Building a caring classroom culture: An action plan

A caring culture frees students to attain the highest possible levels of social and academic achievement. The journey is not always easy; often, both teachers and students must develop new habits of thought and action. But the rewards are immeasurable.

The first step is to paint a picture of the classroom culture you want to create. You can do this by answering the following four questions:

  1. What do my students need to succeed? All students have emotional needs: the need for belonging and acceptance, the need for personal power and self-competence, the need for independence and self-responsibility, and the need for meaningful and healthy relationships. When you create a needs-based learning environment in your classroom, students will be motivated, enthusiastic, and ready for the many challenges of the school experience.
  1. What principles do I need to instill in my classroom in order to meet my students’ needs? Like a compass, your principles guide you and your students, helping everyone stay on course along your shared journey. Here are two examples of classroom principles:
  • Healthy classroom relationships are just as important as high test scores.
  • All students will be given a chance to demonstrate their gifts and talents.
  1. What behavioral guidelines would I like to see my students follow? Behavior is the visible, practical expression of your guiding principles. So, for example, if one of your guiding principles is that all students support each other, the corresponding behavioral guideline might be:
  • If a student asks for clarification of something he or she does not understand, other students will listen patiently and attentively.
  1. What social skills are most important to help my students behave in a principles-based fashion? Once you have identified critical social skills, determine how you will teach them and how they can be made part of everyday life in your classroom. For example, if listening is one of the skills you choose, you might do the following:
  • Post the guidelines for focused listening in a prominent place in your classroom.
  • Provide students with opportunities to practice focused listening.
  • Remind students of the guidelines whenever they are involved in activities that involve listening (such as class discussions or group work).

Soulful Skills

When asked, students will often say that social skills are skills  you use with other people. Someone who is adept socially and emotionally usually makes healthy and positive connections with others and finds happiness and success in life. Research shows that students enrolled in programs that teach social skills as part of a social and emotional learning program, are happier and more successful in school.

Soulful skills are also important, however. Soulful skills are skills you use with yourself to explore your inner nature. They allow you to look at what is in your heart, to celebrate what you find there, and to express your life purpose through action. When teachers have asked themselves the courageous questions to unlock their own soulful skills, they find the ability to unlock the soulful skills in students as well.

By creating a culture of caring in your classroom, you offer students an environment where they are nurtured, supported, and encouraged. You unlock the expression, imagination, and passion held within each child’s heart. When you listen-really listen-to your students and show that you understand them, you foster their connection not only to you, but also to their innermost selves.



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David A. Levine’s ( work on teaching empathy as a social culture building strategy has been featured in the New York Times, National Public Radio, and ABC News. After teaching elementary and middle school, David became the chief trainer for the U.S. Department of Education’s Northeast Regional Center for Safe and Drug-Free Schools. It was during that time that he created a framework for social culture building he calls "A School of Belonging." This systems change process, is highlighted in his books, "Teaching Empathy", "Building Classroom Communities", and "The School of Belonging Plan Book." He is the founding Director of the Teaching Empathy Institute, in Kingston, NY, a program of The Tides Center, and serves as an adviser to Ashoka’s Start Empathy Initiative.

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