Teach By Design
Social Relationships
Feb 9, 2021

Supportive Environments Create Classroom Community

​Creating a supportive environment requires addressing policies, procedures, and a school’s physical space. Here are some tips to make your school's environment more welcoming and culturally relevant to students.

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The more time I spend exploring culturally responsive practices, the more I understand how intertwined each component is with the others. There are five core components of culturally responsive practices:

  • Identity
  • Voice
  • Supportive Environment
  • Situational Appropriateness
  • Data for Equity

Last month, we focused on Voice.

I spoke with Dr. Jennifer Rose, Milaney Leverson, and Kent Smith about how schools can effectively include student voices in their PBIS implementation. About 23 minutes into our conversation, as she talked about how critical it is to explore why we do the things we do in schools, Milaney challenged us to ask ourselves the following question:

“Does a rule exist to give us as adults power, or does it exist for a true purpose that we’re really teaching students?”

The way she framed this question resonated with me. It’s specific enough to cause us as adults to do some self-reflection, and broad enough to apply universally. The rules and expectations teams set establish the groundwork for a school’s emerging culture and climate. When the rules reflect a single culture, they inherently exclude others. Finding some set of answers to the dynamic question Milaney posed sets the stage for an exploration of another core component of culturally responsive practices: Supportive Environment

Defining a Supportive Environment

The Center on PBIS’ Cultural Responsiveness Field Guide defines a supportive environment as one where (among other things):

  • A positive school culture is identified as a top outcome.
  • Students feel valued because they see their lives reflected in the lessons, images, and examples available around the school.
  • Staff commit to teaching pro-social behaviors rather than punishing students into assimilation, especially when there is a cultural mismatch.[1]

To my eye, these three components don’t stand out as separate from the outcomes most schools want to see from their PBIS implementation. In PBIS, we talk about teaching and acknowledging positive behaviors rather than focusing solely on problem ones. We want to create a positive school culture where everyone is valued.

These ideas are a good start.

In order to take implementation a step further into a culturally responsive practice, we each need to ask ourselves: Does our implementation make students and staff feel positive and like they belong? In many ways, the work you do to create a supportive environment will serve as the foundation to ensuring your entire PBIS implementation is culturally responsive.

To figure out which elements of PBIS implementation go into creating a supportive environment, I turned to the Tiered Fidelity Inventory’s Cultural Responsiveness Companion.

This is not simple, straightforward work. It involves exploring aspects of your own identity, using data to understand which policies need to be addressed, and possibly challenging some ideas you never knew you held.

Tiered Fidelity Inventory’s Cultural Responsiveness Companion

The Tiered Fidelity Inventory (TFI) is a survey assessing a school’s PBIS implementation at one, two, or all three tiers. After taking the survey, teams look at their scores and use individual survey items to inform decisions on how to improve their systems and practices at that particular tier. The TFI’s cultural responsiveness companion gives you items from the TFI, tells you the culturally responsive concept associated with that item, and provides examples for how to address that item in a culturally responsive way.

There are four items on the TFI that align with creating a supportive environment:

  • 1.2 Team Operating Procedures
  • 1.6 Discipline Policies
  • 1.8 Classroom Procedures
  • 1.9 Feedback and Acknowledgement

As I read through how teams can address these items in culturally responsive ways and the examples associated with each one, I noticed a pattern. Each of these items involves either a policy or a procedure. What this companion seems to be pointing out is: If we don’t intentionally analyze the policies and procedures we have in place, we will never address the parts of our implementation where we have overlooked specific students or worse, excluded them entirely.

As your team works its way through these four items to improve the policies and procedures in your building, there are four questions to ask yourselves along the way (emphasis my own):

  • What is the intent behind the policy being reviewed?
  • What social constructions does this policy embrace?
  • Who benefits from the way things are and who does not?
  • What actions will redress the inequities we see in our policies?[2]    

This is not simple, straightforward work. It involves exploring aspects of your own identity, using data to understand which policies need to be addressed, and possibly challenging some ideas you never knew you held.

In addition to these policies and procedures, creating a supportive environment requires us to address our school’s physical spaces and the way they welcome everyone in the building. So much of how we feel about a place is due to the artifacts, arrangement, and ambiance of a room. The work we’re about to explore together in this article could come across as superficial or even less important than the policy work inherent in maintaining supportive environments. I challenge you to push passed that feeling and listen to the ways Dr. Christopher Emdin describes the power of a “cosmopolitan classroom” filled with “the magic of teaching and learning.”

Defining Cosmopolitanism

You know how students light up when certain teachers are around? Or how you notice the way some rooms are dynamic and vibrant and filled with lively conversation while others in the same building aren’t? Some folks describe these teachers and classrooms as having “it” and yet, no one knows what “it” is. Dr. Emdin would say these teachers have the magic of teaching and learning.

When I think about the classrooms where this magic happens, they are supportive environments. They make space for all student identities. They affirm students’ cultures and acknowledge students’ differences without describing them as deficits. In his book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and the Rest of Y’all Too, Dr. Emdin calls this the cosmopolitan classroom – “a space where each student is a full citizen, responsible for how well the class meets the collective academic, social, and emotional goals.”[3]

The cosmopolitan classroom is the kind of classroom we want for all our students and it’s the kind of classroom we want to be a part of. So, how do you start creating one? Here are a few strategies Dr. Emdin uses in his cosmopolitan classrooms.

Give Everyone a Job

Sometimes it’s possible to make someone feel like part of a community by using just your words to communicate how important they are. Sometimes it’s easier to communicate their importance by giving them a literal role that contributes to the way the group functions. Dr. Emdin suggests giving everyone in the class a job. You can tie a job to classroom learning, to social and emotional aspects of the group, or to the physical space itself. Whatever the role, make sure students know how important it is to the way the classroom functions every day. If possible, give them academic credit for their contributions.

Examples of jobs might include:

  • Equipment distributor
  • Whiteboard eraser
  • Assignment collector
  • Guest greeter
  • Seat arranger
  • Floor sweeper
  • Music coordinator
  • Joke teller

Use Your Student’s Language

Students in every school have their own ways of talking with each other – both verbal and non-verbal. Often, the language they use with each other in the hallway isn’t deemed appropriate for the classroom. That doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, incorporating this language in your room is one way to show students their culture is valued.

Don’t misunderstand. Using slang to make yourself sound cool is not what I mean here.

Older man attempting to seem younger walks through a school hallway carrying a skateboard saying "How do you do, fellow kids?"

Authentically incorporating language your students use outside the classroom to create community inside the classroom is what a supportive, cosmopolitan environment is all about. In urban schools, Dr. Emdin says the use of call-and-response is one way to incorporate student language in your room. It looks something like this.

Not only does this kind of affirmation literally get students working in unison, it also gets everyone into a positive mindset. Another way to include call-and-response in your classroom is through song lyrics. When I run, I have a set of songs I like to listen to. One song in the playlist is Beyonce’s “Freedom” featuring Kendrick Lamar. In that song, she has a lyric that goes, “I'ma keep running cause a winner don’t quit on themselves.” Even without the song playing in my headphones, it’s something I repeat to myself to get me through the next mile. You can use songs the same way in your classroom. Pick lyrics your students know and associate them with some aspect of your class routines. Dr. Emdin gives these examples in the book:

When you want to do a quick check and confirm everyone is still with you in the lesson

    Teacher says: Can I proceed?

    Class responds: Yes indeed!

As a way for one student to recruit help from someone else in the class

    Student A says: All for one.

    Student B responds: One for all.

Right before a tough assignment or test, as a quick affirmation for the class

    Teacher says: I will not lose.

    Class responds: I will not lose.

Showcase Student Culture Everywhere

Look around your classroom. Check the posters in the hallways and the video examples in your lessons. Do you see all your students reflected there? If you can’t see it, your students certainly can’t see it either. Building a supportive environment means your students’ identities, histories, and cultures are visible and positively incorporated into your school’s culture and physical spaces. Dr. Emdin shares several examples of how he has seen other teachers do this in their classrooms.

  • Do your students wear bright colors and patterns? Use those colors and patterns throughout your room.
  • Are there graffiti artists in your mix? Add some blackboard paint to a wall and give them chalk to draw murals, share their tags, or write notes to a friend.
  • Hang art around the school created by artists of color in and around the community.
  • Switch out books with predominantly White characters in favor of books depicting characters of color in a positive light.

Creating a supportive environment means explicitly reviewing school policies and procedures and intentionally addressing the ways they exclude some students from the positive outcomes you’re trying to achieve. Beyond this policy work, your physical spaces must reflect the students you teach and welcome them exactly as they are. By starting in classrooms and creating community there, students start to see how they are part of a collective experience. Incorporating their language, their gestures, and tangible pieces of their culture and identity, you teach students that their authentic self is not only welcome, but representative of the positive school culture you’re trying to build together. Dr. Emdin encourages all of us to take these small steps – alongside the foundational work of shifting school-wide policy – so students begin to “develop a connection to each other and to the classroom that is authentic and that values authentic representations of where they stand ethnically, racially, academically, and emotionally.”

1.  Leverson, M., Smith, K., McIntosh, K., Rose, J., & Pinkelman, S. (2019). PBIS Cultural Responsiveness Field Guide: Resources for trainers and coaches. OSEP Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. www.pbis.org.
2.  Kozleski, E., & Waitoller, F. (2010). Teacher learning for inclusive education: understanding teaching as a cultural and political practice. International Journal Of Inclusive Education, 14(7), 655-666. doi: 10.1080/13603111003778379
3.  Emdin, C. (2016). For white folks who teach in the hood - and the rest of y'all too. Boston: Beacon Press Books.

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Megan Cave


Megan Cave

Megan Cave is a member of the PBISApps Marketing and Communication team. She is the writer behind the user manuals, scripted video tutorials, and news articles for PBISApps. She also writes a monthly article for Teach by Design and contributes to its accompanying Expert Instruction podcast episode. Megan has completed four half marathons – three of which happened unintentionally – and in all likelihood, will run another in the future.

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