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Guidelines for Establishing Positive School Culture

posted Apr 30, 2012, 8:38 AM by Michael Toise   [ updated Apr 30, 2012, 8:38 AM ]

Guidelines for Establishing a Positive School Culture

School culture and climate have a profound effect upon students' academic achievement  and social interactions with peers and adults. Briefly, school climate is how students and staff feel about their school. School culture is why they feel the way they do. A school's culture is determined by the values, beliefs and behavior of those in the school community and reflects the school's social norms. Stakeholders in the school include students and their families, teachers, administrators, counselors, social workers, parent coordinators, related service providers, school safety agents, cafeteria, custodial and bus staff.

Who is the school community?

  • Students & their families
  • Teachers
  • Administrators
  • Counselors, Social Workers, Parent Coordinator, et. al.
  • Related service providers
  • School Safety Personnel
  • School Resource Officers
  • Cafeteria & Custodial Staff
  • Transportation staff
  • Community Members

Staff expectations of student behavior and academic achievement:

  • School policies and procedures
  • Consistent and equitable treatment of all students
  • Equity in, and access to,  resources  (budget, space, time, personnel, equipment, supplies, etc.)
  • Equity in, and access to, support services
  • Student and family engagement

The Role of Social Norms

"Not everything that counts can be measured, and not everything that can be measured, counts."  - Albert Einstein

Social norms have been called the "grammar of a society" because norms, like the rules that govern a language, delineate what a social group finds acceptable or unacceptable. The social norms of a school community are established based upon the beliefs and expectations that members of the school community have regarding what is acceptable and unacceptable within the context of the school environment. They are spread through the school community by way of policies and protocols, level of access to opportunities and services, stories, equity and standards of accountability, interpersonal and intergroup interactions, choice of language and tone of voice, non-verbal communication (gestures, body language, personal space, eye contact), penalties, formal and informal rituals and ceremonies, use and condition of space, rewards systems, role-model behavior, allocations of resources, etc. In short, a school's norms are the spoken and unspoken "rules" everyone in the school community knows and which govern how the school "works" (or doesn't work) for all members of the school community, especially students.

The impact of beliefs and expectations on students' academic performance has been well documented. An analogous body of research has also demonstrated the equally powerful impact of beliefs and expectations on behavior. Whether our behavior is: a) motivated by standards we have about our own actions; or b) because we perceive certain actions are approved of by other people; or c) because of our perception of how other people are actually behaving;  or d) because of the expectations that people we value have about how we will behave;  or e) because we fear some form of exclusion from the group, our actions are influenced by the "social grammar" of our environment.

When we reflect on our own beliefs and expectations about what is acceptable and unacceptable and if we think about the "rules" that govern our social interactions, we begin to see what it means to be literate in both the explicit and implicit norms of our community. We also begin to realize how both adults and peers, at home and in school, influenced our own understanding when we were students of what was acceptable and what was not acceptable at school. Adults in the school should always be aware of their impact as role models and treat others in the school with dignity and respect.

School Connectedness/Student Engagement

Students are the largest group of stakeholders in a school community and its greatest natural resource in creating and sustaining a safe and supportive school environment. School connectedness is defined as the extent to which students feel accepted, valued, respected and included in a school. It is the belief held by students that adults and peers in the school care about their academic progress as well as about them as individuals.

Connecting students to school through various forms of student engagement is integral to creating a positive school culture and climate that effectively fosters students' academic achievement and social/emotional growth. Providing students with multiple opportunities to participate in a wide range of pro-social activities and, at the same time, bond with caring, supportive adults militates against negative behaviors. Such opportunities, coupled with a comprehensive guidance program of prevention and intervention, provide students with the experiences, strategies and skills, and support they need to thrive.

Equally important, school connectedness is an important protective factor for fostering resiliency in youth. The quality of student life and the level of student engagement or school connectedness may be the best single indicator of potential or current school safety and security concerns as they pertain to student behavior.

Taking a Whole School Approach

"It is not only for what we do that we are held responsible, but also for what we do not do." - John Baptiste Moliére

Each school is expected to promote a positive school culture that promotes interpersonal and inter-group respect among students and between students and staff. To ensure that our schools provide all students with a supportive and safe environment in which to grow and thrive academically and socially requires attention to each of the following facets of a school community:

Social Environment:
  • Interpersonal Relations: Students & Staff
  • Respect for Diversity
  • Emotional Well Being and Sense of Safety
  • Student Engagement
  • School & Family Collaboration
  • Community Partnerships
Physical Environment:
  • Building Conditions
  • Physical Safety
  • School Wide Protocols
  • Classroom Management
Behavioral Environment/Expectations & Supports:
  • Physical & Mental Well Being
  • Prevention & Intervention Services
  • Behavioral Accountability (Disciplinary and Interventional Responses)

Regular examination of each of these factors enables school leaders and staff to play an incalculable role in establishing and sustaining school norms that foster a positive culture and climate in which all students can thrive.

When examining these factors, some key questions to consider include:
  • How well does the school provide a welcoming and supportive environment for all students?
  • How successful is the school in welcoming the families of all students into the school community?
  • How does the school communicate to staff and students its clear expectations regarding pro-social behavior and respect within the school community?
  • What are the school's behavioral expectations for students and staff, and how well do they address the responsibility of the school to ensure a safe and supportive environment for all students?
  • How often does the school review, and amend as necessary, its safety and security procedures to ensure that all areas to which students have access are well monitored and supervised, including stairwells, hallways, locker rooms and other athletic facilities, outside play areas, cafeteria, auditorium, etc.?
  • When students do not live up to behavioral expectations, how does the school ensure equitable access to supports and disciplinary accountability?
  • When disciplinary data is regularly reviewed, how does the school bring multiple perspectives/multiple disciplines into the discussion?
  • If a student or group of students engages in inappropriate behavior toward another student or group of students, how does the school address the behavior so that it does not become a pervasive or persistent pattern and so that the individual student or group of students does not have reason to believe that such behavior is likely to continue?
  • How are resources used to support student engagement (student organizations, clubs and teams) so that all students see themselves as valued members of the school community?
  • How are students provided with opportunities for social emotional learning? How are they learning empathy?
  • How does the school actively support and encourage diversity in student government?
  • How does the school provide regularly scheduled opportunities for students, especially those who are not elected to student government, to share ideas, identify concerns and strategies for improved school culture and climate with the principal/school leaders?
  • How well has the school formed relationships with various community health and mental health agencies to which they can refer students and/or their families?
  • What kinds of programs and initiatives does the school implement to promote respect for diversity?
  • How are students, the largest group of stakeholders in the school community, actively involved in promoting a positive school culture in which all students feel safe and respected?
  • How does the school celebrate and recognize students' successes, progress and achievement so that all students see themselves as valued members of the school community?
  • How well do all adult members of the school community model respect for diversity in their interactions with one another and with students and their families?
  • How does the school integrate respect for diversity into the curriculum?
  • How well does the school library collection (books, periodicals, multimedia resources) and visual displays throughout the building promote respect for diversity?
  • If a student  or group of students engages in discriminatory behavior toward a student or group of students based on the student's (or group of students') actual or perceived identity, how does the school address the behavior so that it does not become a pervasive or persistent pattern and so that the student (or group of students) does not have reason to believe that such behavior is likely to continue?
  • How well does the school engage students in progressive disciplinary interventions such as peer mediation and restorative approaches?
  • How well does the school promote diversity in the recruitment and training of students who serve as peer mediators in the school's peer mediation center?
  • How well does the school regularly engage parents in the life of the school?
  • How well has the school created connections with community based organizations, including faith based organizations, that provide support and/or programs for students and their families?

The periodic review of a school's social environment, physical environment and behavioral environment, expectations and supports enables school leaders and personnel to play an incalculable role in establishing and sustaining school norms that foster a positive culture and climate in which all students can thrive.

Conflict Resolution

Conflict resolution refers to various processes that may be used to facilitate a non-violent resolution to a conflict between two or more disputants. Most non-violent conflict resolution falls into one of the following four categories:
  • Negotiation
  • Mediation
  • Arbitration
  • Litigation

These categories are listed in terms of the range of input, as well as the level of control over the outcome of the dispute.

Collaborative Negotiation

The most direct method of conflict resolution is collaborative negotiation in which one or both disputants knows and understands the strategies and skills needed to talk through a conflict. An individual trained in collaborative negotiation knows how to facilitate a direct conversation with the person with whom s/he is in conflict. During the collaborative negotiation process, s/he will articulate  her/his position and underlying need(s), surface the position and underlying need(s) of the person with whom s/he is in conflict and reframe the conflict into a mutual problem to be resolved by both parties. The goal of a collaborative negotiation is to arrive at a mutually agreed upon resolution that meets the needs of both parties.

OSYD regularly offers a 30 hour course in negotiation skills which prepares participants to use collaborative negotiation in their professional practice and to tech collaborative negotiation skills to students.


Simply put, mediation is a collaborative negotiation which is facilitated by a neutral third party- the trained mediator. At the start of the mediation, a trained mediator will lay out the ground rules for the mediation process. During the mediation, the mediator will facilitate a conversation between the two disputants to surface the position and underlying need(s) of each person and reframe the conflict into a mutual problem to be resolved by both parties. The goal of a mediation is for the two disputants to arrive at a mutually agreed upon resolution that meets the needs of both parties.

OSYD regularly offers a 30 hour course in peer mediation which prepares participants to return to their school to establish a peer mediation center which includes identifying and training students to serve as peer mediators and supervising them as they conduct peer mediations.

The Difference between Negotiation and Mediation versus Arbitration and Litigation:  In the negotiation and mediation process, the resolution of the conflict is arrived at by the individuals who are in conflict. In both arbitration and litigation, the decision as to how a conflict is resolved is removed from the individuals involved. In arbitration, a neutral third party hears both sides of the conflict and decides upon the resolution. While each disputant provides his or her side of the story, neither disputant has input or control over the final resolution. Disputants in litigation are further removed from the resolution process because they do not (usually) make their own case. In most instances, a disputant's case is put forth by an attorney and regardless of whether or not a disputant represents her/himself in a litigation, s/he has no control over the resolution. Either a judge or jury decides the final resolution.

Progressive Discipline and Restorative Approaches

Progressive Discipline

"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."
   - Martin Luther King, Jr.

The word discipline comes from the same Latin root as the word disciple - discipere - to teach or comprehend. Understanding discipline as a "teachable moment" is fundamental to a positive approach todiscipline.

Progressive discipline uses incremental interventions to address inappropriate behavior with the ultimate goal of teaching pro-social behavior. Progressive discipline does not seek punishment. Instead,progressive discipline seeks concurrent accountability and behavioral change. The goal is prevention of a recurrence of negative behavior by helping students learn from their mistakes.

Essential to the implementation of progressive discipline is helping students who have engaged in unacceptable behavior to:
  • understand  why the behavior is unacceptable and the harm it has caused
  • understand what they could have done differently in the same situation take responsibility for their actions be given the opportunity to learn pro-social strategies and skills to use in the future
  • understand the progression of more stringent consequences if the behavior reoccurs

Restorative Approaches

Restorative approaches can help schools prevent or deal with conflict before it escalates, build relationships and empower community members to take responsibility for the well being of others; increase the pro-social skills of those who have harmed others; address underlying factors that lead youth to engage in inappropriate behavior and build resiliency; provide wrong doers with opportunities to be accountable to those they have harmed and enable them to repair the harm to the extent possible.

Taking a restorative approach to discipline changes the fundamental questions that are asked when a behavioral incident occurs. Instead of asking who is to blame and how will those engaged in the misbehavior be punished, the restorative approach asks four key questions:
  • What happened?
  • Who was harmed or affected by the behavior?
  • What needs to be done to make things right?
  • How can people behave differently in the future?

Within the context of using restorative approaches are various restorative practices. They include:
Circle Process:
Circles may be used as a regular practice in which a group of students (or faculty or students and faculty) participates. Or a circle can be used in response to a particular issue that affects the community. The circle process can enable a group to get to know one another, build relationships and establish understanding and trust, create a sense of community, learn how to make decisions together, develop agreements for the mutual good, resolve difficult issues, etc. Circles can be effective as both a prevention and intervention strategy.
Restorative Enquiry/Restorative Discussion:
Uses active listening and other conflict resolution communication skills. Using a collaborative negotiation process enables an individual to talk through an issue or conflict directly with the person with whom s/he disagrees to arrive at a mutually satisfactory resolution;
Peer Mediation:
an impartial, third party mediator (in a school, a student who has been trained to serve as a peer mediator) facilitates the negotiation process between parties who are in conflict so that they can come to a mutually satisfactory resolution.  Mediation recognizes that there is validity to the conflicting points of view that the disputants bring to the table and helps disputants work out a solution that meets both sets of needs.  Disputants must choose to use mediation and must come to the process willingly. Mediation is not used in situations in which one individual has been victimized by another.
Victim/Wrongdoer Mediation:
when an individual acknowledges s/he has harmed another person and both the person who engaged in the behavior that harmed and the person who was harmed agree to see how the incident(s) can be put right by working with an impartial, third party mediator who has received specific training in victim/wrongdoer mediation. Regardless of the circumstances, the mental and physical health, safety and welfare of the individual who was harmed is of paramount importance when considering this option in a school setting and should not be used when the wrongdoer (individual who has caused harm) may intimidate or coerce or attempt to intimidate or coerce the person who has been harmed.
Formal Restorative Conference:
A circle process in which individuals who have acknowledged causing harm are brought together with those who have been harmed. A formal restorative conference is facilitated by an individual who has received specific training in the process.  In addition to the individuals who have been directly involved, both sides may bring supporters who have also been affected by the incident to the circle. The purpose of the conference is for both the harm doer and the harmed to understand each other's perspective and come to a mutual agreement which will repair the harm as much as it is able to be repaired. Regardless of the circumstances, the mental and physical health, safety and welfare of the individual who was harmed is of paramount importance when considering this option in a school setting.