School Climate Improvement Guidelines


It really does take the "whole village" to raise healthy children who will be able to love, work and become effective democratic citizens. School climate improvement efforts necessarily need to involve all members of the school community learning and working together.

School climate improvement is—optimally—an ongoing process. Just as we (hopefully) never stop learning as an individual, we never stop learning and improving as a school community. All schools—like all people—evidence an array of strengths, needs and weaknesses.

The school climate improvement process can be conceptualized as a five-stage process:

  1. Preparation and planning: Creating the foundation
  2. Evaluation
  3. Understanding evaluation findings and action planning
  4. Implementation the action plan: Instructional and systemic programmatic efforts
  5. Re-evaluation and beginning the cycle anew

Video Multimedia—To learn about the challenges and tasks that characterize and shape each of the five stages of the school climate improvement process, click here.


The overall goal for school climate improvement efforts is to promote a sustainable and positive school climate. The National School Climate Council (2007) has recommended that this be defined in the following manner:

A sustainable, positive school climate fosters youth development and learning necessary for a productive, contributing and satisfying life in a democratic society. This climate includes norms, values and expectations that support people feeling socially, emotionally and physically safe. People are engaged and respected. Students, families and educators work together to develop, live and contribute to a shared school vision. Educators model and nurture attitudes that emphasize the benefits and satisfaction gained from learning. Each person contributes to the operations of the school and the care of the physical environment.

Operationally, educational standards define goals. The National School Climate Council has developed National School Climate Standards. To learn about the Standards, click here.

Guidelines and tools designed to support schools actualizing the school climate standards:

To learn about a School Climate Guidelines for District Leaders (superintendents and school board leaders) click here.

To learning about the School Climate Improvement Road Map, click here.

More specifically, there are two overlapping types of school climate improvement goals: process goals and specific outcome goals.

Process Goals
Synthesizing research and best practices from a number of overlapping but historically somewhat disparate traditions, we have developed a five stage school climate improvement process How we go out improving school climate or the process of school personnel, students and parents/guardians learning and working together is as important as specific outcome goals. Learning to work together in transparent, task-focused and helpful ways is always challenging. Learning to develop collaborative problem solving and more trusting relationships, for example, provides an essential foundation for all school improvement efforts. But, for all kinds of reasons, learning to trust and work collaboratively is inherently challenging.

To learn more about establishing what Jim Comer – one of the "grandfathers" of school climate improvement efforts and social, emotional, ethical and civic learning – calls a 'no fault' framework that supports collaborative and helpful working relationships, click here.

One of the most important process goals is the establishment of a learning community.

Video Multimedia—Listen to Marvin Berkowitz (Sanford N. McDonnell Professor of Character Education, University of Missouri - St. Louis) talk about “What a learning community is.” Click here to view video.

Specific Outcome Goals
Each school community is unique. Based on the assessment of your school communities and understanding of the strengths, needs and weaknesses, you may decide to focus on any number of specific outcome goals including promoting a greater sense of safety, more engaged and effective learning and teaching, more healthy relationships and/or a more supportive environment.


There are a range of school climate improvement practices that may serve your school community depending on your assessment and understanding of your community’s strengths, needs, weaknesses, and history of your community. All of the strategies delineated in other parts of this section of the web site can support school climate improvement efforts. What is critical is that these efforts are coordinated and democratically informed.

NSCC in partnership with the National School Climate Council is now completing a building level School Climate Implementation Guide. If you are interested in the possibility of using this, please contact [email protected].

Some of the most important strategies include:

  • Promoting a "no fault" framework and more effective as well as trusting working relationships
  • Intentional, systematic and ongoing social, emotional, ethical and civic learning
  • Understanding and explicitly developing a shared vision and vocabulary about your school communities values and goals, and translating these values and goals into norms and codes of conduct for adults as well as students.

Video Multimedia—Community Built School: Working Together to Make a Change.
Click Here to view video.

Parents and community members in Phoenix, Arizona joined the principal to create and maintain a supportive and flexible elementary school. The school is designed for classes to share in a common space for collaborative projects, hands-on exploration, literacy assessments and reading activities.

Videos produced by are used with permission and we are indebted to them for their kindness.
  • Creating caring classrooms and schools: There are a range of ways that schools can promote caring and responsive classrooms and schools.

Video Multimedia—Educating Hearts: A District-wide Initiative to Teach How to Care. Click Here to view video.

This district in Alaska is making SEL cross curricular. SEL is incorporated and infused into academic subjects. An educator viewing this video will benefit from the teacher interviews and their disclosed motivations.

Videos produced by are used with permission and we are indebted to them for their kindness.

Cultivating Caring Learning Communities Toolkit

To help you provide the supports your students need to succeed, we've compiled a free Cultivating Caring Learning Communities Toolkit stocked with lesson plans and practical tips that address specific issues such as bullying, physical violence, and disrespectful behavior.

Download the kit now and start improving your school climate today!

  • Evaluation:
    What is measured is one of the most important decisions that shape the climate of the school. What is measured is "what counts..." In order to be truly effective, school improvement efforts —by definition— need to recognize the social, emotional, ethical and civic as well as academic dimensions of school life. We suggest that measuring school climate is the most practical, reliable and valid method of recognizing how students, school personnel and parents or guardians perceive the social and civic dimensions of school life. To learn more, click here.
  • Aligning state/district policy with building practice:
    Effective school reform and sustained school improvement efforts need to include State and district level policies that focus on social and ethical as well as academic learning and measure systemic processes that address barriers to learning. To learn more about how your school can address policy concerns, see information about school climate policy and advocacy.

Video Multimedia—Hear Terry Pickeral (past Director, National Center for Learning and Citizenship at the Education Commission of the States and co-chair, National School Climate Council) talk about this issue. Click Here to view video.

Video Multimedia—To learn about a series of instructional and school wide improvement strategies that support the development of safe and civil schools, Click Here. click Here.


The National School Climate Council and NSCC recommend that school climate be assessed with valid and reliable comprehensive school climate surveys that (i) recognize student, school personnel and parent/guardian "voice" and (ii) assess all four of the major areas of school climate (safety, teaching and learning, relationships, and the environment). NSCC's research-based survey—the Comprehensive School Climate Inventory(CSCI)—is a prime example of such a measure. There are a range of other less formalized ways to assess school climate (e.g. observational strategies; checklists; "walk through", focus groups and more), which can be used in conjunction with a comprehensive survey to contextualize findings.

Behavioral reports, attendance rates and other measures of school success (e.g. grades and achievement scores) are additional sources of data that support school community leaders understanding the schools strengths, needs and weaknesses. It is always wise to use multi sources of data to understand schools strengths, needs and weaknesses.


Relevant Readings (Download this List):

  • Adelman, H., & Taylor, L. (2005). The school leader’s guide to student learning supports: New directions for addressing barriers to learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
  • American Psychological Association. (2003). Presidential task force on prevention, promoting strength, resilience, and health in young people. American Psychologist, 58, 425–490.
  • Bryk, A.S. & Schneider, B.L. (2002). Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for Improvement. New York: Russell Sage Foundation Publications.
  • Cohen, J., Shapiro, L, & Fisher, M. (2006). Finding the Heart of Your School: Using School Climate Data to Create a Climate for Learning. Principal Leadership (The journal of the National Association of Secondary School Principals), Vol. 7, 4, pages 26-32.
  • Cohen, J. & Michelli, N.M. (2006). Evaluating school climate: Promoting the skills, dispositions and a climate for democracy. NNER (National Network for Educational Renewal News) News, Vol 6, 1, pg. 2-4.
  • Cohen, J. &Pickeral, T. (2007). Measuring and Improving School Climate: A Commentary. Education Week, April, 18, 2007, Vol. 26, No. 33, pages 29-30.
  • Cohen, J. (2009). Transforming School Climate: Educational and Psychoanalytic Perspectives An Introduction to a special issue on school climate. Schools: Studies in Education, Vol. 6, No. 1: 99-103.
  • Cohen, J. & Hamilton, R. (2009). Caring for the individual student and the community of learners: Interlocking relationships and comprehensive school climate improvement. Schools: Studies in Education, Vol. 6, No. 1: 104-116.
  • Cohen, J. Fege, A. & Pickeral, T. (2009). Measuring and improving school climate: A strategy that recognizes, honors and promotes social, emotional and civic learning - The foundation for love, work and engaged citizenry. Teachers College Record. Retrieved June, 25, 2009, from
  • Cohen, J., Pickeral, T., & McCloskey, M. (2008). The challenge of assessing school climate. [Online article]. Educational Leadership, 66 (4). (Available on:
  • CharacterPlus. (2002). Character evaluation resource guide: Tools and strategies for evaluating a character education program. St. Louis, MO: Author.
  • Deal, E. & Peterson, K.D. (2009). Shaping school culture: Pitfalls, paradoxes, and promises. (Second edition). Jossey-Bass
  • Devine, J. & Cohen, J. (2007). Making your school safe: Strategies to Protect Children and Promote Learning. New York: Teachers College Press
  • Dryfooos, J.G., Quinn, J. & Barkin, C. (2005). Community schools in action: Lessons from a decade of practice. New York: Oxford University Press
  • Elias, M. J., Zins, J. E., Graczyk, P. A., & Weissberg, R. P. (2003). Implementation, sustainability, and scaling up of social-emotional and academic innovations in public schools.School Psychology Review, 32, 303–319.
  • Eller, J.F. & Eller, S. (2009). Creativestrategies to transformschool culture.Thousand Oaks, California, Corwin Press
  • Freiberg, H. J. (Ed.). (1999). School climate: Measuring, improving and sustaining healthy learning environments. Philadelphia: Falmer Press.
  • Hoy, W. K., & Tarter, C. J. (1997). The road to open and healthy schools: A handbook for change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
  • Mandinach, E.B. & Honey, M. (eds). (2008). Data-driven school improvement: Linking data and learning. New York: Teachers College Press.

Please note: If you are aware of additional readings and/or other resources that would support educational, family and community leaders understanding even more about the school climate improvement process, please do send this information to us at [email protected].