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Creating a Positive School Environment that Nurtures all Students as Learners

by Kristi Todd, Knox County Teacher of the Year Kindergarten Teacher, Union Elementary School

At Union Elementary School, in Union, we work collaboratively to create nurturing classroom climates and a positive school environment. We work together towards building positive relationships and communicating clear expectations for behavior to students, parents, staff, and our community. At our school, we believe in building a culture of "our kids" where teachers believe that every student is their responsibility - not just the ones in their classroom.

Union Elementary School implements Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, an approach to school-wide behavior that uses research based strategies to teach positive behavior expectations in order to establish a learning community where every child feels safe and valued. Under the energetic leadership of principal Christina Wotton, the staff at UES has developed a structure that highlights the outstanding ways that students model the values that are foundational to a dynamic learning community.

We have behavior expectations that are modeled and taught to all children. Students are all expected to be: Ready, Safe, Responsible and demonstrate Respect. A plan for these expectations has been developed and illustrated with examples so that students in all grades understand how they can practice these important behaviors. Children who show these positive behaviors each month are recognized and celebrated at a reward party. Children who do not yet exhibit these behaviors are provided interventions to support them in becoming successful in the future.

Teachers structure the first six weeks of school with instruction that directly teaches the procedures, expectations, and behaviors that are necessary for a safe and nurturing classroom environment. Each expectation is taught to students through book discussions, anchor charts, and examples. The benefit of investing in these efforts early in the year can be observed through the increased teaching and learning throughout the rest of the academic year. Below are some of the products the kindergarten students have created together to demonstrate our behavioral expectations.

Here is a link to our video on kindness: Kindergarten Kindness Video

Here is a link to our video on PBIS expectations: Kindergarten PBIS Expectations Video

Many of us remember school as a place where children are sometimes "caught" in negative behaviors and recognized with a detention or some other consequence. At Union Elementary School, however, children are "caught" exhibiting positive behaviors and recognized with Union Elementary School "Eagle Feathers." Each time a positive behavior is witnessed, the child’s name is written on a feather, his or her name is announced at the end of the day, and then the feather is displayed on our P.B.I.S. bulletin board in the hall. Adults aren't the only ones who distribute the feathers. Additionally, students "catch" their peers and even adults in random acts of kindness and record the names accordingly on feathers. These feathers are very motivating for students as they seek positive attention for demonstrating the behavioral expectations. Students are constantly searching out ways to get more feathers, hence changing the focus to the positive in every aspect of our day. 


We also have 10 target behaviors that classroom teachers present and teach each month.  Every target behavior is taught in the classroom, and children who exhibit these behaviors each week are recognized with a special certificate and named "Super Citizens" for the week. They also earn the opportunity to have their name drawn for a special reward, such as special lunch with a teacher, parent, or the principal. The reward could also be extra recess, for example. Parents love reading their child's name in our school newsletter, and children are excited to share their certificates with their families, thus reinforcing their effort to be positive members of our school community. 

An exciting moment for Union Elementary School this year was when we had a student initiate the "Buddy Bench." This bench was intended to provide students, when playing outside, a place to go sit when they are in need of a friend with which to play- and it really works! While out on recess duty, I have had the "heart warming" opportunity to watch this bench bring classmates together continuously. 


Earlier this year, we extended our efforts towards building our school community by restructuring our school lunch. In the past, students sat in the cafeteria by grade level. The adults on lunch duty were often busy redirecting negative behaviors. This year, however, we focused on creating a "family style lunch," with students eating together in the cafeteria sitting at tables with students from each grade.


At first, I was a little skeptical about having kindergarten students eat lunch with first through sixth graders, but I was pleasantly surprised to see how much it improved our school climate at lunch.  Our sixth graders have accepted the leadership role of table leaders and commanded the respect of the younger students. The responsibilities of the table leaders include fetching forgotten items, such as straws and napkins, monitoring clean up, and dismissing table members.   


Children who exhibit positive behaviors during each week are also recognized with the opportunity to sit at our "Royalty Table;" a fancy table with linen, fancy plates, decorations, and a special treat. The lunchroom is now such a positive environment that teachers are available to observe and guide; negative behaviors occur infrequently. PBIS is also about trying new things!

Kristi Todd is a Kindergarten teacher at Union Elementary School. She has been teaching for 14 years. She graduated from the University of Maine with a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education and a Bachelor of Science in English Education (7-12). She is currently enrolled in graduate program at UM. In her district she serves on the Positive Behavior and Interventions Support team.

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