behaviors that result in more effective class time, like being on task and on time. And as a result, “students are on time, remaining in class, and on task – allowing teachers more instructional time with their students. That helps us increase our statewide assessment score by 72 points this year,” he reports. After Hero, FSA ELA and Math scores are up 6% and 14%, respectively, and Math scores have more than doubled for black students.
Much of NCSSLE’s definition of the Social & Civic Learning dimension is centered on feelings of accountability. School climate, they’ve found, can become more positive when students exhibit:
As a strategy, many schools find Positive Behavior Reinforcement is well-suited for influencing this climate dimension. Inside the classroom, teachers can recognize students for listening and demonstrating personal responsibility. During administrative meetings, administrators can reward students for resolving conflicts and regulating emotions.
Roxanne Smilovich, a Teacher at New Renaissance Middle, believes accountability is key to their test score gains. The school is using Hero to focusing on tardy reduction, and as a result, the importance of being on time, of meeting expectations, and of respecting the learning environment is sinking in with students. “Hero has eliminated a lot of tardies, which allows students to be on time to class for the warm-up, End of Course (EOC) test questions that are given at the beginning of every class daily.” As a result, “students are getting more practice and student scores are higher.”
The Interpersonal Relationships dimension, as outlined by NCSSLE, is centered around how individuals on a school campus treat each other.
Interpersonal Relationships also includes how students treat each other and demonstrate patterns of support peer-to-peer.
This is another dimension where Positive Behavior Reinforcement can help shape climate. Because Reinforcement fosters more supportive interactions between adults and students, it’s a natural relationship-builder.
Hero schools who have seen success point to a formula that any school can repeat. Per academic research11, to be most effective at this, schools should aim for achieving a 4:1 (or even a 5:1) ratio of positive vs. disciplinary interactions between a teacher and student. Essentially, when students experience significantly more positive interactions, they’ll forge those key interpersonal relationships.
Kalakaua Middle was managing a PBIS program largely with paper tickets, but participation among students and teachers was scattered. “Universal recognition wasn’t happening; some students were never recognized,” says MTSS Coordinator Tiana Kamiko. After switching to digital management via Hero in 2017-18, Positive Behavior Reinforcement is now more effective and reaching more students, and Kamiko credits Hero for significant growth in interpersonal relationships on campus. For Building Positive Relationships, the school earned a 70% positive score on their Tripod Survey, which is up from their previous score in the 50% range. “Many of our teachers have also increased their individual scores,” she adds.
Their growth with Hero has also translated to measurable academic gains, “We’ve created Hero Honors and are rewarding students for every A, B, and C grade. We’ve decreased the numbers of D's and F's on report cards because of it.” Comparing 2017-18 grades to 2016-17 shows that students went from 658 A’s to 745 A’s.
Another key component of school climate is the Institutional Environment and the relationship that students and staff have with it. NCSSLE breaks this down into two parts:
Building positive connectivity with a school’s identity and physical structure can be encouraged through Positive Behavior Reinforcement. Many schools already ask schools to wear IDs or dress up for school pride day, but by recognizing and rewarding students for those actions, educators using Positive Reinforcement have found participation is much easier to increase.
Beyond school connectedness, Positive Reinforcement is also ideally suited to increase student engagement as a whole. Many educators agree that traditionally, students who over- and under-achieve end up engaging with adults on campus the most, leaving a large portion of students somewhere in between and “flying under the radar.” Positive Reinforcement though gives educators opportunities to connect with all students, every day. And many school administrators using Hero find a schoolwide view of their Positive Reinforcement data often becomes an invaluable tool, allowing educators to regularly check for students who aren’t being recognized enough.
The tactics presented here can help educators organize a behavior plan around climate improvement. But executing, measuring, and reporting a district or school’s efforts can eat up a significant amount of resources too. That’s where a digital behavior improvement tool – that automates all of that – can really pay off.
Hero, for instance, saves our customers an average 15-30 minutes per week12 (per the majority of respondents) by reducing paper slips/forms, automating positive behavior point attribution/redemption, instantly generating dashboards/reports, etc. After it’s set up, running, and students have “bought-in,” behavior generally improves across the board.
It’s important to note, with student behavior improvement plans, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. They are most effective when they are created with the unique needs and challenges of a particular community in mind. And even when perfectly designed, educators should measure success by movement within the majority, not the whole. There will always be special cases and students who need additional supports. And that’s another promising aspect of student behavior improvement tools – by saving time elsewhere, educators are better able to devote their attention to where it’s needed most.
As a former district administrator, K-8 Principal and 8-12 Alternative School Principal, Daniel Haithcox knows all too well how powerful climate investments can be. He also knows that support on both sides (teachers on one end and district leadership on the other) is crucial.
Effective education leaders never rest on last year’s record, and nor do they run from the challenge of leading continuous school improvement. Most school leaders know the foundational piece behind a climate shift, that can make or break a school, is indeed student behavior, and most have a sense of what they want to do.
The challenge comes in helping stakeholders see how efforts from the classroom to the district office are connected – and most effective when aligned.
At every school where I was a principal, the number one priority in my first year was to improve student behavior outcomes as well as staff internal practices, despite the challenges ahead. I also learned that what really continued to move the needle the most was being able to clearly communicate, follow through, and reinforce expectations for behavior. This meant refining and tightening processes where needed as well making it a point to recognize and celebrate what was working well and improving. To best do so, the system and approach had to be efficient and user-friendly. If not, staff members would ultimately not be able carry things out with fidelity, and students and parents would disenage if there was no substance.
Support Both Discipline & Positive Behavior(i.e. redirection and positive reinforcement) all behavior management should be consolidated into one platform
Scalable Roll-out Designi.e. train-the-trainer methodology
Configurabilityprograms should be tailored for the specific needs (behavior goals, desired behavior ratios, etc.) of unique school communities
User-friendly Interfacecan make or break staff buy-in
School-level Reportingallows for equalizing of discipline & engagement
District-level Reportingimproves program fidelity
With a system like Hero, educators can improve climate in a way that is not just fluff but really substantive. Positive climates create stakeholder interconnectedness, ownership, and leadership – not malicious compliance. And administrator bandwidth is freed up so you can actually be an instructional leader and agent of change.