Community and connection are more vital than ever as children reconnect after nearly two years of disrupted learning and isolation. Last year—the toughest one in terms of behavior management that I can remember—I used three tools to create a positive community in my second-grade classroom. They helped me build students’ self-esteem, teach empathy and problem-solving, and inspire leadership among my students. This was my most successful year for behavior management, despite having a handful of children who needed a lot of support.
Tools to Build Classroom Community
1. Classroom agreements. A few weeks into the school year, our class cocreated a list of agreements. I presented these as “important reminders of how we should act and treat each other.” To keep it manageable, I limited the list to three agreements. After think time, group chats, sharing out, and voting to narrow down ideas, our class made the following three agreements:
- We agree to give everyone their turn to speak.
- We agree to give each other quiet time to work.
- We agree to treat each other like we want to be treated.
These agreements were posted and visible at all times. Minor disruptions like blurting out answers and side-talking became opportunities to review our first two agreements. The third agreement helped students work out peer conflicts. For example, two students got into an argument about the rules of a game. The argument escalated to loud name-calling, and one student ripped up her partner’s papers.
This prompted a conversation about our agreement to treat each other like we want to be treated. I asked the class the following questions: “Why did we choose to make this agreement?” “How does it feel when everyone keeps this agreement?” “How does it feel when we don’t keep this agreement?” The students were then able to redo the situation that led up to the conflict to show how it could have turned out differently if they kept the agreement in mind. The agreements built intrinsic motivation for positive behavior. Every one of my students saw themselves as a member of a community and understood how their behavior could positively or negatively impact others in their community.
2. Long-term classroom jobs for everyone. Elementary teachers know how much pride young students feel when they have a special job. All 28 of my second graders held a job title at all times, and they kept their jobs for a full month before switching. At the end of each month, I asked them to give me their top three choices for a job (with the disclaimer that they might not get their choice) and assigned jobs accordingly. Some of the most popular jobs were Snack Manager, Lunch Counter, Door Holder, Calendar Reader, Time Keeper, and Pencil Sharpener.
No one got the same job twice, and everyone got their first or second choice at least once in the school year. It was tricky to come up with 28 different jobs, but it meant that every student felt like they had something valuable to contribute to the class community every day—even if it was as simple as straightening books on a shelf or passing around a bottle of hand sanitizer.
By holding their jobs for a whole month, students experienced the comfort of routine, and they became independent in initiating and completing their tasks. The shyest child in class gained confidence and started talking more after a few weeks of asking peers which snack they wanted at snack time. A student with high anxiety who had frequent outbursts became more self-regulated after he was in charge of choosing and leading brain breaks. By holding their job for a whole month, students who found a job challenging had enough time to practice and gain confidence.
3. Daily class meetings. The transition back to class after lunch and afternoon recess can be the most challenging time of the day. Energy levels are high, and students have difficulty settling down. Playground conflicts spill into the classroom, and students sometimes return to class crying or tense with anger. Having class meetings at this time helped students settle down, solve their social problems, and get ready to learn again.
Class meetings were teacher-led for the first quarter, modeling respectful and productive ways to talk about social problems. After the first quarter, I gradually assigned responsibilities to the students. By the spring, each item in the meeting agenda was led by one or two students. I gave positive and constructive feedback to the students in leadership roles both during and after the class meeting, and I restated expectations for student-led class meetings as often as needed.
As we approached the end of the year, I was often able to sit on the sidelines and watch while my second graders conducted 30 minutes of whole-group social and emotional learning entirely on their own. Class meeting was the most important time of day to my students, especially once they took over leadership of the meeting.
Our class meetings were 25–30 minutes long, and they always followed the same structure:
- Calendar reading
- Play a quick game
The agenda items before and after problem-solving helped students feel calm and secure, ready for serious reflection and social and emotional growth. Problem-solving was the heart of the meeting. Problem-solving started with a student bringing up a problem without using any names, such as “Someone stuck their tongue out at me in line.” The student with the monthly job of Class Meeting Host might ask their peer to give more details: “What happened before that?” or “Did you already try to solve the problem on your own?” Then the meeting host would ask classmates to share solutions. Peers would offer solutions like “Ignore it” or “Say ‘I don’t like that’ and ask the person to stop.”
After hearing several solutions, the Meeting Host would turn back to the student who experienced the problem and ask them which solution they thought worked best for their situation.
I experienced many of the same exhausting challenges that other teachers experienced this year: adjusting and readjusting for ever-changing mandates and guidelines, trying to make up for lost learning time, and differentiating for the widest spread of academic levels I’ve ever had under one roof. Despite all of those challenges, using these three tools made this year my most successful for creating a positive classroom community.