Rigorous standards, engaging curricula, and innovative teaching methods can only be effective if students feel safe and supported in their learning environment. Singular incidents—the loss of a beloved teacher or a fight in the school cafeteria or even positive events, such as the anticipation of a school vacation—can stir emotions and temporarily hijack students’ attention. Learning will suffer. Teachers know this and plan lessons to account for “off days.”
More deleterious to student outcomes, however, is a persistent negative school environment, a day-to-day atmosphere that breeds distrust, fear, frustration, and hopelessness. Over time, a school’s climate becomes the entrenched culture, creating barriers to learning that are difficult to overcome.
Multiple factors affect school climate, many of which are beyond the school’s control—e.g., scarcity of resources or a community rife with social tensions. Recognizing discord before it takes root is critical to turning around negativity and fostering a positive climate where students and educators may thrive.
Most building administrators and district superintendents began their careers in the classroom, where they interacted daily with students and fellow teachers. Taking on leadership roles places them somewhat outside the daily rhythms of the school life that they must supervise. While a school principal or district superintendent can monitor students with highly noticeable behavior issues, many students quietly withdraw from the school community without showing any signs that they are not well. Leaders must rely on anecdotal information to discern trends.
The challenge for school leaders is how to identify students who fall under the radar, so they may be helped, and how to recognize patterns throughout the student body and school faculty that indicates a looming problem. Utilizing technology to evaluate the wellbeing of a school community and proactively implementing policies to improve school climate will create the caring, inclusive, and trusting atmosphere that students and teachers need to thrive.
8 Tips to Improve School Climate
1. Recognize student and staff’s psychological needs
The Self-Determination Theory holds that humans are naturally self-motivated and that if basic psychological needs are met, people will strive to become their best possible selves. These needs, just as important as the physical needs for food and shelter, are a sense of efficacy, a sense of belonging, and a sense of autonomy. A teacher may lack confidence in their ability to reach students; a student may believe that they were born without the intelligence necessary to do well on an exam and that success is beyond their control; or a custodian may feel that they are not truly part of the school community. When their psychological needs are not met, members of the school community become frustrated and discouraged, creating a negative environment that affects student outcomes.
Teachers, students, and staff members generally do not advertise their fears and frustrations. A casual observer may think that all is well in the school. It falls to school leadership to monitor wellness beyond surface observations and identify negative undercurrents so problems may be addressed.
2. Set high expectations for behavior and clear consequences for misbehavior
Life outside of school is an uneven playing field. Students enter the classroom with varying levels of social-emotional skills. The inappropriate behavior of one student can disrupt the learning environment for all. The word “discipline” is formed from the Latin “to learn,” and discipline policies should be developed with this instructional function in mind. Students must understand what is expected; they must learn the social norms of the school community and the natural consequences of their actions.
The US Department of Education’s Guiding Principles: A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline points to research that finds that proactive steps to prevent misbehavior are more effective than reactionary policies such as suspension or expulsion. Creating a positive school climate, monitoring student wellbeing to root out problems that cause misbehavior, and teaching social-emotional skills within curriculum content will create a supportive environment that will encourage appropriate behavior. A school’s code of conduct can bolster these efforts by setting high standards and applying consequences consistently and fairly.
3. Seek to heal rather than punish
Teachers cannot teach and students cannot learn in an environment of fear, yet 20% of students responding to an NCES survey report that they had been bullied in school. Over the past two decades, schools have adopted bullying prevention programs with some success. A 2019 study examined these programs and found that punishment and zero-tolerance policies are largely ineffective because they fail to account for individual motivations in bullies. More effective is the restorative model of discipline. Schools must determine the needs of their students and implement programs to address deficits in social and emotional skills.
4. Assign mentors
Every student needs an advocate, and while parents often fill that role, a teacher, administrator, or counselor may provide an additional level of support within the school environment. A mentor program that pairs students with a member of the school staff or faculty can help build trusting relationships and open communications. A system of periodic wellness checks between mentors and mentees can help identify issues before they become serious problems.
5. Reach out to the greater community
Schools are social hubs of the communities that they serve. Failure to build family-school partnerships creates a disconnect for students. Their time in school and at home are compartmentalized, and problems in one arena may go unseen in the other. The National PTA suggests that districts engage all families with strong two-way, transparent communication systems and seek community input when developing new policies. Building partnerships will foster community support that is critical to a positive school climate.
6. Identify wellness issues early
A sudden drop in academic performance, chronic absenteeism, and increased behavior problems are all red flags that a student is suffering from physical or emotional problems. Sometimes the cause is obvious, such as the onset of a major health issue or the death of a family member. Other times, students may keep their worries to themselves and even hide behind false bravado.
Teasing out hidden wellness issues is difficult, particularly if the student looks at school personnel with a suspicious eye or is fearful that they may suffer reprisals for speaking out. But humans are social creatures, and when emotionally burdened, they want to share that weight with someone else. Providing students with opportunities to talk to trusted staff members, with all assurances of confidentiality, will begin the process and further improve school climate.
7. Implement a user-friendly system for monitoring wellbeing
Monitoring the wellness of individual students and the school community as a whole is a daunting task. Periodic face-to-face check-ins (“How are you doing this week?”) may not elicit truthful responses. Technology can help. The students in school now were born into a hyper-connected environment brought on by advances in mobile technology. Students may respond better to an online survey than an in-person interview. Online check-in programs, such as Student Pulse, allow districts to capture wellness data in real-time, identify issues as they arise, and produce reports to proactively understand when a particular class, school, or entire district is at risk. These check-ins can also extend to students in remote or hybrid learning environments.
8. Provide support for educators’ wellbeing
A positive school climate is not possible if teachers are stressed. Demands on teachers have increased, and in addition to teaching academic and social-emotional skills, in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers must also monitor health and sanitation in their classrooms. Chronic stress impedes a teacher’s ability to connect with students, and these connections are essential for positive learning outcomes. While a teacher may hesitate to admit that they are overwhelmed, a weekly check-in for teachers and staff can go a long way toward bolstering efforts to improve school climate.
Most school leaders began their careers as teachers in the trenches, and they understand the relationship between emotional health and academic achievement. To be effective in their leadership roles, administrators must measure what is happening in their schools and understand the prevailing attitudes of their students and staff. The climate of a school can change rapidly, and these changes may elude detection by policy-makers. Contact Educator Impact to learn about innovative technology that makes it possible for administrators to measure and monitor in real-time the wellbeing of their school community.
Educator Impact is dedicated to helping students find easier ways to ask for help, giving teachers real-time insights on those students, and helping school leaders identify trends in school wellbeing and culture trends.