Caring School Communities Create Ideal Conditions for Learning
By Lara Maupin
When kids feel safe and respected, they can more easily focus on learning. Creating safe, caring school cultures is therefore central to the mission of schools. This is something schools of character know well. This is the secret to success they have to share with others.

All National Schools of Character are caring communities. You feel it as soon as you enter the building. You feel it deeply when people you meet walking the halls choke up with emotion when speaking of what the school means to them. You see it in the ways teachers, students, and parents interact – the way they smile and show genuine concern and, frequently, joy in these daily interactions.

How do they do it? How do busy teachers and administrators create safe communities of learning where kids feel connected? By focusing first and foremost on building relationships. Without exception, they find that when they take time to do this, they GAIN time for teaching and learning. Academics soar and behavior problems decline.

“As the process of character education begins to grow, the results will be astounding. Staff and students can spend their time learning and growing. Poor student behavior, lack of motivation, and low expectations do not get in our way — our days are spent teaching and learning!” –Dave Cobb, former principal, Bowles Elementary, 2011 NSOC

Here Are Some of the Most Common Strategies Used by National Schools of Character

Class meetings – Regular class meetings allow students to work on both social and academic problems and challenges together. These meetings develop key listening skills and give students important opportunities for reflection and celebration that build a sense of community and connectedness. Teachers who use class meetings find that the more they become a regular part of the classroom culture, students will ask for them in order to resolve issues that arise – inside and outside the classroom.

Advisories and other “family” groups – Small groups of students who meet regularly with one or two “advisors” become connected to each other outside the regular classroom setting. This pays big dividends inside the classroom as students in advisories are motivated to come to school regularly and they feel they have at least one adult who they can turn to when needed. Advisory groups often bond over lively discussions of ethical issues, service learning projects, and team-building activities.

Buddies – Many schools pair older students with younger ones or pair students with disabilities with mainstream peers. Such programs build empathy and social skills among students and give students a sense of purpose. The key to high-quality buddy programs is to have regular, meaningful activities for the buddies to engage in together and to offer opportunities for reflection and celebration.

Student leadership groups – Schools of character find creative ways to offer all students opportunities for leadership. When students are trusted with important responsibilities such as welcoming guests and new students, planning school-wide events, and teaching their peers about character-related concepts, they feel more connected to their school. When they learn leadership skills, they are more likely to feel they can solve academic and social problems that come their way. Schools find that students who participate in leadership groups grow socially and show academic gains.

Service learning – Through the process of identifying community needs, planning service projects to meet those needs, and reflecting upon their accomplishments, students gain empathy as well as key problem-solving skills. They learn to work with others to achieve a common goal. Service projects tied to curriculum makes that content more meaningful for students. Teachers who use service learning find that their students become more engaged and passionate about what they are doing.

Creative ways to partner with parents – Schools of character know that parent involvement is a key to success for students. They find new and creative ways to reach out to parents, make them welcome in the school, and involve them in the life of the school community. By listening to families, they figure out what the barriers to such involvement are in their own communities and they create ways to remove or work around those barriers.

Opportunities for staff reflection and growth – NSOC principals generally agree that an important first step in character education is to get the staff on board. While they take different approaches to doing this, a common denominator in schools of character is that sufficient time is given to allowing staff to talk, reflect, and learn best practices. Principals agree that this is a process that takes time and patience but that it is well worth the effort since once they believe in the effectiveness of character education, teachers are the biggest advocates and assets a school has.

Get more information about National Schools of Character and their best practices.