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Building a Positive Classroom Community

EducationWorld is pleased to present this professional development resource shared by Dr. Jane Bluestein, an expert in relationship-building, positive school climate and effective instruction.

In a win-win classroom, teachers recognize the importance of the social environment and the impact a sense of community can have on learning and student behavior and attitudes. They pay attention to how kids treat one another and know they have the power to make a difference. Use the strategies below to reduce many of the problems that occur when kids aren’t respectful and tolerant with one another.


It would be hard to argue with people who have noticed what Michele Borba described as a “steady rise of impulsivity, depression, suicide, violence, peer cruelty, and substance abuse” or the “growing rise in disrespect for authority, incivility, and vulgarity, and cheating and dishonesty.” But despite evidence of the truth in such social commentary, don’t for a second imagine yourself helpless to present other options for your students.

The good news is that schools can make things better when they try, and even programs targeted to a specific problem can have positive outcomes far beyond the original intention. Teachers are, for many students, the best game in town, and one of few opportunities for them to see an alternative to win-lose patterns so familiar in the media, in their families, and among their peers. But nobody learns win-win strategies in a vacuum, so be prepared to address your attention to their social behaviors and know that your time will be well spent.


You don’t necessarily need formal programs or lesson plans for building social skills, although they certainly exist. Some of the most powerful lessons you teach will come from your own modeling—how you interact with students and other adults, as well as your reaction to incidents between kids that you observe or overhear. If you act as an advocate and speak up any time you hear examples of bias, insult, or general meanness, you model behaviors that give kids permission, as well as the language, to do the same.

Unfortunately, in many instances, you are very much in the minority. Research points to infrequent intervention on the part of adults and reveals that the majority of incidents of social, verbal, and physical discrimination and violence are either ignored, accepted, or denied—that is, when adults admit an awareness that these incidents are actually happening. Even worse, there are widespread reports of adults using similarly discriminatory words themselves (including homophobic, racial, and ethnically offensive terms) or laughing when they overhear kids use them.

“The most dangerous deadly weapons in our schools each and every day are words,” said Jo Ann Freiberg. “That’s where it starts and that’s where we can manage it.” She cited research that indicates 90% of the school community hears putdowns, slurs, and degrading language on a daily basis. For a lot of kids, this language is used so casually and regularly in their worlds that some may not even realize how powerful and hurtful these words can be.

“Unless school personnel interrupt degrading comments, challenge the biased assumptions, and educate students about differences, we are likely to see perpetuation of bullying behaviors, harassment, and intimidation,” Freiberg admonished.

We need to teach kids to stand up for tolerance and respect when they see violations occur. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” While aggressive kids and their targets tend to figure prominently in research, school policies, and intervention programs, let’s not forget the power a group of bystanders can bring to a potential incident, as well as the overall climate of the school.

A simple sentence like “We don’t say that here” or “Please don’t use that word around me” sends a strong message without attacking or judging anyone. Repeat as necessary. Even if students only see it as a standard of behavior for your room alone, you have introduced a reality that requires the conscious, deliberate use of respectful language and opened the possibility of this mindfulness extending beyond your classroom.

Two more comments about the power of language. Freiberg recommends focusing on meanness instead of using the word "bully." “No student wants to be called a bully, no parent will claim that his or her child is a bully, and no school happily admits that there is any bullying in that school. This reality stems not from the fact that certain behaviors have been experienced, but rather because of the connotation of the concept itself.”

Likewise, I much prefer the word "target" to "victim" when talking about kids on the receiving end of meanness, exclusion, or discrimination. Although many people use the words interchangeably, the word victim suggests a sense of abiding powerlessness that is not present in the word target—which implies a greater potential for control of the situation, including options and assertive ways out.

Building Tolerance and Friendship Skills

Anyone who dismisses the nastiness some children experience as acceptable rites of passage needs to appreciate the impact that exclusion, rejection, and other forms of attack can have. “When we feel rebuffed or left out, the brain activates a site for registering physical pain,” reported Daniel Goleman. School connectedness includes aspects of social acceptance and feeling welcome in school.

But Robert Blum, Clea McNeely, and Peggy Rinehart discovered that “nationally, four percent of students reported that they had no friends. There were socially isolated students in every school studied.” In addition to being vulnerable to all the negative outcomes associated with disconnectedness from school, Katz believed that isolated students, the kids who lack the protection of social allies, often appear the easiest and “safest” ones for more aggressive kids to target.

Behaviors do not change on their own, however, and kids don’t pick up many prosocial behaviors on the streets. Fortunately, some school personnel are beginning to address the need to build friendship skills and social intelligence in their interactions with kids, if not in the curriculum directly. The process doesn’t have to be complicated or formal and, in most instances, will simply be built into the way you run your classroom.

For example, anything you do to accommodate your students’ power needs in positive ways (such as offering choices, soliciting and using their input in your plans, or providing accommodations for individual learning styles) significantly reduces the need for them to get power needs met at the expense of others. In other words, few kids need to hurt or disempower other kids to experience a sense of autonomy and control when those needs are being met constructively in other areas of their lives.

For a strategy worth its weight in gold, find opportunities for your students to help other students through a peer-helping, mentoring, or tutoring program. We can teach tolerance and respect by giving kids opportunities to work with others toward some shared goal. Some of my most challenging students ended up being some of the most effective, mature, and responsible mentors in a program that assigned upper-elementary volunteers to help out in the kindergarten. Stay attentive, continue to remind kids about “how we act, talk, and treat one another in here,” accommodate power needs, and offer activities where all kids can be helpful and competent. In short order, there’s a good chance that you’ll start noticing significant and positive changes in the social culture of your class.

This article was excerpted from Becoming a Win-Win Teacher (2010) by Dr. Jane Bluestein, Ph.D. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Publishing. See the book for a full bibliography of sources referenced above.

Related resources

Also from Dr. Bluestein:
Is Your School Emotionally Safe?
Accommodating Student Sensory Differences
Tips for Positive Teacher-Parent Interaction
The Art of Setting Boundaries
The Beauty of Losing Control, Part 1
The Beauty of Losing Control, Part 2
Stressful Student Experiences: What Not to Do

About Dr. Bluestein

Dr. Jane Bluestein is a speaker, trainer and specialist in programs and resources related to relationship building, effective instruction and personal development.

She is an award-winning author whose books include Creating Emotionally Safe Schools, High School’s Not Forever, 21st Century Discipline, The Win-Win Classroom and many others. In addition, she has appeared on CNN, National Public Radio and "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

Dr. Bluestein, formerly a classroom teacher, crisis-intervention counselor and teacher training program coordinator, currently heads Instructional Support Services, Inc., a consulting and resource firm in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Visit her Web site to access free resources, order books, read her blog and more.

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