Connectedness Critical to Safe Schools
Researchers have also found that students’ feelings of connectedness are strongly influenced by the social-emotional climate of a school. What is climate? It is the sum total of the school’s effects on the people in it, both students and staff. It includes and is influenced by factors like:
- the rules and policies, as well as how they are determined and how they are carried out. For example, if the policies are seen as harsh or strict, and if students and/or staff perceive that the policies are determined by “others” and are not carried out with both fairness and compassion, then the climate would be described as cold, impersonal, or even negative and unsafe. Conversely, if the policies are considered to be reasonable, and if students and staff perceive that they have some degree of input into shaping those policies and they are carried out with fairness and compassion, then the climate would be described as warm, friendly, positive and safe.
- rigidity of groups and cliques. When they are rigidly defined and impermeable, and members of one view members of others with suspicion and hostility, students feel less connected and the climate is less safe. But when there is sense of commonality and a fabric of relationships that connects students on a deeper level, and members of one group can comfortably approach and interact with members of other groups, students feel more connected and the climate is safer.
- the way staff treat students. When staff members value students, and demonstrate it by treating them with respect, and by engaging them – not just in learning but in decision-making AND in relationship-building – students feel more connected and the climate is safer.
- the degree of forgiveness. When disagreements and accidental “bumps” or other “mistakes” of teen life easily escalate into full-scale conflicts, and the friends of one disputant are drawn in to be mean or fight with the other disputant and his or her friends, students feel disconnected and the climate is less safe. But when students display tolerance and forgiveness, give each other the benefit of the doubt and cut each other some slack, they feel more connected and the climate is safer.
Why is school climate important? As it affects school safety, the U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education answered this question in their Threat Assessment Guide, developed in the aftermath of the Columbine shooting to help schools prevent violence.
“Cultures and climates of safety, respect, and emotional support can help diminish the possibility of targeted violence in schools.”
In other words, schools will have less violence because there are fewer incidents of mistreatment to spark them.
Their recently released report on the role of bystanders, Prior Knowledge of Potential School-Based Violence (2008), underscores the importance of the interpersonal relationships that are at the core of a positive climate:
“School climate affected whether bystanders came forward with information related to the threats…. Bystanders who came forward with information commented that they were influenced by positive relations with one or more adults, teachers, or staff, and/or a feeling within the school that the information would be taken seriously and addressed appropriately.”
The Guide goes on to say that
“The principal objective of school violence-reduction strategies should be to create cultures and climates of safety, respect, and emotional support within educational institutions.”
Why not stricter rules and zero tolerance policies? Although clear expectations and rules have their place in creating safe schools, strict rules and policies often have unintended consequences. Enforcement of rules takes staff time and energy away from teaching and distances them from the students they are supposed to be helping. A survey by the National Association of Attorneys General found that tighter rules and increased security measures generally made students feel less safe. And since students are almost completely left out of the rule-making process, students feel more disconnected and disempowered, which decreases their willingness to comply with the rules and thus makes those rules harder to enforce.
According to Amy K. Syvertsen, M.Ed., lead author of the APA study, “Blanket policies… can create an atmosphere in which rules get in the way of relationships between students and teachers, to the detriment of keeping schools safe. Fostering a caring school climate where students and teachers look out for each other… can’t be taught in a single lesson or by using deterrents like metal detectors or harsh policies. It is built on daily interactions between the teachers and the students.” In other words, the climate is the key to safer schools.
We influence it, and it influences us. As these examples hopefully make clear, the thoughts, beliefs, words and deeds of the students and staff influence the climate of a school. And, in turn, that climate influences the behavior of those students and staff. It is a self-reinforcing and self-fulfilling cycle, one that can be challenging to change.