Strategies for Building a Productive and Positive Learning Environmentby Becton Loveless
Positive, productive learning environments are key to students' academic, emotional and social success in school. Unfortunately, positive learning environments don't just happen on their own–they must be created. There are many components that go into making a positive learning environment for students. For starters, positive learning environments should offer a climate of safety, where risk-taking is encouraged, there is open authentic conversation, trust and respect are fostered, and positive interaction is the norm.
The best time to start developing a positive learning environment in your classroom is during the first days, weeks, and months of the school year–but it's never too late to get started. Below, we'll explore positive action strategy, and several simple tips, that teachers, educators, and even parents, can use for creating a positive, productive learning environment for students. By implementing these strategies, you'll be able combine the need for positive learning environments that foster improved academic performance, with the ability to promote students' social and emotional wellbeing and progress inside and outside the classroom.
Step 1 - Make learning relevant
The more relevant a topic or subject is to students' own success and happiness, the more engaged they'll become in the learning process. On the whole, when teaching math, science, social studies, even history, find ways to adapt the lesson or lecture to the interests of students. It's also helpful to discover the interests, talents, and learning styles of each student if possible. As resources permit, adjust teaching methods and strategies to meet the needs of students on an individual basis and you'll see students become more attentive and engaged.
Step 2 - Develop a Code of Conduct
If students don't have a clear and agreed upon understanding of positive and negative behaviors, it's difficult to create a positive learning environment in the classroom and at school. The first step to establishing a code of conduct is to ask students how they like being treated. From this question students should be able to brainstorm a list of behaviors they believe are respectful, kind, fair, and appropriate. At this point, together students and teachers should be able to agree that treating others the way we each want to be treated is the best code of conduct, and should set the stage for appropriate classroom behaviors.
Step 3 - Employ a Positive Actions Curriculum
While it would be nice if all students shared the same understanding of positive behaviors, they don't. Children come from diverse family, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. All these influences, and others, shape students' perspective of what's appropriate, and what is not. It's important that students are taught positive behaviors in a consistent and systematic way at school and in the classroom. Developing a Positive Action curriculum is one of the most effective ways to teach and instill in students positive behaviors. Positive action curriculum should teach students:
- That positive actions lead to a good feeling and positive self image.
- Positive actions such as nutrition, property exercise, and sleep that lead to a healthy body.
- Positive actions such as problem-solving, decision-making and thinking skills develop the brain and make us smarter.
- Positive actions such as kindness, living the Golden Rule, and being respectful allow us get along with others.
- Positive actions such as time management and managing our emotions help us better manage our own affairs.
- Positive actions such as admitting mistakes and taking responsibility for our actions allow us to be honest with others and ourselves.
- Positive actions such as goal setting lead to personal growth and improvement.
Positive actions lead to positive behaviors, which help children feel good about themselves and others.
Step 4 - Help Students Develop Intrinsic Motivation
Feeling good about themselves is an intrinsic motivator to students–especially elementary age students–and positive actions help children feel good about themselves. So, how do you help students consistently engage in positive actions? First, actions are always preceded by thoughts. Second, actions and behaviors are typically consistent with thoughts. Third, feelings, children experience about themselves, are based in large part by their actions. Helping students learn that by changing a negative thought to a positive they can produce positive actions, and that positive actions will help them feel good about themselves is a powerful intrinsic motivator.
Step 5 - Reinforce Positive Behaviors
Recognizing and reinforcing positive behaviors is one of the most effective ways to produce positive actions in students, strengthen intrinsic motivation, and create a productive and positive learning environment. Certificates, stickers, toy prizes, tickets, tokens and other reward systems are great ways to recognize students and reinforce positive behavior and achievement in the classroom. However, it's also important to help students make the connection between positive behavior and the good feeling it produces (not just the physical award). As students make that connection between positive behavior and good feelings, and continue producing positive actions, they'll feel good about themselves, the intrinsic motivation is strengthened, and students will continue producing more positive actions and exhibiting positive behaviors.
Step 6 - Always Respond With Positivity
Positivity is a key component of a positive learning environment. Interacting with students in a positive manner, exhibiting positive behaviors, and maintaining a positive attitude is one of the most important steps for creating a positive learning environment and producing successful students. Regardless of the situation or circumstance, there is always a way to respond to and interact with students in a positive way. Teaching students how to communicate and interact with each other in a positive manner is also key to fostering a positive learning environment in the classroom. Positivity is one of the most powerful agents of change for establishing and maintaining a positive learning environment at school and in the classroom.
Simple Tips and Strategies for Building Positive Learning Environments
The Positive Action strategy we introduced above is one of the few character education programs recognized by the U.S. Department of Education's What Works Clearinghouse to produce positive results in students' academic performance and behavior. But it isn't the only strategy. Below is an additional list of simple strategies and tips from teachers, educators, and even parents, that have proven useful and effective for creating a positive, productive learning environment at school and in the classroom.
- Relationships first, school second. Don't jump straight into school work the first day of school. Break the ice and help get students out of their comfort zone at the onset by playing some interactive games and holding some team building exercises. This helps students get to know each other on a personal level, and experience the "human" side of their teacher.
- Share some stories from the summer. Before you transition into the school year have the students share some of the fun things they, or their families did over the summer. Also, take a moment to share with your students what you did over the summer. This helps the students get to know each other and their teacher, and helps you build rapport with your students.
- Get to know each student. At the beginning of the new year, or term, ask parents to write a "in a million words or less" letter describing their child. Once you have received letters from all the parents, take some time to read each letter and learn about the unique character, desires, needs and talents of each child. Reading these letters at least once, if not regularly, will help you see each child in a different light.
- Write an introduction letter. Get to know your students and let them get to know you through introduction letters. Write a letter telling your students about yourself, your likes, your hobbies, loves and aspirations. For their first assignment, have students write a letter about themselves for you.
- Create an Internet Meme. Internet memes are a fun and effective way for communicating important expectations, rules and concepts with students without coming off mean or overbearing. They can include media, catch phrases, jokes and funny images.
- Lean on Your Colleagues. Being a good teacher and creating a positive learning environment takes a lot of work–so don't go at it alone. Reach out to other teachers, educators and people who will support you, build you up and who have been successful at creating positive learning environments.
- Plan for the Future, Live in the Moment. As you work toward creating a positive learning environment for your students, stay focused on the present. Creating a positive working environment is a process, it won't happen overnight. Don't get so caught up with the end goal that you are not able to savor the moment.
- Get Students Involved in the Process. Creating a positive learning environment should involve all your students. Have students help decide how to design the room, where pictures should go, what pictures should be used, etc. Allow them to take ownership of their learning environment.
- Create a Creative Bookmark. Create a laminated bookmark with your contact information on it. This is a fun way to invite your students to stay in touch with you. Include your email address, school web page URL or any other info you want students to have at their fingertips.
- Create a Classroom Newsletter. Having your class develop a newsletter is a great way to keep students engaged, entertained and parents involved. But don't you do it! Have your students do it. Make your newsletter a student driven project and you'll engender a positive classroom learning environment.
- Connect Using Social Media. Social media can be a great way for teachers to connect with students–especially given the propensity that kids have these days to access social media. Take pictures of class projects, awards, activities and events and post them on instagram for kids and parents to enjoy. Or maybe you can set up a class twitter account to keep students and parents up to date on what's going on in the classroom throughout the year.
- Create a Blog. Create and maintain a classroom blog. This is another great way to keep students and teachers up to date and involved in what's going on in the classroom. It's also a great place to post upcoming projects, guidelines, study guides and resources for students and parents.
- Keep it Green. Use digital technology to decrease reliance on paper products and to facilitate online communication between teachers and students, and their parents. Much of what was traditionally communicated using paper can now be communicated digitally online using Twitter, Facebook, or a class web page. Going digital saves time, is more effective than paper (which can be lost), foster a positive learning environment, and protects our world's environment.
- Start with Relationships. As tempting as it is to get a headstart on academics, keep the focus of the first day of school on establishing relationships and building a sense of community within your classroom. Let each student know that the most important part of their education is them. Do some team building activities. Show students that they are valued for their contribution. There will be plenty of time to focus on academics tomorrow.
- Be Enthusiastic. Be enthusiastic! Smile! Let your students know that you're excited to be there and that you're excited they're there. Everything you say or do the first week of school should communicate your enthusiasm for the new school year. Your positive attitude and enthusiasm is key to creating, and maintaining, a positive learning environment in the classroom.
- Stay Optimistic. After the enthusiasm of the first few weeks of school starts to wear off and you get down to the nitty gritty of dealing with the challenges of being a teacher, you must stay committed to maintaining a positive attitude and a high level of optimism throughout the year. Students will pick up on any negativity or bad moods immediately. Your ability to maintain a positive attitude, and stay optimistic, is at the core of your ability to establish a positive learning environment.
- Treat Each Student As If They Were Your Own Child. Are you a parent? Have you experienced those struggles and fears that your own children have experienced as they've gone to school each day? Have you ever hoped or prayed their teacher would be sensitive to their needs and be understanding? Treat each of your students with the same love, respect and level of attention that you'd want for your own child. It takes work, but it will bring out the best in each child and foster a positive learning environment.
- Focus on the Positive. There is something positive to be found in even the worst student. Each day find something good in each student and point it out to them. Focusing on the positive in every student will enable you to create and maintain a truly positive learning environment for your students. And more importantly, you'll help each student build esteem and self worth that will last a lifetime.
- Sometimes... Just Wing It. Humans are unpredictable. Children are even more unpredictable. Now matter how well you planned over the summer, once your children arrive in the classroom, and you start getting to know them, you really can't make a concrete plan. Take a little time to get to know your students. After the first few days of school, you may need to re-evaluate your plan and go back to the drawing board to fix a few things. Have fun. It's okay.
- Review the Basics. Academics are important, but if students know proper classroom etiquette it's difficult to have a successful learning environment. Don't assume that your students know anything–review the basics. During the first week of school review with your students how to ask for help, provide help to other students, work together, collaborate, be respectful, etc. Reviewing the basics sets the stage for a positive and productive learning environment in the classroom.
- Reconnect at the Beginning of Each Year. Plan a school wide social event or activity to be held the week before school starts. This provides students, teachers, parents and faculty the opportunity to reconnect without the pressures of school. Keep the event low key and focused on socializing and getting to know one another.
- Establish Positive Parent Relationships. The last thing you want to do is wait until there is an issue or problem with little Tommy before you attempt to establish a relationship with his parents. At the beginning of each year, reach out to the parents of each child in your class in a personal way. Introduce yourself, let them know who you are, that you're excited to start working with their child, and what your plans are for the year. Building a relationship with parents early on sets the stage for a positive learning environment with their child the rest of the year.