Creating a Culture of Respect

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I recently had the experience of transitioning from a elementary school principal to a high school setting.  As I walked through the lunchroom I noticed how different the lunch groups were:  gone were the grade-level, diverse groups of students, replaced by cliques that seemed hesitant to cross ethnic lines, and even seemed differentiated by socioeconomic status.  What happened?  I wondered if the lack of explicit instruction [generally through Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) lessons] surrounding themes like friendship, respect, inclusion, etc., made a difference.

I had worked with the implementation of PBIS in a secondary setting, and I was aware of the challenged that were present.  I also knew that often the focus of secondary tended towards more outward themes like attendance, work completion, bullying, and less of the more foundational skills of being a good friend.  I think it is a challenge to frame those ideas in a way that is age-appropriate for older students, but I also think when we stop talking about it in a school setting, we damage those skills.

When schools look at how we create a positive school culture and climate, one that fosters inclusion and respect, I wonder if we haven’t missed a simple step, one that is a huge focus in elementary, then drops off sharply in secondary.  There is a lot of damage control through counseling and groups in secondary, and a heightened sense of isolation for many students, particularly since greater numbers and less resources are a reality for schools.  I wonder how much could be avoided if a basic approach to PBIS reviewed those foundational pieces of inclusion and respect, taught explicitly and modeled by staff, in the environment that it will occur.

As our district high school prepares to roll out advisory, this has become a topic of conversation.  The original plan for advisory had the intent of strengthening academic skills and processes in a smaller setting than a typical classroom.  It included the process of students remaining with their advisory teacher their entire 4 years.  With this model being developed, these more rudimentary skills, ones that we often assume older students possess, was brought back to the forefront.  In the transition to elementary, we stop focusing on positive behavior, to the point of being as important as academic skills, and take a sharp turn into isolated content areas, with less adult connection (often going from one teacher to several), and this can be a dropping off point for students.

In the middle schools, this has also been a greater area of focus for the advisory sessions.  School often serves as the setting in which students develop their world-view: schools often represent a microcosm of our society, one in which educators have a tremendous amount of influence.  Students develop ideas and judgements throughout their K-12 education, and the opportunity to change that traditional trajectory has big implications.

For middle school, discipline can be an area where this can be changed.  With our “frequent flyers”, particularly those minority students or students with disabilities, having them on public display in the office or regularly called out publicly by staff can strengthen stereotypes that are developing in your students.   Changing the way we view behavior, and a continued focus on positive reinforcement rather than traditional discipline, can help students view positive behaviors in those struggling.  Also working on skills as a collective whole makes challenging behaviors less of an individual issue and more of whole-school initiative.

Older students can also provide input into their school and this work.  They can be active participants in planning PBIS lessons, and in discussions about what challenges are in their school when it comes to diversity and a positive culture.  Families can also be a powerful voice, as they live with the fallout of a child that doesn’t feel accepted and respected at school.  Allowing opportunities for this active participation through surveys, forums, and individual conversations as well as allowing a parent member on the PBIS team can provide positive gains for the school.  It also strengthens the home-school connection as families understand that this work is important, and that the goal is a school that is a positive and respectful place for all students.

Creating a positive culture goes beyond conversations about diversity and celebrating differences.  A foundation of how we treat others and solve problems and modeling that school-wide is far more important than isolated assemblies, monthly themes and small group crisis management.  Giving students interpersonal skills can be a huge benefit for them in their adult life, and much of the distress we see in our world currently can be ultimately drilled down to a general inability to disagree respectfully and continue to work for a harmonious solution.


Dr. Katie Schweitzer is the Director of Student Services for Oregon Trail School District in Sandy, Oregon.  She has worked in public education for the last 13 years as a teacher and administrator, and currently lives in Gresham with her husband and two children.

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