Special Report
School Climate & Safety Commentary

Improve Student Behavior by Building Relationships

By Laurie Barron — January 04, 2013 3 min read

With high absenteeism, low academic achievement, and high rates of disciplinary referrals resulting in suspensions, alternative school placements, and juvenile-court actions, we had to make significant changes at Smokey Road Middle School when I arrived nine years ago.

The adults at Smokey Road, a 750-student school about 35 miles southwest of Atlanta, began the process by changing our approach with students. Building relationships with students, we knew, was key not only to effective discipline, but also to building a culture of trust and respect in which students want to meet high expectations in their school. Instinctively, we recognized that there is a difference between being in charge and being in control. You can be in charge of a situation, but you cannot be in control of the individual at the heart of the situation. As a staff, we agreed that when we intervened in a situation, unless someone’s immediate safety was at risk, our intervention would always improve the situation. If our interventions were going to make the situation worse, then we would wait and seek help from another adult (administrators included). Further, unless a board policy stated otherwise, we agreed not to use zero-tolerance procedures.

A good manager uses zero-tolerance procedures to implement discipline consequences. By contrast, a strong leader uses sound judgment to guide discipline decisions.

Smokey Road is a school where every student has a place to belong and to be celebrated. It is also the most diverse middle school in our district, with an enrollment that is 59 percent white and 41 percent either African-American or other ethnicity. Sixty-five percent of our students participate in the free and reduced-price lunch program.

The program we launched—Encouraging Positive Behavior—is designed to foster a climate of safety, success, cooperation, academic excellence, responsibility, and respect for everyone who enters our school. We believe that all Smokey Road Wildcats should uphold the CATS standards for student success: Continue to succeed. Achieve learning goals. Take responsibility. Show respect. When students go above and beyond these standards, they can earn CATS “cash” for incentives, such as entering their names in a monthly drawing for various prizes, having a staff member make a positive call home, enjoying iced tea at lunch, or receiving passes to school events. Recognizing students for what they do right is a far greater motivator than punishing them for what they do wrong.

See Also

What is the most effective approach for maintaining discipline and a positive climate in the public schools?

Education Week Commentary asked six thought leaders to share their answer to this question in Quality Counts 2013. Read the other responses.

We also take seriously students’ perceptions and opinions, as their input is an integral part of ensuring effective collaborative leadership and helping our school continue to improve. The principal’s student leadership council includes students who use their leadership in both positive and not-so-positive ways. These 30 students (10 per grade) meet each month to share concerns, suggestions, and celebrations from their peers, ranging from serious topics (such as peer pressure and the overall operation of the school) to less serious, yet no less important topics to preteens and teenagers (such as hall change and lunch menus). Each year, we also seek all students’ input in a voluntary, anonymous survey examining how each of their teachers builds relationships, establishes relevance, and creates rigorous classes. The process gives students a sense of ownership and empowers them to feel they are a part of what is happening at Smokey Road instead of just having things happen to them.

Each day, we work to ensure that each student attends school, is in a safe environment, feels valued as an individual, and then learns the appropriate curriculum for future success. We have seen significant improvement, with a 36 percent decrease in discipline referrals over the past four school years, and a 13 percent decrease in absenteeism and an increase of more than 20 percent in reading and math achievement since the 2002-03 school year. Most importantly, we have built a school culture in which teachers believe in students and students believe in themselves, one where young people want to come to school each day.

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