Positive school climates provide students, families and teachers with an equal opportunity to succeed. Unfortunately, political, cultural and socioeconomic factors can undermine school climates and threaten equality for all.
This can be frightening and overwhelming, but luckily there are many resources and organizations dedicated to creating equitable school climates.
Here, education experts discuss how teachers and faculty can create and maintain school climates that promote equality, safety and learning.
Step 1: Defining the School’s Climate
It’s important to understand what school climate is and how it is influenced.
The National School Climate Center defines a positive school climate as one that “fosters youth development and learning necessary for a productive, contributing and satisfying life in a democratic society.”
In such a climate, there are policies that help people feel socially, emotionally and physically safe, and each member of the school’s community — including parents and students — work together to create an equitable environment.
School Climate and Academic Success
Education reporting site EdSource explains that school climate has a proven positive impact on academic overachievement. It cites a study performed by the California Department of Education that shows school climates have a stronger impact on academic performance than teacher experience or staff ratios.
Additionally, a report from The Research Alliance for New York City Schools at NYU found that a positive school climate was correlated with faster growth in student math test scores. The same report also found that positive school climates were associated with decreases in teacher turnover rates.
Student learning begins to suffer after a teacher misses just 10 days of school (as pointed out by Teacher Match), so school climate has a intertwined effect on both teachers and students.
Social and Academic Dimensions in School Climates
According to Character.org, the three main factors that determine a school’s climate are its physical, social and academic dimensions. A school’s physical elements refer to its buildings and classrooms. Social elements refer to interpersonal relationships and conflict resolution skills. Academic elements refer to a school’s quality of instruction and the skill level of its teachers.
A school’s climate is most impacted by its academic and social dimensions. Below, we will explore seven strategies for improving these elements to foster more inclusive school environments.
Improving That Climate with Restorative Discipline
Improving the experiences of teachers and students requires diligence from teachers, parents and a student’s community. According to Elizabeth Meyer, associate dean of teacher education at the CU Boulder School of Education, it’s important to opt for restorative programs instead of traditional disciplinary models.
The Opportunity to Learn Network defines restorative practices as “processes that proactively build healthy relationships and a sense of community to prevent and address conflict and wrongdoing.”
Restorative models focus on accountability, community safety and competency development in order to devise constructive and collective conflict resolutions that decrease harsh discipline.
Restorative justice is a form of restorative discipline that allows conflict and harm to be resolved in a peaceful, productive manner.
This method contrasts with zero-tolerance policies, which prescribe suspension for minor infractions. Writer Susan Dominus explains that zero-tolerance policies prevent school equality because they alienate students and often lead to inequities among students of color.
With restorative justice, however, the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority explains that schools can “move beyond responding to violations of school rules or merely reacting to conflict” to develop lasting results that promote equality.
Therapy and Support
To best support the needs of students with behavioral problems — and move away from unproductive disciplinary practices — schools should provide therapeutic support programs. The California School-Based Health Alliance says that these programs can include conflict mediation, youth development and leadership programs, facilitated peer support, and peer counseling programs.
Resources for Restorative Discipline
Educators interested in adopting a restorative approach can get started with a number of resources and toolkits.
WestEd’s Safe and Supportive Schools project says that it’s important to assess a school’s needs before implementing any kind of restorative justice program. As each school has different needs, administrators can send out a survey to ask students, teachers and staff to learn more about strengths and areas of improvement.
Fix School Discipline offers a helpful educator toolkit for all interested student and community members. This toolkit is designed to help individuals learn “how to eliminate harsh discipline practices that push students out of school” so they can instead create more productive solutions that benefit everyone.
Similarly, the Southern Education Foundation launched a School Climate and Juvenile Justice Initiative that educates members of the public on how school discipline can be a barrier to student success, community engagement and school climate. By engaging and educating the broader public, the foundation can effectively work to prevent destructive disciplinary practices.
Identity-based bullying is a particularly harmful type of bullying that is common in schools.
Jinnie Spiegler of the Anti-Defamation League says that this kind of bullying excludes people solely based on identifying factors such as gender or religion.
When this type of bullying goes unnoticed in schools, more students think it is acceptable and the school becomes unwelcome for all. To prevent it, teachers can engage students in anti-bias education that helps them understand, identify and challenge bias when it arises.
For example, Ohio’s Bexley City School District established a gender identity and expression policy, which helps protect LGBTQ students from bullying and harassment at school.
Teachers play a critical role in creating school climate, but many teacher training programs don’t account for it. Education journalist Sarah D. Sparks explains that traditional teacher preparation programs focus on academic grounding, placing much less emphasis on “the skills and strategies for creating a workplace culture.”
One program that approaches this issue from the administrative level is the New York City Leadership Academy. The Leadership Academy aims to improve underperforming schools by helping principals become more prepared to improve school climate. School districts around the country can work with The Leadership Academy to complete the Aspiring Principals Program (APP) to learn problem based and action-learning teaching methods.
Family and Community Engagement
It’s difficult to maintain a positive school environment when you can’t account for a student’s family and community environment.
For example, one support group called The P3 Network is designed to give LGBT and other non-traditional families a place to connect. P3 is a support and educational network that focuses on breaking down stigmas and promoting equality for LGBT parents and children.
According to Heartland AEA, one of Iowa’s nine education agencies, schools that promote family and community engagement see increases in student performance and graduation rates. Such programs also make it easier for students of different cultures to assimilate into schools and feel welcome.
The existence of parent and community engagement groups play an important role in decreasing bias in schools — and helping promote equality amongst families of diverse backgrounds.
Images by: David Mark, Pexels