What is School Climate and Why is it Important?

We can all remember childhood moments when we felt particularly safe (or unsafe) in school, when we felt particularly connected to a caring adult (or frighteningly alone), when we felt particularly engaged in meaningful learning (or not). These are the school memories that we all tend to vividly remember: good and/or bad. It is not surprising that these kinds of experiences shape learning and development.

However, school climate is larger than any one person’s experience. When people work together, a group process emerges that is bigger that any one person’s actions. A comprehensive assessment of school climate includes major spheres of school life such as safety, relationships, teaching and learning, and the environment as well as larger organizational patterns (e.g. from fragmented to shared; healthy or unhealthy). How we feel about being in school and these larger group trends shape learning and student development. Peer-reviewed educational research has consistently demonstrated that a positive school climate is associated with academic achievement, effective risk prevention efforts and positive youth development.

How do we define School Climate?

School climate refers to the quality and character of school life. School climate is 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.

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.

(This definition of school climate and a positive, sustained school climate were consensually developed by the National School Climate Council.)

Key School Climate Dimensions

There is not a national consensus about what school climate dimensions are essential to assess. Synthesizing past school climate research as well as NSCC’s research efforts, the National School Climate Council and NSCC suggest that there are five major areas that school climate assessment needs to include: Safety, Interpersonal Relationships, Social MediaTeaching and Learning and the Institutional environment. Each of these areas includes a series of sub scales of indicators. To learn about these sub scales and indicators, click here.

Research findings have contributed to a growing number of federal, state, and local educational agencies endorsing and supporting school climate policies and improvement practices.

There are many reasons why school climate and an effective school climate improvement process are important. School climate can serve as a protective factor that supports positive life outcomes for young people (Ortega, Sanchez, Ortega Rivera, & Viejo, 2011).

Positive results of strong school climate improvement work can be grouped into five “buckets”:

    • Dramatic decrease in risky behaviors (Catalano, Haggerty, Oesterie, Fleming, & Hawkins, 2004)
    • Lower rates of student suspensions and discipline issues in general (Lee, T., Cornell, D., Gregory, A., & Fan, X. 2011)
    • Physical, social, and emotional benefits (Devine & Cohen, 2007)
    • The effect of positive school climate not only contributes to improved academic outcomes among diverse groups of students (Astor, Benbenisty, & Estrada, 2009; Haahr, Nielsen, Hansen, & Jakobsen, 2005; OECD, 2009), but its effect seems to persist for years (Kerr, Ireland, Lopes, Craig, & Cleaver, 2004)
    • Higher graduation rates (L. Ma, Phelps, Lerner, & Lerner, 2009)
    • Powerful correlation between improved school climate and increased motivation to learn (K. B., & Pachan, M. 2008)
    • Positive school climate is correlated with decreased student absenteeism in middle school and high school and lower rates of student suspension in high school (T. Lee, Cornell, Gregory, & Fan, 2011; Gottfredson & Gottfredson, 1989; Rumberger, 1987; deJung & Duckworth, 1986; Sommer, 1985; Purkey & Smith, 1983; Reid, 1982; Wu, Pink, Crain, & Moles, 1982)
    • School connectedness is a powerful predictor of and is associated with adolescent health and academic outcomes (Whitlock, 2006)
    • Improved staff morale (Vezzuto, 2011)
    • In schools where students perceive a better structured-school, fair discipline practices, and more positive student-teacher relationships, the “probability and frequency of subsequent behavioral problems” is lower (M. C. Wang, Selman, Dishion, & Stormshak, 2010)
    • Safe, caring, participatory, and responsive school climate fosters greater attachment to school and provides the optimal foundation for social, emotional, and academic learning (Blum, McNeely, & Rinehart, 2002; Osterman, 2000)
    • Sense that students feel safe from physical harm, verbal abuse/teasing, gossip, and exclusion when online or on electronicdevices (for example, facebook, twitter, and other social media platforms, by an email, text messaging, posting photo/video, etc.).