A Positive Classroom Climate, Even from a Distance - ASCD
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May 14, 2020

A Positive Classroom Climate, Even from a Distance

School Culture

Our teaching lives changed substantially as schools rapidly moved to online and distance learning formats. Many of the rituals caring educators have relied on suddenly became impossible. The warm handshake at the classroom door, the encouraging hand on the shoulder of a student who is working through a problem—these small gestures, as well as the other rituals we have embedded into our classrooms, don't all travel well.

The positive climate of the classroom and school fuels student learning. We sometimes hear the terms school culture and school climate used interchangeably. Our working definition is that the school climate comprises the rules, norms, and procedures that govern the classroom. But school climate is essentially how it feels to be part of the classroom community. It is students' perception that matters, regardless of what we say we are (or are not) doing.

In fact, whole-school efforts to positively affect school climate have promising results on student learning and achievement (Daily et al., 2020). Much of the school climate data out there focus on school connectedness—a sense of belonging and closeness with peers and adults. But how can this happen at a distance? We're learning along with you about how to foster a positive school climate from afar.

Reach Out to Families

Families have always been important to school connectedness, and we are finding out just how vital they are. The caregivers who oversee their children's education at home are on the frontlines. In many ways, they are a proxy for what we try to achieve at school. Dissatisfied families communicate their distress to their children and can negatively affect school connectedness.

Schools can set up ways to assist families with everything from access to technology to enrichment activities. Provide families with multiple pathways to check in with you to discuss what is working well for them and what needs to be improved. We are used to having a lot of control over the learning environment, but now you are managing 30 or more separate settings. One household may be juggling the competing demands of preschool children and a parent trying to work from home herself. Another family may be discovering that schedules and a limited number of devices are making it impossible for families with multiple children to work together. Don't become the divisive wedge between students and their families. Seek the adults' feedback, work actively to adjust, and thank them again and again for all they are doing.

Provide Personalized Touchpoints

Don't forget the power of using a student's name. In online environments, say their names even more often than you usually do. People of all ages respond positively when they are directly addressed. Smile more often, add a sparkle to your voice, and ramp up your gestures and movements. Whether you are teaching through livestreaming or recording messages, a bit more animation in your delivery can increase engagement.

Personalized touchpoints extend to paper packets, too. Add a short note on a sticky addressed to each student, with some personal knowledge of their interests. Consider putting an item in the packet and adding a note saying you thought they would like this because they "know so much about frogs" or because they "love books about dragons." This approach continues what you have always done, which is to provide lessons based on what you know about them as individuals.

Avoid loading students up with mindless worksheets. Can we please just say once and for all that word searches don't appear anywhere in the standards? Though students need to practice skills and concepts, they don't need rote learning. Effective practice is deliberate practice, which is to say that it needs to stretch their thinking. Challenge students to think mathematically by providing them with fewer problems but asking them to solve in in two different ways. Turn skills worksheets into games by asking them to record their "personal best" time.

Because you're not present to regulate their efforts, some children may encounter frustration with a task and leave learning behind. Families, on the other hand, may think that the task needs to be completed at all costs. Adding a time limit on tasks (like a note that says, "This activity should not go beyond 15 minutes") allow you to differentiate based on student needs, while providing boundaries for what is considered reasonable. The feedback channels you provide to caregivers about what is working and what could be improved are invaluable to everyone.

Provide Timely and Meaningful Feedback

Some of the most immediate feedback we provide to students is nonverbal and verbal. One's facial expressions, tone of voice, and spoken words contextualize the feedback delivery. Although it is not a perfect solution, the comments section on many online documents, such as Google Docs, allows for voice comments on submitted work. If you haven't used this feature yet, now is a great time to learn how to do so. In addition to providing a personal touchpoint, it further contextualizes your feedback. An added bonus is that if the student shares your comments with a parent, it gives them a lot more insight into what you are paying attention to and what you see as strengths and opportunities for growth. Hearing praise is a real morale booster for everyone. Consider these to be "virtual stickers" that show students how proud you are of them.

Feedback gets stale quickly, even more so when students are left feeling as though they have submitted something into a void. Make sure that students know your feedback schedule so that they aren't checking for comments all the time. Our university distance learning colleagues remind us that providing expected deadlines creates a sense of order and fosters student perception that you are as organized as you ever were. For instance, let students know that feedback will always be submitted weekly by Monday at 4:00 p.m. Both you and they will benefit from the structure.

Show Them You Care

We are all terribly worried about our students, their families, and the communities we serve. Your demonstration of caring can happen in small ways. A silly joke you send out every day to your students, a phone call you place to a family, and personal notes sent through the mail convey that you are there, even if you are at a distance.

References

Daily, S. M., Mann, M. J., Lilly, C. L., Dyer, A. M., Smith, M. L., & Kristjansson, A. L. (2020). School climate as an intervention to reduce academic failure and educate the whole child: A longitudinal study. Journal of School Health90(3), 182–193.



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