Building Communities

6 Strategies for Building Community in the Classroom

8 Min Read
6 strategies for building community in the classroom

I used to pride myself on my knack for building community in the classroom. I spoke to students about what it would take. I displayed our class mantra at the beginning of each school year: “We are a community of independent flexible thinkers working interdependently to solve problems.” We created classroom values, and those values informed our daily behavior. I could often be heard saying to students, “How does your behavior align with our values?” Students would mumble some response and walk away dejected, but compliant. I liked it. It maintained order.

But I saw little transfer of the learning goals outside the classroom. Incorporating scripted social and emotional lessons from Second Step helped a few students, but the majority were just being compliant, so I asked my administrator for help. I said, “I’m trying everything to reach them! Why can’t they transfer the social and emotional lessons I’ve been teaching in class into other spaces?” The response: “What if you don’t have as strong of a community as you thought? The goal of learning is to reach independence, and that can only happen if we are cooperating with one another.”

Over many talks with students, lunch supervisors, and other teachers, I discovered that students didn’t feel they had the right to hold their peers accountable. Other teachers believed it wasn’t the students’ responsibility, and when a student did say something to a peer in conflict, I learned it exacerbated the issue. I summed it all up to mean students didn’t feel safe enough, they didn’t trust one another enough, or they didn’t feel connected enough to believe they could support each other. I was reminded of a Zulu saying: “A person is a person because of other people.” A community builds cohesion and creates like-minded individuals through shared values. I needed to get them there.

How to Build Community in the Classroom

Today, my community structure is built on cooperative routines supporting a student's need for safety, trust, and belonging. These values undergird our behavior throughout the school year. We practice these values through cooperative routines that make each student feel safe enough to be themselves and trust that the teacher and their peers have their back, and that all students can contribute to our learning.

I have finally created a positive classroom community through culture and climate. You can do it, too. Here’s how.

1. Create human values for learning

On the first day of school, I ask students, "What do we need from one another to learn?" I always make sure to add mindfulness and responsiveness to the “Safety” list, integrity and validation to the “Trust” list, and listening and patience to the “Belonging” list. Students come up with other examples (such as food, water, breaks, sharing, kindness, fairness, acceptance, confidence, patience with self and others, support, and supplies). This list is then categorized into three “Values” columns: Safety, Trust, and Belonging. (These values are adopted from humanistic psychology, and follow a similar structure to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.)

2. Co-construct behaviors around these values

The next day, we co-construct behaviors around our three values. Utilizing the examples of what we need to learn, I guide students through a list of what “safety,” “trust,” and “belonging” behaviors look like at school. This sets the stage for our “community practices.” See the framework below.




What We Need to Learn

Water, food, breaks, time, organized space, calmness, mindfulness

Fairness, acceptance, integrity, support, validation

Sharing, kindness, patience, supplies, communication, listening

Classroom Behaviors

• Learn to relax
• Eat a healthy breakfast
• Practice mindfulness
• Stay organized

• Give chances for people to change
• Communicate if you are afraid, nervous, or sad
• Notice when things are going great

• Cooperate: Create a system for taking turns (e.g., rock, paper, scissors)
• Listen to all sides of a problem before responding
• Use “I” statements: Speak your truth without excluding others

Community Practices

• Morning mindful moment (e.g., What did you hear, think, or feel?)
• Daily emotion check-ins
• Organization support teams

• Team-building activities
• Brainstorming activities
• Problem/solution box

• Brainstorming activities
• Cooperative routines
• Collaboration routines

3. Build culture and climate with goals

Students decide daily or weekly which of the behaviors they think they will need to practice and why. Using the "think-pair-share" approach, two students might discuss a problem they are facing, the behavior they will use to address it, and how practicing the behavior will help them reach their learning goal.

A discussion about "safety" behaviors might go something like this:

Student A: "I will practice mindfulness."

Student B: "Why?"

Student A: "So when I get mad, I don't dump my anger on other people."

Student B: "How will you practice mindfulness?"

Student A: "I will focus on my breathing when I'm angry."

Student B: "Okay. I will remind you when I see you getting mad."

Student A: "Thanks."

What are your cooperative routines? How do students collaborate with one another within those routines? Below you will find a framework for how I build a goal-oriented, interdependent community culture and climate.

Values and Goals




Cooperative Routines

Before any learning task or activity, students should highlight and practice which “safety” behavior(s) they will use. This will be their social and emotional learning (SEL) goal.

Before any learning task or activity, students should highlight and practice which “trust” behavior(s) they will use. This will be their SEL goal.

Before any learning task or activity, students should highlight and practice which “belonging” behavior(s) they will use. This will be their SEL goal.

Collaborative Routines

Students share their “safety” behavior with a partner. Together they monitor and support one another throughout the day.

Students share their “trust” behavior with a partner. Together they monitor and support one another throughout the day.

Students share their “belonging” behavior with a partner. Together they monitor and support one another throughout the day.

Language Routines

Students need teacher language that will validate their fears and hopes before they will trust you.

Watch your tone: Be warm and demanding. Use language that shows you are here to support learning (e.g., How can I help? What do you need?).

Use language that keeps students goal-oriented, especially when problems occur (e.g., What was your goal? How did your actions move you closer toward your goal?)

4. Develop a shared conflict-resolution language

This is a big part of building a sense of community. Language is how I observe the classroom climate. I listen to how students express themselves. The language we use must support the outcomes of safety, trust, and belonging.

Common language stems work well when resolving conflicts. For example, if meeting with a group of students, I may say:

  • “What happened?”
  • “Which of our three values do you think were broken?”
  • “What strategy can we practice next time?”
  • “How can I support the strategy you all have in place? Let’s set a timeframe to practice this strategy throughout the day.”

I expect students to use similar language throughout the school day. When students are ready, they bring their strategic solution to the community for accountability. We speak to one another in a solution-oriented tone.

5. Establish SEL routines

You can then establish feedback loops and check to see if the classroom language upholds the values you and your students co-constructed. A “feedback loop” is established through a problem/solution box and emotion check-ins. It's how I receive overall community feedback from students without disrupting daily instruction. This classroom cultural routine supports the community values of safety, trust, and belonging.

My goal is to allow students to always feel safe when sharing what they are experiencing inside and outside the classroom without fear of getting in trouble for doing so. It’s about supporting them through conflict, not alleviating conflict altogether. In terms of climate, I check on how they are writing about problems to see if their language is supporting a need for solutions or is simply describing the problem. If students are only describing problems, then this threatens the overall safety, trust, and sense of belonging of others. It gives me an opportunity to design mini-lessons supporting solution-oriented language.

6. Play around with routines during SEL mini-lessons

It's important to ensure that students are cooperative and collaborative. Learning for me is about building skills and strategies so I can be of service to myself, students, families, and the larger community. I am equipping my students to do the same. Learning in the 21st century demands that we create cooperative and collaborative problem-solving spaces so students can be of service to themselves, the classroom, their family, and the community.

For example, if you notice a bullying problem during lunch, students in collaborative and cooperative teams could design solutions to the ongoing problem during recess. Each team presents their designs to peers, recess supervisors, and administrators at an “End Bullying Now” competition. Everyone then votes on the design they think would be efficient and effective to implement.

More Ways for Creating a Classroom Community

A positive classroom community is crucial to student success. What techniques do you use to ensure your students feel that they belong? Share your ideas with us! Reach out to us on Twitter (@HMHCo) or email us at

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


For more fun ideas, check out our post on classroom community-building activities for elementary students.

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