Over the years, I have found—and there is research to support this—that there is a power to a common language and common behavioral expectations across a school building. If teachers, secretaries, paras, and custodians are all on the same page when it comes to expectations for behavior, the school runs more smoothly and unwanted behaviors decrease.
So where should a school begin if they want to create school-wide expectations for behavior? The starting point for every school should be a clear understanding for why this is important to do in the first place. After this, a series of collaborative conversations and the creation of common language should occur. Finally, in the implementation phase, students should be trained and retrained on the expectations.
1. Why School-Wide?
One of the first objections to doing anything school-wide, behavioral or otherwise, is that it takes away the teacher’s autonomy. While this is true, teachers typically give up a little to gain a lot. It helps if there is a common understanding and philosophy when it comes to discipline, but even if there is not a school-wide philosophy, it will still work. If students have a consistent expectation across 80% of their day, it is way better than 20%—even it if isn’t 100%. And, typically, if leadership maintains a focus on common language over time, years of repetition will create an increased collective understanding of the rules.
The other major selling point for school-wide expectations is that it is very student-centered. Of course, it is beneficial for students to know that there are consistent expectations in music, PE, the classroom, the playground, the bus, and all other locations around the school. Knowing these expectations helps students to meet them.
2. Creating the Common Language
Once there's a shared understanding of why a school-wide approach is critical, the next step is to create the common expectations and common language for the building. This process can take on many shapes or forms, but essentially it is creating a common expectation for behavior in all different parts of the school building. Teachers could start by brainstorming together which areas to create language for. Some ideas would be the cafeteria, the classroom, the hallway, the restroom, the bus, waiting times before and after school, arrival, dismissal, and even during school-wide assemblies. These may not all be necessary or appropriate for every school building, but they can get the discussion started for teachers.
Each of these areas of the building obviously has its own unique challenges and expectations, but some of the commonalities between these areas can be differentiated through this process. For example, the level of conversation is something that needs addressing in each area. In the cafeteria, the conversation level will probably be different than in the library, on the bus, at an assembly, or in the hallway. The first step—getting teachers to talk about these desired behaviors—creates both a common understanding and a common language. This process can take time and be messy. Teachers may have varying philosophies on how students should walk in the hallways or play on the playground, but by focusing on collaboration, common understanding, and with a little sense of compromise, teachers can create a language that works for all.
Once the expectations are created, it is important to create visual reminders for the students. These should be posted in the described area for all students to be able to see. Depending on the age of the students, there could be pictures or illustrations included with the expectations. Posting the expectations in the area of focus allows teachers and all staff to reference and remember the language that students are supposed to learn.
3. Practicing With Students
The final step is to practice the routines and procedures with the students—this could be done in a school-wide manner, but can also be done by individual teachers with their students. I have found it most effective to have the people supervising the area to be the ones that do the training and the practicing with the students. For example, the teacher aides who work in the cafeteria are the ones who trained the students on the expectations in the cafeteria. Teachers can be a part of this, which builds the connections of the common understanding, but whoever is responsible for the supervision of students at that time is the one who should do the training.
The magic of this is that when students don't follow the expectations, there's a simple response: reteaching. Students who did not follow an expectation in an area simply need to practice it more. This can happen before or after school, during detention, during recess, or any other time around the day that fits the needs of the teacher. This isn't a punishment—it is simply the opportunity to take time to master the skill because not enough time was allowed the first time around for the student to achieve mastery.
By going through these three steps, a school can create building-wide expectations and a common language for students. Once this is implemented with fidelity, students will become more responsible and behavior issues will decrease—a win-win for a school building.
How have you set common language and common behavioral expectations? Did some methods work better than others? Let us know in the comments below!