Guest post by Cheryl Spittler

The passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015 has ushered in a new paradigm for student achievement that now includes nonacademic indictors in addition to measuring proficiency in math, English language arts, and English-language proficiency (for English-language learners), as well as high school graduation rates. These nonacademic indicators are aimed at providing a broader measure of student performance and include: 


  • Student engagement
  • Educator engagement
  • Access and completion of advanced coursework
  • Postsecondary readiness
  • School climate and safety

Oftentimes, educational reform is singularly focused, as evidenced by the emphasis on student achievement and testing that resulted from the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. In education, issues of student/educator engagement, access to advanced coursework, and postsecondary readiness are viewed as separate issues. Instead of using a compartmentalized approach to these issues, schools should be considering a more comprehensive approach, particularly as it relates to school climate, which serves as a foundation for all factors impacting a school’s learning environment.

According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, school climate is connected to students’ level of engagement in their coursework, which impacts student success.  Student success creates a foundation for advanced coursework and postsecondary readiness. The Alliance suggests administrators examine how the multiple issues included in ESSA’s nonacademic indicators fit together under the umbrella of school climate.

What exactly is school climate and how does it impact teaching and learning, safety, relationships, and the school environment? What are the challenges faced by leadership regarding school climate and where does one start the improvement process?

School Climate Defined

The National School Climate Center defines school climate as “the quality and character of school life based on patterns of students’, parents’ and school personnel’s experience of school life and reflects norms, goals, values, interpersonal relationships, teaching and learning practices, and organizational structures.”  According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, a positive school climate is “an environment that reflects a commitment to meeting and developing the academic, social, and emotional needs of every student.” The benefits of a positive school climate have been well documented and include improved feelings of safety (physical, social, and emotional), increased engagement by teachers and students, and educators modeling and encouraging attitudes that support learning and a growth mindset. These benefits lay the foundation for a culture of continual improvement.

In addition, a positive school climate has been shown to impact the frequency of student substance abuse, psychiatric problems, and aggressive behavior, including harassment. These benefits support the entire learning environment.

The climate of a school is often described as what people feel when they enter an institution. To gain an understanding of this “feel,” consider a school that has a toxic climate. This school lacks systems and possesses a culture of dysfunction. No one wants to be there and the school is in disarray. This school lacks appropriate resources for students, thereby impeding student learning, and the personnel are not friendly. Conversely, a healthy school climate offers a sense of belonging and systems are in place to ensure successful learning for all students. Culture is the heartbeat of a school and with each beat it is spreading health or toxicity.

Dimensions of School Climate 

When using school climate as a comprehensive approach to school improvement, it is important to identify its four dimensions: safety, teaching and learning, interpersonal relationships, and the institutional environment.

In considering school safety, the first thing that often comes to mind is school violence. However, school violence doesn’t just happen. There are issues and circumstances that serve as precursors to the violence. Often, perpetrators of violence have been victims of bullying or have a chronic history of noncompliant behavior or trauma.

Some schools implement targeted bullying programs to address the issue of school violence; however, research has found such efforts to be only marginally helpful in the absence of a positive school climate. Continual school-climate improvement and bullying prevention measures are needed in combination to promote a sustained positive school climate that fosters a responsible and engaged school community that flourishes.

Tips to bolster safety:

  • Create a solid leadership team, including students, to guide school-climate improvement work.
  • Build an environment of respect, empathy, and kindness by modeling these behaviors throughout the day.
  • Engage in dialogue about race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and other identity issues in order to build a bridge between differences.
  • Address bullying and all forms of intolerance swiftly and provide support as well as guidance to all individuals involved.
  • Analyze (and update when needed) school policies, procedures, and practices to ensure they are equitable and student friendly.

A major component to school safety is having a solid foundation of interpersonal relationships. Interpersonal relationships are a key element in “student connectedness,” a term which relates to a student’s feelings about being a part of their school, whether adults at school care about them as an individual, and their learning actually mattering. Students who are connected have close relationships with people at school and have positive relationships with adults. Interpersonal relationship skills promote healthy relationships and interactions between staff and students and among the students themselves, in addition to building the climate of effective support that students need to be successful. Fostering these bonds between students and teachers is an important step in meeting students’ academic, social, and emotional needs, which helps promote a positive school climate.

Tips for building interpersonal relationships:

  • Practice “coffee-cup diplomacy.” Make community a priority by taking every opportunity to mingle among students and staff so you can get to know them on a personal level.
  • Support staff with training on effective classroom management and teaching methods to build a positive learning environment.
  • Provide professional development and support for all staff (facility managers, lunchroom personnel, paraprofessionals, teachers, and all support staff).
  • Instill trusting and caring relationships to promote open communication.
  • Practice unconditional positive regard. Let people know they are appreciated and capable of great things.

The existence of healthy interpersonal relationships between the staff, students, administration, and community creates an optimal foundation for teaching and learning. Powerful teaching reflects a variety of instructional strategies designed to engage students and support high academic achievement. High academic achievement is achieved through a rigorous curriculum, with rigor often defined as increased complexity of a learning task. However, this definition leaves the component of student autonomy out of the equation.

Without student autonomy, ownership of learning is less likely to occur. As schools provide a healthy climate where students feel the support of caring adults and safe enough to take risks, student ownership of learning will increase.

Tips for improving teaching and learning:

  • Support cultural competence through pre-service and in-service trainings aimed at developing individual awareness of cultural identity and cultural differences.
  • Fully prepare teachers by providing rich professional learning opportunities geared toward supporting rigorous teaching and instructional strategies.
  • Support teachers in using formative assessments, which involve students and teachers continually gathering evidence of learning throughout a lesson (monitoring on steroids).
  • Promote student engagement by training teachers for rigor.

As schools begin to focus on their climate and culture, administrators also need to be paying attention to the institutional environment. According to the National School Climate Center, the institutional environment includes two dimensions of school life: the physical surroundings and the positive engagement of students in school. The goal of an optimal institutional environment is to provide appealing, supportive, and suitable conditions that welcome all individuals. Research indicates that improving the institutional environment can enhance feelings of safety and is conducive to improved learning.

Tips on improving institutional environment:

  • Implement the “broken-windows theory,” which states disorder will lead to more disorder.  Pick up trash, keep paint fresh, and address broken equipment and structures immediately.
  • Encourage pride in the school building by modeling respect for your surroundings.
  • Create a gratitude board in the staff lounge and hallways to shift the focus from negative to positive.

School climate impacts every dimension of school life and requires leadership committed to growing their community. Leaders need to begin by modeling the shift in behavior. Examine leadership techniques—are you leading from the top down or alongside staff and students? Gather a coalition of the willing to support and infuse school climate work from the inside out. School climate improvement will often require second order change, which requires a new way of thinking. As leaders gather a coalition of the willing and lead the change as a co-participant, a climate change will follow.

Cheryl Spittler, MSEd, is a staff developer and expert in classroom management with 20 years of classroom experience. She served as a lead trainer in the redesign of the Bureau of Indian Education curriculum to integrate the Common Core State Standards. Her curriculum work has taken her to both rural and urban schools, where she worked with single schools as well as entire districts. In addition to developing curriculum/instructional design, Ms. Spittler has worked as a classroom teacher and university professor of special education.

About the Author

Cheryl Spittler, MSEd, is a staff developer and expert in classroom management with 20 years of classroom experience. She served as a lead trainer in the redesign of the Bureau of Indian Education curriculum to integrate the Common Core State Standards. Her curriculum work has taken her to both rural and urban schools, where she worked with single schools as well as entire districts. In addition to developing curriculum/instructional design, Ms. Spittler has worked as a classroom teacher and university professor of special education.

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