Creating a Positive Classroom Culture from the Start

6 Min Read  • Back to School and Community Building

Building relationships and social skills are the most crucial elements of back to school activities. Making these your goals in the first week back will lead to positive classroom culture.

A Fresh Start

Every year, I get together for dinner with a group of my teacher friends before the school year gets into swing (and we all get too busy). I always make a point to ask what they’re doing to kick off the new year in their classrooms.

And every year, they share some fantastic ideas for how they plan to share their procedures and what their theme will be for the year. I love seeing their excitement for what they’re building. Somehow, though, I always get home and have this funny feeling – like the conversation left me hanging.

arts integration masterclass

I know it’s important to setup classroom expectations and to get students excited about their learning. But it’s almost as if the relationship building component gets lost among the new bulletin boards and classroom management system.

And if there’s one thing that’s true, it’s that students won’t care about the content you’re teaching until they feel a sense of belonging.

Positive Classroom Culture

Even if an activity is already integrated, we must weave in social-emotional skills. Students need to feel respected, welcome, loved, heard, and safe. These are big ideas that take time to develop. For students who have experienced trauma, it takes even longer. Yet, setting the tone for that kind of positive classroom culture should be the number one goal of the first week of school. Setting the stage for a solid teacher-student relationship must be a priority as we teach procedures and introduce academics.

Students learn better when they view the learning environment as positive and supportive. This doesn’t mean you need to smile all the time and let go of your expectations. It means that the old-school recommendation, “don’t smile until Christmas,” should be long gone. Replace it with getting to know your students’ needs and striving to support them.

Integrating SEL Skills into an Arts-Integrated Lesson

It is a challenge to integrate two subject areas, much less add a third! To help, next, you’ll find an example of how you might incorporate a social skill with an arts-integrated ELA lesson.

Identifying and naming emotions is a crucial social skill to teach. Some students have trouble self-regulating because they haven’t learned strategies for doing so. Some aren’t able to recognize or name emotions, which makes it extra hard. In turn, this makes it difficult to respond appropriately to others’ emotions.

This is a perfect place to integrate the arts. The following lesson is an example that integrates the arts, social skills, and ELA. It fits well during a morning meeting or as a language arts lesson. And it will assist in creating that positive classroom culture.

positive classroom culture

Lesson: “Identifying and Naming Emotions”

Essential Question: How can recognizing and naming emotions in works of art help me self-regulate my own emotions? 

Note: These lessons are ideas. After introducing the concept to students, pick and choose what you’d like based upon the needs of your students. You can spread them out and try one each day during a morning meeting, or flesh it out into a larger lesson.

Lesson Steps:

  1. Project a chart of emojis. Ask students to choose one to represent how they are feeling. Students can meet with a partner to discuss why they chose that emoji. Here is a free resource with facial expressions. Most have a label, but the words could be cut off.
  2. Together as a class, have students generate a list of the mentioned emotions. Then, add to the list by naming some of the emojis that weren’t shared.
  3. Explain how identifying and naming our emotions can help us regulate our feelings. Stress that it is normal (and OK) to feel all these emotions. Yet, if our emotion is negative, regulating our behavior helps us feel better.
  4. Brainstorm a class list of inconspicuous ideas for regulating behavior within the classroom. This can serve as an idea bank for students to use when they need to regulate strong emotions. Here are some ideas for making a calm down box. If you have a Calming Corner, this idea bank and calm down box can stay there.

Try it with Visual Art

Repeat this activity (steps A & B), but with illustrations from children’s literature or visual art prints.

  1. Have students jot down the emotion that the subject’s face or body language portrays.
  2. Students should share out. They should explain what emotion they see. Next, they should provide evidence for why they made the emotion choice.
  3. Create an anchor chart. Print the artwork and listing the student-generated list of emotions.

Try it with Acting

Repeat the same activity analyzing acting techniques.

  1. Show a video clip of a TV show, play, or musical where a character feels a strong emotion.
  2. Have students identify the emotion. Ask them to share evidence for why they believe the character is demonstrating that emotion.
  3. Using the actor as a mentor example, have students practice demonstrating the emotion using their face and body language.
  4. Then, have students discuss reasons why they may feel that emotion.
  5. Students can take turns demonstrating emotions for the class charades-style.

How to Respond to Emotions

  1. Discuss ideas for responding to the emotion the subject is feeling. Some students don’t know how to help someone with a strong emotion. Or, they think they know how to help, but they actually elevate the emotion instead of helping that student regulate it. 
  2. Create an idea bank for how to respond to a friend with each strong emotion. Stress that different strategies work for different people. 

ELA/Theater Extensions

In ELA, these social skills can branch off to other lessons. You could also explore theme, mood, character traits, or intentions. Additionally, the experience can strengthen and increase vocabulary. The activities help students to identify “shades of meaning” emotions that can, in turn, flow into written work. Students can write narratives or plays containing conflict between characters. They are better prepared to write realistic interactions between characters. It is a perfect segue for students to direct and act out scenes that they have written.

How will you provide social skills to your students? 

There are so many ways to foster a positive, supportive learning space for students. Integrating social skills not only helps students feel that they belong. It also helps students collaborate and regulate their emotions. It helps your class run smoothly. And students who are comfortable and happy are better learners.


Calming Corner Resources: 

Social-Emotional Learning Through the Arts: