Emily Buchanan

Defining a Positive School Climate and Measuring the Impact

Last month (April 2013), the National School Climate Center and Fordham University concluded that "sustained positive school climate is associated with positive child and youth development, effective risk-prevention and health-promotion efforts, student learning and academic achievement, increased student graduation rates, and teacher retention."

Having gained increasing potency in the lexicon of education reformers of late, a glut of studies has cemented the concept and significance of the school climate. However, having considered more than 200 research papers that all pointed to the aforementioned conclusion, the Fordham University study uncovered one major issue: What actually constitutes a "positive school climate?"

According to the National School Climate Standards, a school will only achieve a positive climate if they successfully "[create] an environment where all members are welcomed, supported, and feel safe in school: socially, emotionally, intellectually, and physically." WestEd, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization, echoes this definition, calling upon "a sense of belonging, competence, and autonomy" for both students and staff in order to strike a positive balance.

Alternatively, Pickeral et al. (PDF) reviewed the school climate concept and defined it at its most basic level as the "quality and character of school life." The authors break this down into four broad definitions:

  1. Safety: physical, social, and emotional safety.
  2. Teaching and learning: quality instruction; social, ethical, and academic learning; leadership; and professional development.
  3. Relationships: positive relationships across the school community, respect for diversity, open communication and collaboration, and engagement in and connectedness to school.
  4. Environment: a clean, well-maintained school and adequate space and resources.

Delineating a sustainable support network that gives everyone in its care the direction to thrive, the most important thing about school climate is the significant impact it has on its pupils, as identified by a new WestEd study (PDF).

Taking 1,715 California middle and high schools into account, the study sorted each school by student demographic and then analyzed each demographic by peer group. Every student was asked to take the California Healthy Kids Survey (PDF), which typically asks students to evaluate their school environment based on their perceived levels of security. After gathering the data, the study concluded that a positive school climate was the defining factor of academic success in 40 over-achieving schools.

But if a positive school climate improves academic performance, why isn't more being done to progress this disciplinary ethos across the board? The Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network (ASDAN) is a charitable social enterprise that is yet to be rolled out in the United States. It currently provides United Kingdom and international schools, colleges, and youth centers with "personal effectiveness" training, an innovative approach to school climate that allows staff and students to develop "their personal and social attributes" outside of the classroom so that they might reform the efficacy of their in-school communities. However, the WestEd Healthy Kids Study found that, generally speaking, schools in need of such direction (negative climates with high levels of violence, drug use, and bullying) were in impoverished areas that lack the resources to fund such projects.

The impact of a negative school climate is very real. The University of Luxembourg's Integrative Research Unit on Social and Individual Development released evidence that a positive change in school environment reduces the proliferation of violent behavior and vice versa. While ASDAN supports the advancement of education, pupils in weak learning environments are more likely to reject the authority of their teachers and ASDAN educators because they do not feel properly supported. In a bid to solve this socioeconomic disparity, ASDAN has started to focus on "the relief of poverty, where poverty inhibits opportunities for learners."

Professor Steffgen, head of the research group HPAP (Health Promotion and Aggression Prevention) said, "Research shows that implementing school educational and social functions do play a role, overturning the idea that violent perpetrators are themselves all alone responsible for school violence. Thus, it is recommended that future prevention programs should consider both individual and environmental factors."

It's clear that improving school climate benefits everyone—particularly low-performing, low-income schools with social problems in the community. By providing a safe and supportive environment away from the potential hardships of home life, a more connected, motivated school emerges—a school that is built upon a foundation of trust and mutual care.

Emily Buchanan is an environment and education writer for the Huffington Post and the Ecologist. She lives in Norwich, United Kingdom, and writes her own blog. You can connect with her on Twitter @MileyChanbuna.

Extend your thinking on themes similar to Emily's post through the archived 2013 Whole Child Virtual Conference session, "Schools for Work, Schools for Society, or Schools for the Individual?" European experts Pasi Sahlberg, Peter Mortimore, and Andy Hargreaves discuss the role of creativity, collaboration, and the whole child approach in education reform efforts. The session covers Finnish education and the whole child, the role of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), and the Fourth Way.

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