Answering the Call: This is how we do things here

Four ways to build community in small groups

By Amber Chandler

When you work with youth, sometimes you need to focus more on community building, especially when disruptive or negative behaviors are impacting instruction.

Sharing a common value system and religious beliefs would, on the surface, seem to be enough to regulate student behaviors. However, families are all different, student experiences are wildly varied, and past educational cultures impact how students react in an academic setting. There’s plenty of typical advice out there about setting firm boundaries, clarifying expectations, and building relationships, but in practice there sometimes needs to be a more overt community-building effort, especially when disruptive or negative behaviors are impacting instruction.

I was recently asked to speak with the youth leaders at the Wesleyan Church of Hamburg and provide some tips to help leaders navigate how to build community in small groups. Pastor Tom Neary and I chatted about the similar issues school and youth groups can face, and we quickly came to the same conclusion: students need to know that in these specialized environments, we need to emphasize that “this is how we do things here.” I shared these four topics that are a part of my own classroom culture:

May I Have Your Attention, Please

Teachers all have ways they attempt to get student attention. Some flicker the lights, some know how to do that cool whistle with their fingers, others raise their voice, and some stand patiently with their hand in the air, patiently waiting. While on a field trip with my daughter’s fourth grade class I stumbled upon this brilliance: The teacher claps. Students clap back. The teacher claps twice. Students clap back twice. When I first watched this in action, I knew I had stumbled upon brilliance. By the time we have finished this very quick little pattern, I’m expecting all students to be looking at me, hands off whatever they were doing. Other teachers do fun things like singing a line from a song, creating a rhyme, or starting a chant (try these call and response examples). I’m not that adventurous. However, clapping works brilliantly, and provides a responsive environment.

You Are a Representative of this Place

I have a colleague who, as students leave for the day, says, “Make good choices” with a bit of a snicker in her voice. We laugh because it seems so obvious, but you never can tell with students, can you? I’m very overt in telling my students that when they leave my sight, they are still representing me. Obviously this translates to a statement of faith as well. Who are we sharing with the world as we move through it? I remind students that we are the light others see, and if they are disturbing others, disrespecting property, or simply not friendly, they will diminish their impact in the world.

Technology Trust: When and Where

Most schools have standard procedures for phone and technology use, but if there are loopholes you can bet students will find them! If you allow students use of technology as a part of classroom activities, you’ve most likely talked to them about what not to do, with warnings about being “school appropriate.” However, that shouldn’t be the end of the conversation; teaching etiquette and norms about the digital world is crucial too. In my newest book, The Flexible SEL Classroom: Practical Ways to Build Social Emotional Learning in Grades 4-8, I delve into this topic with Devorah Heitner, author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World. One of the biggest takeaways is that demonizing technology will only alienate students; rather, we should mentor them through the complex terrain. This supposes that we are familiar with it ourselves, which 21st-century teachers must embrace as a new protocol of job training.

You Are all My Kiddos

Finally, one of the strongest messages we can give our students is that we love them. All of them. One of my students, after a year of my constant family analogies and continued reminders to treat everyone as a child of mine, cited the movie Lilo and Stitch, explaining the word “Ohana” and that it means “Nobody gets left behind.” (Watch the monologue). Not all students come to us with a sense of family or community, and the classroom can provide a safe, structured environment where students can learn the way to function as a family.

These are only a few suggestions of how to create classroom community, to establish an atmosphere where “this is how we do things here” is reason enough to be cooperative and self-regulate behaviors to match the established norms. This is a transferable skill–our students will need to adapt to multiple environments, and as we guide them through this process, we are helping them rehearse for their own future families. Feel free to use this slideshow in your classrooms or faculty meetings to introduce these concepts to students.

I’d love to hear how you handle behavior in your classroom, as well as what culture-building activities you utilize.

 Amber Chandler is a National Board Certified ELA teacher and the author of The Flexible ELA Classroom: Practical Tools for Differentiated Instruction in Grades 4-8. She’s online at and on Twitter @MsAmberChandler