Jessamine County Schools

Safety Information Series

Part 5 of  6

Building a Positive School Culture

You may be surprised to hear that there is a highly effective, research-proven method to combat violence and address threats to school safety that is virtually cost-free. This method not only can be implemented with little to no dollars spent, it actually pays dividends as well.  This tried-and-true approach?  Building a positive culture in our schools.

I’ve shared that our employees are critical to our safety plan in many ways, including through their awareness and vigilance, by their participation in training, and through the implementation of safety precautions. When they chose to work in a school, these things may not have been on their radar.   However, building strong, positive relationships most certainly was front and center, because it is vital to teaching and learning and it’s also a critical piece of the puzzle to keeping students safe.

Relationships are important to educators.  Teachers rarely, if ever, enter the profession solely  for the reward of a salary.  Individual educators might decide to become a teacher for various personal reasons:  to pay it forward, to give back, or to continue a family tradition.  But most often, teachers and others in the field of education devote their lives to this service because they want to make a difference in others’ lives.  They get a deep sense of fulfilment and pleasure from making a lasting positive impact on their students.  That is where they seek their reward.  

Occupations that involve working with children and youth are some of the most influential professions that exist.  Teachers do more than teach, and their impact extends far beyond the classroom.  By the same token, custodians, bus drivers, coaches, and other district employees also exert influence on students’ lives.  It’s no coincidence that employees referred to as  “support” staff have a central role to play as they have a genuine interest in our students, often serving as mentors and advisers.  These relationships are crucial to creating and sustaining a positive school culture where students and staff feel valued and cared for.  Our goal is to provide a strong support network that connects students to us and to each other, making them less likely to engage in negative behaviors and  more likely to succeed.  We want students to know that we will never give up on them, especially when they are struggling.  

After establishing a foundation of relationship-building, utilizing an appropriate method for behavior management and discipline is key to creating a positive school culture.  Students come to us from a variety of backgrounds and what is considered acceptable behavior in one home, may be thought of as misbehavior in another.  In our district, behavior is treated like academics, in that students aren’t held accountable for something that they have never been taught, including essential social skills. It is our responsibility to teach students how to behave appropriately by communicating our expectations, rules, and consequences and ensure that students are taught the social and emotional skills that they need to be able to demonstrate before consequences are applied when they don’t meet the expectations.  

In JCS, we have implemented a multi-tiered approach to social, emotional and behavioral support called Positive Behavior Intervention Systems (PBIS).   Staff in our schools and transportation department complete training on this framework, which is designed to teach appropriate behaviors and establish expectations. The framework includes a reteaching component and additional supports for individual students to be used as needed, and might include additional instruction, added adult support, and individual behavior expectation plans with rewards and consequences. Students earn more privileges when they demonstrate mastery of expected behaviors.  

Each of our schools is focused on the prevention of bullying behaviors and quickly addresses any concerns related to conduct that does not meet with our expectations.  Utilizing the PBIS model for promoting a positive school culture helps to limit negative behaviors, including bullying, curtailing student anxiety and conflict.  We also track data on behavior and disciplinary referrals, utilizing results to identify trends, areas of potential concern, and behaviors that need to be addressed as a school or for an individual.  

In our schools, teachers and staff sustain and build upon a positive culture by continuing  to reinforce positive behaviors, praising appropriately and celebrating victories, big and small.   Notes of praise or gratitude, certificates and awards, “good news” phone calls,  and public pats on the back are ways that we let students and staff know that they are appreciated.  We recognize the power in praise and positive feedback to influence behavior, build relationships, and invest in people.    

Another element of building a positive school culture is having a consistent, shared vision and goals.  Our district, individual schools, and most JCS departments have each completed a strategic vision.  While these plans are individualized to each entity, common threads exist and are tied together in the overall district plan.  This process of working together to determine collective priorities and shared goals provides common ground to ensure student success.  Where possible, students are involved in this process, encouraging ownership of their educational experience and giving them a sense of control, which builds confidence.  These common objectives also lead to more consistent expectations, rules, and processes, creating  a level playing field and building a sense of trust and support among students and staff.  

Parents have a critical role in building a positive school culture and we consider them our partners in setting the tone in our buildings.  We know that students watch the way that we handle ourselves day in and day out.  When we show students how to be kind and caring through our daily interactions, the result can be students who are respectful to those around them in every environment.  Just as our staff members act as role models in our buildings, parents can help by leading by example at home, in the car, during athletic events and simply by how they interact with others on a daily basis.  Kindness, caring, and acceptance can be taught and as their children’s first teachers, parents can help us to build a positive culture at school by instilling this foundation and continuing to support our efforts.  

This investment in our people helps to foster positive relationships, not only between students and staff, but also among students and their peers.  A support network that promotes kindness and celebrates inclusion is contagious and powerful beyond measure.  Programs exist to help promote this type of environment, but they will not be effective without the people who implement them.  School culture isn’t about programs, it’s about people, and when students feel safe, supported and valued, they are positioned to learn and achieve to their fullest potential.  

 If you have recommendations on how we can continue to build a positive culture in our schools, or other ways to ensure the safety of our students, staff, and visitors, please share them at this link.