From Addressing Barriers to Learning,
Vol. 3 (2), Spring 1998

Lessons Learned

Toward a Caring School Culture

Schools often fail to create a caring culture. A caring school culture refers not only to caring for but also caring about others. It refers not only to students and parents but to staff. Those who want to create a caring culture can draw on a variety of ideas and practices developed over the years.

Who is Caring for the Teaching Staff?

Teachers must feel good about themselves if classrooms are to be caring environments. Teaching is one of society's most psychologically demanding jobs, yet few schools have programs designed specifically to counter job stress and enhance staff feelings of well-being.

In discussing "burn-out," many writers have emphasized that, too often, teaching is carried out under highly stressful working conditions and without much of a collegial and social support structure. Recommendations usually factor down to strategies that reduce environmental stressors, increase personal capabilities, and enhance job and social supports. (Our center provides an overview of this topic in an introductory packet entitled Understanding and Minimizing Staff Burnout.)

What tends to be ignored is that schools have no formal mechanisms to care for staff. As schools move toward local control, they have a real opportunity to establish formal mechanisms and programs that foster mutual caring. In doing so, special attention must be paid to transitioning in new staff and transforming working conditions to create appropriate staff teams whose members can support and nurture each other in the classroom, every day. Relatedly, classrooms should play a greater role in fostering student social-emotional development by ensuring such a focus is built into the curricula (discussed in Lessons Learned in the Spring 1997 newsletter; ask for a copy).

Research on Youth and Caring

Protective factors. In the May 1995 issue of Phi Delta Kappan, a series of articles discuss "Youth and Caring." Included is an overview of findings from the Research Project on Youth and Caring (carried out through the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago). Among a host of findings, researchers in that program report that caring and connectedness can protect against specific risk factors or stressful life events. The protective facets of caring are seen as transcending differences in class, ethnicity, geography, and other life history variables.

What makes for a caring environment? Karen Pittman and Michelle Cahill studied youth programs and concluded that youngsters experience an environment as caring when it

  • creates an atmosphere where they feel welcome, respected, and comfortable,
  • structures opportunities for developing caring relationships with peers and adults,
  • provides information, counseling, and expectations that enable them to determine what it means to care for themselves and to care for a definable group,
  • provides opportunities, training, and expectations that encourage them to contribute to the greater good through service, advocacy, and active problem solving with respect to important matters.
  • Helping Youngsters Overcome Difficulty Making Friends
    A caring school culture pays special attention to those who have difficulty making friends. Some students need just a bit of support to overcome the problem (e.g., a few suggestions, a couple of special opportunities). Some, however, need more help. They may be very shy, lacking in social skills, or .may even act in negative ways that lead to their rejection. Whatever the reason, it is clear they need help if they and the school are to reap the benefits produced when individuals feel positively connected to each other.

    School staff (e.g., teacher, classroom or yard aide, counselor, support/resource staff) and parents can work together to help such students. The following is one set of strategies that can be helpful:

  • Identify a potential "peer buddy" (e.g., a student with similar interests and temperament or one who will understand and be willing to reach out to the one who needs a friend)
  • Either directly enlist and train the "peer buddy" or design a strategy to ensure the two are introduced to each other in a positive way
  • Create regular opportunities for shared activities/ projects at and away from school (e.g., they might work together on cooperative tasks, be teammates for games, share special roles such as being classroom monitors, have a sleep-over weekend)
  • Facilitate their time together to ensure they experience good feelings about being together.
  • It may be necessary to try a few different activities before finding some they enjoy doing together. For some, the first attempts to match them with a friend will not work out. (It will be evident after about a week or so.) If the youngster really doesn't know how to act like a friend, it is necessary to teach some guidelines and social skills. In the long-run, for almost everyone, making friends is possible and is essential to feeling cared about.

    A useful resource in thinking about strategies for helping youngsters find, make, and keep friends is: Good Friends are Hard to Find a book written for parents by Fred Frankl (1996; published by Perspective Publishing). The work also has sections on dealing with teasing, bullying, and meanness and helping with stormy relationships.

    Applying Rules in a Fair and Caring Way
    Should different consequences be applied for the same offense when the children involved differ in terms of their problems, age, competence, and so forth?

    Teachers and parents (and almost everyone else) are confronted with the problem of whether to apply rules and treat transgressions differentially. Some try to simplify matters by not making distinctions and treating everyone alike. For example, it was said of Coach Vince Lombardi that he treated all his players the same -- like dogs! A caring school culture cannot treat everyone the same.

    Teachers and other school staff often argue that it is unfair to other students if the same rule is not applied in the same way to everyone. Thus, they insist on enforcing rules without regard to a particular student's social and emotional problems. Although such a "no exceptions" strategy represents a simple solution, it ignores the fact that such a nonpersonalized approach may make a child's problem worse and thus be unjust.

    A caring school culture must develop and apply rules and offer specialized assistance in ways that recognize that the matter of fairness involves such complicated questions as, Fair for whom? Fair according to whom? Fair using what criteria and what procedures for applying the criteria? Obviously what is fair for the society may not be fair for an individual; what is fair for one person may cause an inequity for another. To differentially punish two students for the same transgression will certainly be seen as unfair by at least one of the parties. To provide special services for one group's problems raises the taxes of all citizens. To deny such services is unfair and harmful to those who need the help.

    Making fair decisions about how rules should be applied and who should get what services and resources involves principles of distributive justice. For example, should each person be (1) responded to in the same way? given an equal share of available resources? (2) responded to and provided for according to individual need? (3) responded to and served according to his or her societal contributions? or (4) responded to and given services on the basis of having earned or merited them? As Beauchamp and Childress (1989) point out, the first principle emphasizes equal access to the goods in life that every rational person desires; the second emphasizes need; the third emphasizes contribution and merit; and the fourth emphasizes a mixed use of such criteria so that public and private utility are maximized (in Principles of Biomedical Ethics). Obviously, each of these principles can conflict with each other. Moreover, any may be weighted more heavily than another, depending on the social philosophy of the decision maker.

    Many parents and some teachers lean toward an emphasis on individual need. That is, they tend to believe fairness means that those with problems should be responded to on a case-by-case basis and given special assistance. Decisions based on individual need often call for exceptions to how rules are applied and unequal allocation and affirm-.ative action with regard to who gets certain resources. When this occurs, stated intentions to be just and fair often lead to decisions that are quite controversial. Because building a caring school culture requires an emphasis on individual need, the process is not without its controversies.

    It is easy to lose sight of caring, and it is not easy to develop and maintain a caring school culture. In an era when so many people are concerned about discipline, personal responsibility, school-wide values, and character education, caring counts. Indeed, it may be the key to student well-being and successful schools.

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