School Climate: Helping Kids Succeed

January 16, 2014
Colored pencils next to a stack of books.

When your school climate is in good shape, parents, teachers, and staff are all actively involved in making decisions. Students and teachers respect and trust one another. Expectations are high, office referrals are low, and students and staff feel like school is a safe and caring place where they don’t mind spending a significant amount of their time.  
So what can you do if you have a little of that going, but mostly you’re dealing with mountains of referral forms and countless instances of misbehavior?
To help schools throughout the US enhance learning and build a positive school climate, the Departments of Education and Justice have released a set of guiding principles [PDF] on school climate and discipline. Designed to help educators, school leaders, parents, and communities keep kids in school and focused on success, it outlines steps for decreasing zero-tolerance policies and increasing social, emotional, and academic learning.
During the 2011 school year, reports US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a video introducing the guidance package, over three million public school students received out-of-school suspensions. Over 100,000 students were expelled. And kids with disabilities are more likely to be disciplined with exclusionary measures than other students, particularly African-American males, reports the Council for Exceptional Children.
Out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and loss of classroom time due to other factors all often lead to kids dropping out of school or ending up in the juvenile justice system. The full guidance package, part of Duncan’s Supportive School Discipline Initiative in partnership with Attorney General Eric Holder, is intended to help states, districts, and schools ensure that their discipline policies align with federal law, and that they focus on creating a positive school climate bolstered by conflict resolution programs, restorative practices, counseling, and positive behavior supports aimed at helping all students succeed. The package outlines action steps including:

  • Using evidence-based strategies such as tiered supports
  • Promoting social and emotional learning, as well as academic skills
  • Involving families and students in the development of discipline policies
  • Providing ongoing training for all school personnel in supporting positive behavior

5 Tips for Enhancing Your School’s Climate

Your school’s physical, social, and emotional environment is essential to minimizing problem behavior and boosting academic achievement. Here are five tips to help you enhance your school climate so you can worry less about disruptions and focus more on teaching and learning.

  1. Establish common values.
    From administration to teachers to support staff to students to parents, everyone should make courtesy and respect a priority. Even if students, parents, or other staff aren't immediately courteous in return, know that your own positive attitude will foster a school climate that values respect among everyone.
  2. Assess your environment.
    How your school looks and feels lets staff, students, and visitors know what to expect. Are parking lots, hallways, and classrooms clean and free of litter? Is the lighting adequate everywhere? Do you have a solid reporting system in place so safety concerns can be identified and resolved?
  3. Pay attention to warning signs.
    Watch for cues that indicate distress. Changes in a student's behavior, routines, facial expressions, posture, or tone or volume of voice can alert you to their intentions—and help you take a supportive attitude that focuses on prevention.
  4. Have policies and procedures in place.
    In order to ensure that everyone is a part of a shared vision, be sure to establish plans and outline expectations.
  5. Have staff development plans in place.
    Staff come to the job with teaching skills, and become even more effective as educators when they have the skills and training to prevent and de-escalate challenging behavior.

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