Children and adolescents can be mean. We all know it. We've all seen it. They can also be wonderfully caring. We've seen that as well. Most will come to your classroom as a mixture of both. Some will be a little more mean and others a little more caring, but they will look to you to set the example. What will you tolerate? What will you not tolerate? What do you encourage? If your students see and hear you making snide comments or ignoring the needs of others, they will begin to reflect that negative attitude. If your students see and hear you make positive comments and encourage others, they will begin to reflect the kindness they see in you. This is an unconscious action on their part to help them "fit in" to the culture of the classroom. As the leader, you set the foundations for your classroom culture. What are some ways you can set positive foundations?
The first is to establish your classroom climate as one with "No Hunting." This is a phrase I picked up in one of my earlier trainings and it means that no put-down, teasing, or hurtful behavior towards others is tolerated. You might even put up a large No Hunting sign in your classroom so that it garners attention. Explain to your students exactly what you mean by this phrase. As a class, talk about examples of hunting and then discuss more appropriate actions and behaviors that you want to see.
Second, discuss and encourage positive life-skills in your classroom. You might think about having a "Life-Skill of the Week" where you highlight one particular skill. Hand out "Caught You!" notes to students you see exhibiting the life-skill. You might create a series of notes or bookmarks using Microsoft Publisher or Word that already show the life-skills. That way you'll have everything ready to hand out when you need it. You might have "Caught You Cooperating", "Caught You Participating", "Caught You Working as a Team", "Caught You Being Friendly", "Caught You Being Helpful," or any one of the many positive life-skills. Copy them on colored paper and put them in a folder that is easily accessible. Now all you have to do is pull one out, draw a smiley face (or not) and sign it. For a list of life-skills, go to http://bit.ly/37ncJ9 .
Third, treat your students with respect. By doing this you are modeling what respect looks like, sounds like, and feels like. Although it won't happen over-night, when students see you consistently showing respect, they will begin exhibiting that same behavior. The key word here is consistently. If you are respectful one day and shouting the next, the behavior of your students will not change. You will have those who challenge you to the brink of insanity and those who chink away at your patience, but you must continue to behave in a positive way towards them. It is not easy, so don't give up after the first week or two thinking that it will never work. Instead, keep in your mind how you want to be treated by your students. Then, turn around and give them that same favor.
You can also implement tools to help you encourage positive behavior. Sometimes it takes an extra push to get your students focusing on the positive rather than the negative. One idea is to have a Kindness Box. You can call it anything you like -- obviously middle and high school students may not respond to the "Warm Fuzzy Box" or the "Happy Box," so give it a name that your class will enjoy. Perhaps let your students name it. Have a supply of paper strips (I like to use colored paper for this) near the box. Now, in order to get the box started, ask each student to take several strips and write one positive comment or characteristic about each person at their table or in their row. Afterwards, each day encourage students to put a positive comment in the box when they see someone else being helpful, nice, cooperative, friendly, etc. to other students in the classroom and in the school. Depending on how much time you have, and how much your class needs the positive influence, take some time either once a day or once a week to read some of the strips in the box. You don't need to read them all. It is enough to read a few at a time.
Another idea is the R.I.P. box. Have students write down those behaviors, actions, and thoughts that are not positive or that may be hurtful. Explain to your class that you want to bury this negative energy so that everyone can focus on what is good in the class. Once these things are buried, we need to let them go and focus on those behaviors that are positive. Simply placing these in the box is not enough. You need to enter into a discussion with your class about why you are putting those negative issues in the box and what you hope to accomplish.
If you are already in a classroom that seems steeped in negativity, don't give up. It will take time, but you can turn it around. Be determined and put in place these strategies to help get everyone back on track. Again, I must stress that it is not easy, especially if you have been existing this way for several months. Persistence and sheer determination are the best ways for turning the tide of negative energy into positive energy. If you are in a classroom where your students treat each other (and you) with respect, where they are helpful and kind to one another, tell your class how proud you are of them. They need to know. No matter which scenario you face, whether it is either extreme or something in-between, remember that you and you alone set the tone for your classroom climate. Keep that in mind and put some thought into the foundation that you are building with your students.