In recent years there has been an intense focus on the achievement of students and the annual progress of schools. While academic gains are obviously important, they cannot be viewed in isolation; we must also create the conditions for learning to occur. Schools that focus on the social, emotional, and behavioural needs of students will significantly improve student learning. The implication is simple and profound—to improve student outcomes, we must commit to establishing strong and positive relationships between adults and students in our schools. Three well-researched school improvement initiatives, when combined, become a powerful tool that can be used to create a positive learning environment in any school:
- The concept of a Professional Learning Community (PLC) at Work (DuFour, DuFour, & Eaker, 2010) creates the conditions for the adults in the school to learn;
- the tenets of Positive Behaviour Interventions & Supports (PBIS, Sugai & Horner, 2009) provide the supports that facilitate student learning;
- and the principles of Pyramid Response to Intervention (PRTI, Buffum, Mattos, & Weber, 2009; 2012) provide the mechanisms for designing systems of support in the area of behaviour.
Working with schools across North America, and across the grade range, it has been our experience that when school staffs implement PLCs, PBIS, and PRT, and behave as learning communities, students learn at the highest levels.
A caring learning community is focused on both the social and academic needs of students and staff. Systems of academic supports cannot be successfully provided without the cooperation and professional collaboration of all staff. We propose that the best way to build this foundation is by collaboratively implementing the processes and structures embodied in the “7 Keys to a Positive Learning Environment.” These keys are:
1. Common Expectations
2. Targeted Instruction
3. Positive Reinforcement
4. Support Strategies and Interventions
5. Collaborative Teams
6. Data-Driven Dialogue
7. School-Wide System Approach
Common Expectations and Targeted Instruction
A school must have a common set of behavioural expectations and a targeted approach to instruction and support. Lezotte’s effective school literature and Marzano’s research on what works in schools consistently report that a safe and orderly environment is essential for learning. One of the most effective strategies we have seen to establish this orderly environment is the building of a “Behaviour Matrix.” The concept of a Behaviour Matrix to identify specific settings around the school and to articulate the behaviours expected in those areas originated with the work of PBIS. Many schools have used the matrix as a template to modify their existing school code of conduct.
In building a behaviour matrix a few parameters should be followed. These include:
Common school-wide expectations, few in number;
Positively phrased, global expectations;
Specific settings identified;
Observable behaviours described;
Language appropriate to the age level of the students.
Whether we are talking about school-wide approaches to discipline or strategies to support individual students with behaviour or academic challenges, the message is the same: remain positive and be proactive. We never give up on kids. It is far more effective to be proactive than reactive.
To be optimally effective, this proactive approach focusses on specific settings around the school (e.g., assemblies, moving from classroom to gymnasium) and includes targeted instruction on how we expect students to act in those different settings. The message matches the school-wide expectations. Lessons are explicit. Students need to see it, hear it, practise it, review it and be positively reinforced when they do it right. As with academic learning, feedback is critical. Collaborative teams of teachers maintain and examine behaviour data with an eye to re-teaching and intervention for areas and students that demonstrate a need for continued improvement.
Support Strategies and Interventions, Collaborative Teams and Data-Driven Dialogue
When teachers and students reference the Behaviour Matrix as the basis for all interactions, it helps create positive classroom climates. When this is repeated throughout the learning community, it builds a consistent and supportive school-wide culture. The Behaviour Matrix, used in conjunction with the 7 Keys, becomes the basis for a “curriculum of caring.” We feel that creating a systematic, consistent program of behavioural expectations and practices is the key to improving students’ behaviours, engagement and academic achievement.
Also, we must model what we teach. If teachers insist that promptness and preparedness are important for students, they must be willing to model the same by being ready to teach on time. If we want kids to be respectful we need to treat them with respect and give them opportunities to interact in meaningful and respectful ways.
School-Wide System Approach
This curriculum of caring will be optimally effective when built into a systematic, school-wide approach. Ideally, behaviour expectations are common and consistently applied throughout the school. Staff members agree on the level of expectation and agree to embody them. Through a collaborative approach, the school learning community holds one another, and students, accountable for results.
The whole school is clear on the steps involved in teaching, reinforcing and responding to these common expectations. Collaborative decisions are made, and common commitments are supported. Data, a critical component of decision making which educators may not typically associate with behaviour, is gathered and analyzed as schools apply the cycle of continuous improvement to ensure high levels of behaviour and learning for all.
Education has changed over the last decade. The focus has changed from learning for some, to learning for all, to learning for all whatever it takes. The stakes are higher, and the expectations have been raised. The job we are asked to do today is not the same job we were asked to do a decade ago.
We embrace our responsibility and believe positive learning environments are fundamental to our students’ academic and social success. We’ve shared 7 keys for positive learning environments but acknowledge that there is another essential element to success that does not receive the attention that it should—teacherstudent relationships. Relationships, according to Barth (2006) have “a greater influence upon the character and the quality of a school and on the accomplishment of students than anything else.”
One might conclude that the 7 keys for positive learning environments represent a systematic approach to building relationships. By combining the foundational approaches of PLC at Work, PBIS and PRTI, it’s possible for schools to exhibit tremendous growth. Our work is challenging and our profession critically important. We propose that establishing positive learning environments—collaboratively created and systematically sustained—is focused, powerful work that every school should consider.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Tom Hierck, Charlie Coleman, Chris Weber
Tom Hierck, Charlie Coleman and Chris Weber are the authors of Pyramid Response to Intervention: 7 Keys to Positive Learning Environments (2011). Tom is an education consultant and author residing in British Columbia. He is also a keynote presenter and workshop facilitator. Charlie is a winner of ASCD’s Outstanding Young Educator Award. He is currently a high school principal in School District 79 (Cowichan Valley) British Columbia, and an educational consultant. Chris Weber is a consultant with Swun Math in California and Distinctive Schools in Chicago and co-author of Pyramid Response to Intervention: RTI, Professional Learning Communities.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s May/June 2012 issue.