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Professional Opinion

Schools can create positive climate in not-quite 20 steps

An easy, objective way to assess beneficial behaviors and interactions in your schools
Tom Hierck is the author of Seven Keys to a Positive Learning Environment in Your Classroom. Kent Peterson is professor emeritus in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Tom Hierck is the author of Seven Keys to a Positive Learning Environment in Your Classroom. Kent Peterson is professor emeritus in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Decades of research have established a clear link between a positive school culture and improved student outcomes.

Many K12 leaders try to foster a more positive culture in their schools, using strategies such as positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) to teach and reinforce good behavior among students.

But this raises some important questions. Is there an easy (and objective) way to tell when a school has successfully achieved a positive climate?


Sidebar: 19 student and staff behaviors


And, with all the possible behaviors that administrators could try to cultivate, are some more conducive to achieving a positive school culture than others?

Positivity ratio

To answer the first question, we turned to research from Barbara Fredrickson, professor of psychology at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Fredrickson suggests that people are more likely to flourish than to languish when they experience a ratio of three positive emotions for every negative one.

This would mean that about 75 percent of the behaviors and interactions occurring in a school would have to be positive for that school’s environment to be considered healthy.

The nice thing about using the positivity ratio is that it’s both straightforward and objective.

If a school has a behavior management platform in which teachers and administrators can record both positive and negative behaviors as they occur, then it’s a simple matter of looking at the data: If at least three-fourths of the behaviors logged in the system are characterized as positive, then the school is meeting its goal.

Identifying positive behaviors

Using the positivity ratio as our measuring stick, we then set out to answer the second question: Are some student behaviors more conducive to achieving a positive school culture than others?

We analyzed data from 645 schools that had logged student behaviors using a behavior management system. We examined more than 152 million instances of behavior—both good and bad—that were collected in the system over a seven-year period.

Through cluster analysis, we identified a core set of positive behaviors that were common in these schools. We call these behaviors the “positive school culture inventory,” or PSCI.

Successful schools logged almost 40 percent more of these behaviors than did schools with lower positivity ratios. Our white paper describes our study and methodology. K12 leaders can use this knowledge to decide which behaviors they want to emphasize in their schools.

We believe that a focus on the behaviors that make up the PSCI will enable them to foster a positive school culture.


Tom Hierck is the author of Seven Keys to a Positive Learning Environment in Your Classroom. Kent Peterson is professor emeritus in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.