Creating a Positive Climate

How to Develop an Environment That Supports Learning

Learning centers have climates, just like cities or towns. It’s something you feel, something in the air. It’s more than just how a place­ looks—although that’s certainly important. You also sense it in the way people interact with each other, in how they listen, and what they say.

The environment in which you offer a program can determine how effective you are as a teacher. Is it a nice place to be? Do youth feel safe there? Do they know what’s expected of them? Let’s be blunt: if you get up in the morning thinking you can just float through the day, children will run right over you.

In contrast, if you have the right environment and your peers and every available resource are galvanized to support you, it will make an enormous difference. That means working behind the scenes to create a positive learning climate.

The Dimensions of Climate

Four factors contribute to the climate of your program: values, environment, patterns of interaction, and people. If you get all of them working together and reinforcing each other, you’ll be much more effective and youth will be much more successful. The key question to ask yourself as you look around is “What would a stranger think walking in here for the first time?”

  • Values are the core concepts you want youth to learn. Amid all the goals you have and all the topics you cover, just a few concepts really hold everything together. Those core values should be reflected in your mission statement, which sets out in a few words the defining rationale for your program.Writing a mission statement should be one of your first steps. You can try writing one for individual classes as well, with youth involved in the process. Look for ways to reinforce your core values in all aspects of your program. If your values include “community,” for example, try having a basket with pictures of all the youth in it and a community-building task waiting for them when they come in each day, such as having everyone put his or her picture on an attendance chart. If someone isn’t there, youth should think, “Someone in our community is missing today. Who isn’t here?”If one of your values is collaboration, students should see you working with your peers—otherwise, you will send contradictory messages. Keep something else in mind: the rest of the world may be full of messages that work against your values, so it’s even more important that you use every opportunity to reinforce the beliefs and behavior you’re striving for.
  • Environment includes the physical aspects of your center or classroom. You can’t control everything, but you can control a lot, such as how you arrange the room, what you put on the walls, and how you have youth use the space. All of those factors should reflect your values. The key is to be purposeful, because teaching is an intentional act that you must reinforce around the youth.Do you use tables or desks? Are they arranged to encourage individual or collaborative work? Teams or pairs? The walls of the room are a canvas; what do you paint on them? There’s no single right answer, of course, because what you decide is based on your own values, but ideas for things to put on the walls include: pictures of the youth, work they have produced, job charts, schedules, pictures of other people in your community, poems, proverbs that reflect your values, biographies, or quotes of the day.The only wrong answer is not to do anything or to do things that do not reinforce your core values. For example, why put up poems or quotes if your program doesn’t do much work on language arts? It’s not that it’s a bad idea, it’s just that you’re wasting space that could reinforce your real focus. And if you’re going to put up a quote of the day, what else will you do to emphasize its message? You should at least hold a discussion about the quote each day, or you can take it even further by having different kids bring in a quote and explain why they think it’s meaningful.
  • Patterns of Action are our ways of and expectations for interacting with each other. These patterns are closely tied to values because values affect expectations. One of the best things you can do is to help kids understand what’s expected of them so they can feel part of a larger whole. This approach often includes specific job responsibilities, consistent schedules, and ground rules (all of which can make great charts to hang on the wall, thus using the environment to reflect values that guide patterns of action).Schedules can be powerful tools because we disempower youth when we put them in a situation in which they have to wait for someone to tell them what’s happening. Similarly, job charts teach responsibility and pride in a task well done. Patterns of action involve behavior, like how kids walk in the hall and how they act out in class. Part of your goal is to guide those patterns in a positive way, so you must be conscious of your own patterns of action when dealing with your colleagues and youth.
  • People are what a center is all about. You should remember that a lot of people can help you do your job, if you’ll only use them. From the security guard to the groundskeeper, from parents to people in the neighborhood, everyone can provide a positive influence. Sometimes we’re so busy that we don’t communicate with or use others appropriately. If, for example, one of your program goals is to be an integral part of the larger community, what are you doing to demonstrate that in children’s minds? Are there pictures? Do you have guest speakers?