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The Case for School Climate

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A sustainable, positive school climate improves students' academic achievement, mental health, graduation rates, school connectedness, teacher retention and risk prevention.

 

School Climate and Student Success

Despite the increased attention on high stakes testing and academic standards, school climate continues to be an important factor impacting the social, emotional, ethical and academic achievement of students. School climate is defined as:

The quality and character of school life based on experiences that reflect the norms, goals, values, interpersonal relationships, teaching and learning practices and organizational structures (CSEE).1

• More specifically, school climate is influenced by the extent to which members of the school community feel socially, emotionally and physically safe. Research suggests that a sustainable, positive school climate has an impact on students' academic achievement, mental health, graduation rates, school connectedness, teacher retention and risk prevention (Cohen & Geier, 2010).

Social & Emotional Development

School climate can influence students’ social and emotional development. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (SEL) defines social and emotional learning as students and adults’ capacity to acknowledge and manage emotions, establish positive relationships, develop empathy for others, constructively handle difficult situations and effectively solve problems.2 Researchers have documented the positive outcomes associated with Social and Emotional interventions and suggest that SEL skills and school climate are interdependent: SEL thrives in a positive school environment and facilitates a supportive climate (Zins & Elias, 2006). Finally, studies show that SEL and character education programs can enhance student achievement (Cohen & Geier, 2010).

Student Achievement

School climate can have a positive impact on student achievement as well as youth’s ability to learn. Likewise, teachers who feel supported by their principals and the school community are more likely to believe they can positively impact teaching and are more committed to the profession. A recent study on school climate and achievement suggest that principals can enhance student learning by developing goals that are accepted and supported by the staff and by implementing structures that support individuals to tolerate stress and maintain stability while responding to the demands of the school environment (MacNeil, Prater & Busch, 2009). Therefore, if school climate reflects the daily school experiences of the educational community, a collaborative environment where all members feel supported and cared for will lead to better teaching and learning and ultimately better student academic outcomes.

Student Engagement

School Climate can positively impact students’ levels of engagement and connectedness. Engagement is defined as the relationship between the student and the school community, including the school adults, peers, the instruction and the curriculum (Yassie-Mintz, 2009). When students are engaged in the daily events in school, they experience a sense of “voice” and feel as if they are an important part of the school community. More importantly, research suggests that when students feel connected to the school, they are less likely to engage in acts of aggression, victimization, and bullying. Students who feel connected and accepted within the school community are more likely to experience academic success and less likely to engage in risky behaviors (Blum, 2005). By creating engaged climates where students experience academic, social and emotional success, schools can also contribute to the positive mental health and developmental needs of youth.

Strategies & Resources to Assist with School Climate

School climate can be improved by programs that involve the entire school community, provide students with a collaborative role in the development, creation and implementation of school norms, and provide an opportunity to dialogue, problem-solve and build relationships. Greenberg et al. (2003) summarize the positive influence that school-based interventions can have on students’ social, psychological and academic well-being. Effective interventions are characterized as being student-focused, relationship-oriented, and involving classroom and school-level organizational changes. Although limited replicable studies exist, research suggests that programming that begins in preschool and continues through high school provides youth with the instruction, encouragement, and reinforcement to acquire developmentally appropriate positive behavior. Furthermore, a comprehensive approach to youth development and school climate improvement is the most effective way to realize systemic climate change (Benson et al., 2006).

Evidence–Based Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Programs

Evidence-based SEL programs create safe, caring, well-managed and participatory learning environments, and provide social and emotional competency instruction (self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship skills and responsible decision making). These outcomes can provide students with a greater attachment to the school community, less involvement in risky behavior, more assets and positive development that results in better academic performance in school and in life (CASEL, 2003).

Conflict Resolution

Conflict Resolution focuses on peer mediation as a process where students help each other resolve conflict and manage behavior. The Safe School Ambassadors (SSA) is one program that positions students not only to identify acts of aggression, victimization and bullying, but to also to intervene to stop the escalation of such behavior into more violent events.3 Challenge Day is another student-centered program that serves as a catalyst for change by building empathy and creating connections for youth to address issues at their school. Youth most affected by the school environment are positioned to be the primary agents of school climate change through these student-centered approaches to conflict resolution. Furthermore, research suggests that youth are better able to develop independence in situation that require them to exercise self-control and make decisions (Brendtro & Larson, 2006).

Restorative Discipline

Restorative discipline practices supports learning communities by promoting and modeling responsible behavior. Restorative practices within schools are manifested in a number of strategies, ranging from whole-school approaches to individual disciplinary action, reintegration after suspension, conferencing, truancy mediation and circles (Amstutz & Mullet, 2005). The International Institute for Restorative Practices collected data on the impact of restorative practices on school climate in a recent report, "Improving School Climate: Findings from Schools Implementing Restorative Practices."4 Both US and international schools using restorative practices reported a reduction in student suspensions, behavioral incidents and conduct referrals. One international school also reported a reduction in staff absences. This data suggests that restorative practices provide youth with constructive responses to conflict and can lead to the development of a positive school climate.

Conclusion

School climate is an important factor in the development of students’ academic, social, emotional, ethical and physical needs. Students who experience a sense of safety at school have healthy adult and peer relationships, feel respected within the school community, and take ownership of the development of a positive school climate, are well on their way to becoming productive citizens with the resources to make a difference in their lives and society as a whole.

Notes

1. For more information on School Climate visit, www.schoolclimate.org
2. For more information on Social and Emotional Learning visit: www.casel.org
3. For more information on Safe School Ambassadors, visit www.community-matters.org/safe-school-ambassadors
4. For more information on Challenge Day, visit www.challengeday.org
5. For more information on restorative justice in the schools, visit www.iirp.org

References

Amstutz, L. S., & Mullett, J. H. (2005). The little book of restorative discipline for schools: Teaching responsibility; creating caring climates. Intercourse, PA: Good Books.

Benson, P. L., Scales, P. C., Hamilton, S. F., & Sesma Jr., A., (with Hong, K. L., & Roehlkepartain, E. C.). (2006). "Positive youth development so far: Core hypotheses and their implications for policy and practice." Search Institute Insights & Evidence, 3(1), 1-13.

Blum, R. W. (2005). "A case for school connectedness." Educational Leadership, 62(7), 16-20.

Brendtro, L. K., & Larson, S. J. (2006). The resilience revolution. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (2007). "Background on social and emotional learning" (http://www.casel.org/downloads/SEL&CASELbackground.pdf)

Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (2003). "Safe and sound: An educational leader’s guide to evidence-based social and emotional learning (SEL) programs." (www.CASEL.org)
 
Cohen, J. & Geier, V.K. (2010). "School Climate Research Summary: January 2010. New York, N.Y." (www.schoolclimate.org/climate/research.php).

Greenberg, M. T., Weissberg, R. P., O’Brien, M. U., Zins, J. E., Fredericks, L., Resnik, H., & Elias, M. J. (2003). "Enhancing school-based prevention and youth development through coordinated social, emotional and academic learning." American Psychologist, 58(6/7), 466-474.

J.E. Zins, & M.J. Elias (2006). "Social and emotional learning." In G.G. Bear & K.M. Minke (eds.) Children's Needs III, 1-13. National Association of School Psychologists.

MacNeil, A.J., Prater, D.L., & Busch, S. (2009). "The effects of school culture and climate on student achievement." International Journal of Leadership in Education. 12(1), 73-84.

Yassie-Mintz, E. (2009). "Charting the path from engagement to achievement: A report on the 2009 High School Survey of Student Engagement." (http://ceep.indiana.edu/hssse)