Fostering a Sense of Belonging: A School Transformation Story

Over the course of our ever-evolving journey in reshaping the culture at Chastain Road Elementary School (CRE), one powerful truth has emerged for us that we hope every leader and teacher will take to heart during their own transformation efforts. That is: Prioritizing the development of social and emotional skills is nonnegotiable when it comes to raising student achievement and improving the quality of young lives.

Six years ago, CRE had the highest percentage of students with discipline referrals among schools in the district—something our leadership team recognized had to change to ensure our students were developing skills for success in and beyond the classroom. John Hattie’s research states that behavior intervention programs have a positive effect size of 0.62 on student achievement. As a part of CRE’s transformation, we knew that implementing a strong behavioral and social-emotional learning program would be critical in setting our students up for success.

Early on, we identified the need for a mindset shift among stakeholders. The community we serve has a high poverty rate and faces many of the deep set and complex challenges that often accompany such a burden. Over time, unfortunately, the staff at Chastain Road had fallen back on the assumption that our students could not achieve due to their circumstances. And so, we first recognized our responsibility to shift this thinking to instill a sense of perseverance and grit, and to empower students to be unafraid to dream big. 

To that end, we challenged our staff to change their mindsets and truly believe that their students could achieve at high levels. As the school with the highest percentage of students with discipline referrals, change was imperative to ensure our students developed the skills to succeed beyond elementary school.

Implementation: The Road to Change

We began by recruiting a team of staff members to serve on a School Climate committee. (We had intentionally adopted the phrase “school climate” because it comes from our state report card, and we wanted our culture improvement efforts to align with and stay focused on how we would be measured on this critical work.) The formation of the committee was not a top-down initiative from leadership but rather a staff-created, self-facilitated group of teacher leaders. They first analyzed discipline data and soon recognized the need for improved behavior instruction for students. But they also acknowledged that teachers could not “discipline” a student for a behavior or skill that he or she did not have and/or was not explicitly taught. This set in motion the group’s core work of creating a shared vocabulary and lens through which staff and students could identify and refine these behaviors.

In the 2015–2016 school year, teachers at the school had implemented “COLTS Pride,” intentionally teaching key behavior skills through the character traits of “Care, Ownership, Learn, Teamwork, and Strive to Succeed.” Students were taught two to three phrases associated with each trait that could be transferred to any setting in the school or home environment, and were rewarded with incentives for displaying these behaviors. For example, if a given school week was focused on integrating “Care” within classroom lessons, one observable behavior that exhibits care would be for a student to make eye contact with another to show that he or she was listening and showing respect for the peer who was speaking.

In the 2016–2017 school year, after sending a group of faculty members to professional development training at the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, Georgia, our leadership team led the initiative to implement what we called a CRE House System, linking it to the existing COLTS Pride structure and continuing this practice for the past four years. At the beginning of each school year, students spin a wheel to determine their House (or team); they are welcomed into their House with beaded necklaces and colored T-shirts, which instantly develops a sense of belonging for the students. Monthly House meetings focus on a specific service project and span Grades K–5 in order to foster collaboration and teamwork among grade levels. In addition, House rallies and quarterly House champion outings are offered, fostering camaraderie among students while decreasing discipline concerns at CRE.

When the 2017–2018 school year came around, we hired a full-time behavior interventionist to serve our students. She worked closely with them to teach and practice self-regulation skills and provide teachers with the necessary tools to prevent and remedy behavioral concerns in the classroom. That same year, we coordinated a team to lead a “Ron Clark’s Essential 55” think tank to adapt these 55 middle-school oriented behavioral skills to a subset that was appropriate for our elementary students. The team, as part of the School Climate committee, led the initiative to develop the “COLTS Essential 30” at CRE. Included in the “30” are specific social-emotional and work-based soft skills that are necessary for students to possess to experience success in 21st-century society. These skills are explicitly taught at the beginning of each school year and periodically throughout.

Our Results

Prior to implementing COLTS Pride, 34% of the student population at CRE had received at least one discipline referral. This percentage was the highest among elementary schools in the school district of Pickens County (and higher even than some middle schools). Immediately after implementing, the percentage of students with discipline referrals decreased drastically from 34% to 11%.

In the years since, that percentage continues to decline as staff members consistently focus on behavioral instruction and proactive intervention instead of reactive punishment. Especially notable is that extrinsic rewards are becoming less necessary to incentivize students as the COLTS Pride structure and focus on intervention has allowed students to experience behavioral success. This extraordinary transition to intrinsically motivated positive behaviors is evidence of the the deep impact that this work has made in authentically shifting individual behavior, and in turn, making permanent improvements to the culture of the wider school community.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

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Chastain Road Elementary School has been named a 2020 Model School from ICLE and will present at the 28th Annual Model Schools Conference. Join us on June 28–July 1, 2020, in Orlando, Florida, at the Model Schools Conference and explore firsthand how you can connect with courage in your school or district to effect meaningful change.

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