The Right Conditions for Learning

To foster a culture of positivity in your school, follow these five simple steps.

GUEST COLUMN | by Susan R. Steele

When I became the principal of Finger Lake Elementary School in Wasilla, Alaska, in 2015, we had about 250 students.

Two years later, that figure has grown to more than 400 students—and a key reason for this surge, in my opinion, has been the positive school culture we have fostered.

We are a district of choice, meaning parents can choose to send their children to any of the schools within the district. One of my goals when I took this position was to grow our enrollment, making Finger Lake a place where families would want to boundary exempt to so their students could come to school here.

One of the primary ways we have accomplished this goal is by increasing the number of positive interactions our students experience each day.

“Our focus on improving school culture is paying off. … We surveyed our students about what would best motivate them, and we included student representatives on our task force.”


Our focus on improving school culture is paying off. Teachers report fewer behavioral problems, disciplinary referral rates have dropped, and more parents are choosing Finger Lake for their children’s education.

While our success has been a true team effort, here are five key strategies that underlie it.

Build relationships.

Strong interpersonal relationships are the foundation for positive student behavior, and changing the culture of your school begins by nurturing healthy relationships with your students.

Here are some ways that our staff builds relationships with students:

  • Greet students at the door
  • Give them a handshake, high five, or fist bump on their way in
  • Know at least 10 things about each student
  • Spend time building a sense of community in your school or classroom creating a safe and fun environment where students want to be.
  • Always remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. When faced with confrontation, take a step back to consider whether that child’s food, sleep, or basic safety needs are being met.

Set clear and consistent expectations.

Make sure students understand what behaviors are expected of them, and hold them accountable for their actions. These expectations—which should include the progression of consequences that students will face if they choose not to follow the rules—must be explicitly taught and modeled.

As an administrator, the first thing I ask students who are sent to my office is: “What happened?” Then I’ll ask, “What were you supposed to be doing?” It’s important that students know how to answer this follow-up question.

Make sure all staff are familiar with these expectations as well, and hold team members accountable for enforcing the rules of behavior consistently.

Even though we’re an elementary school, our students are taught by multiple teachers throughout the day.

It was important that we established a school-wide system of behavior so that all staff members were using the same language and setting the same expectations for student behavior from classroom to classroom.

Our school mascot is a falcon, and so we developed a system of behavior in which we encourage students to “Show the HEART of a Falcon,” where the letters in the word HEART stand for the virtues we hope to instill:

  • Having a positive attitude;
  • Expecting success;
  • Accepting responsibility;
  • Respecting yourself and others; and
  • Thinking before acting.

Focus on the positive.

I am a big believer in the power of positive reinforcement. Students respond more effectively to praise than they do to punishment or disapproval. With that in mind, we have sought to flip the ratio of positive to negative interactions with our students.

Positive interactions are defined as rewarding or encouraging students when they are doing what they are supposed to be doing. Negative interactions are defined as correcting students when they are off task or behaving inappropriately.

The more frequently we can give students attention at times when they are on task, the more positive outcomes we are going to see.

To help our teachers track and reward positive student behaviors, we began using a program called Hero K12 last year. It’s an online platform that enables us to monitor all forms of student behavior, both good and bad.

Using a web browser or mobile device, our teachers and administrators can record student behavior within Hero as it happens—and they can assign consequences or rewards as applicable. We have customized the software according to our own school-wide system of behavior, so that teachers can give Hero points to students for showing the HEART of a falcon or otherwise acting positively.

Students love getting positive recognition, and teachers tell me their students immediately perk up and give full attention when they project the Hero dashboard onto the interactive whiteboard.

Get your students involved.

We put together a task force to decide on a reward structure for how students can redeem their points, and we made sure to include students in this process. Even elementary students can come up with great ideas! 

We surveyed our students about what would best motivate them, and we included student representatives on our task force. With the students’ help, we have devised rewards that include opportunities to watch a movie, play kickball, purchase falcon gear for our Falcon Fridays, or even sing karaoke during class time.

When students know the goals they are working toward, it becomes easier to encourage those behaviors. Giving students a voice in setting those goals allows them to take ownership of the process and helps them become fully engaged in your efforts to change the culture of your school.

Celebrate success.

This is important not just for students, but for teachers to buy in as well. Change can be hard for some people, and we have tried to remove as many barriers keeping teachers from using the system as we can.

In staff newsletters, we share our teachers’ successes and highlight those who have experienced positive results from using our platform. As teachers see the success their colleagues are having and the access to fun incentives for their students, they become more likely to try it for themselves—and our success multiplies.

Last year, we set up a Google document where teachers could describe their experiences and leave questions, comments, or concerns. Teachers could see which colleagues might have questions similar to their own, or which colleagues they can turn to for help if needed. This enabled our teachers to serve as the experts for each other, rather than having to ask me for help.

Kids need recognition when they’re doing a good job.

They appreciate positive feedback, and Hero helps us give that feedback and reward students in a consistent and tangible way.

Too often, we correct students when they misbehave instead of acknowledging when they are behaving appropriately—and a system like Hero helps us flip that ratio of positive to negative interactions.

It is refreshing to see how many positive interactions our students are receiving. We ended last year with over 50,000 school-wide points!  

That is 50,000 times our staff “caught students doing good.”

Our school is proof that increasing the number of positive interactions students have throughout the day makes a big difference in their behavior and desire to come to school!

Susan R. Steele is the Principal of Finger Lake Elementary School in Wasilla, Alaska.


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