How to Create Positive School Climate - Part 1

September 3 2013


Since 1999, our nation’s schools have invested more than $10 billion in school safety measures. The goal of this vast expenditure was to improve school climate and thereby increase success for each school’s mandates - academic achievement, safer environments and strong attendance and graduation rates. The results speak for themselves.

The Outside-In Approach

The vast majority of those dollars have been expended on an 'Outside-In Approach,' controlling student behavior through measures such as security personnel, cameras, metal detectors and zero tolerance rules and policies.

In spite of these vast efforts students in too many schools still experience unsafe environments and too high levels of bullying.

The Inside-Out Approach

For schools to be safer places we must address the social conditions in the environment, where the “virus” of intolerance and incivility is growing. And the overwhelming data and research supports that improving school safety requires focusing on the school climate and the relationships among the people in the school building and surrounding communities.



What is School Climate?

“The principal objective of school violence-reduction strategies should be to create cultures and climates of safety, respect, and emotional support within educational institutions.” - - U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education

When a school or district spends money in an attempt to make a school safer they are attempting to change the “School Climate”. 

The climate of a school is the visceral, almost palpable, ‘sense’ of safety and belonging that people experience on site. Though there is no single, formal definition, scholars seem to agree that the climate is the sum total of attitudes and behaviors elicited by the:

• School's policies, practices and physical environment.
• Staff interactions with peers and students.
• Opportunities for student engagement and leadership.
• Beliefs and attitudes students bring to the school from their families and the community.

The 5 Determinants of a School’s Climate

School climate is affected by five primary determinants, each one contributing to the overall improvement of the school environment:

1. Organization - The vision and leadership of educational leaders and their commitment to using school climate as the guiding principle for planning and decision-making, the policies they enact and the processes for determining and enforcing them, the lines of communication and access to authority, and opportunities to participate in decision-making.

2. Staff -  The ways school staff relate to each other and to students; their classroom management and discipline practices, and the priority they place on being hall-friendly asset builders who demonstrate care for students’ well-being.

3. Students - The degree to which students are engaged in leadership opportunities and the ways students relate to one another and to adults in authority. Seeing and treating students as contributors and not consumers goes a long way in gaining their involvement and their  commitment to speak up and resolve conflicts peacefully.

4. Families -  The values, beliefs, and practices that are instilled and reinforced in children by parents and other relatives, especially regarding how to behave with adults in authority and how to resolve differences with others peers, and also what value is placed on education, tolerance, communication and nonviolence.

5. Community -  The values, beliefs, and practices that are evident outside the walls of school and home, particularly the value a community places on its children and youth, how its members treat youth when they encounter them in their neighborhoods, and how they invest time and resources to support youth development.

Determinants and Leverage Value

All five of these determinants have a different ‘leverage value’ or capacity to influence the school climate. Some are more direct and immediate, while others require more time, funding and emphasis in order to have the maximum impact.

How to Create Positive School Climate

The issues we face are complex and what is needed most is a multi-pronged and systemic approach, one that addresses keeping “trouble” out of the school and strengthening the sense of community within.

Understanding the importance of school climate, and the five primary determinants that affect it, is step one. Step two is developing a comprehensive school climate improvement plan, one that addresses each of the determinants and integrates them in to the very fabric of school culture. Step three is having the courage of our convictions to broaden our thinking, change direction, reallocate resources and invest fully in creating safer and more inclusive schools.

In our next article we will discuss how to create a positive school climate utilizing the Whole School Climate Framework.

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