The Many Impacts of Fostering a Positive School Climate
  • By admin
  • June 13, 2019

By Grace Shelton



The Schooling Myth and ESSA’s New Priority

For those of us who have worked and are currently working in schools, it’s funny—and a little sad—to revisit some of our favorite shows and movies from childhood. Each one depicts, in varying ways, the cold, dark school building with monotone teachers reading to a room of bored students, anxiously staring at the clock to finally, finally, signal the end of the school day. Very little amounts of learning could actually happen in an environment like this. Students would be discouraged from attending classes on time. Many would struggle to see the value of school and even consider dropping out altogether. This isn’t necessarily what schools are like. Today, schools are working harder than ever to motivate students to succeed. In fact, fostering a positive school culture and climate has become so sought after, that it is now listed as a priority under ESSA and comes with its own federally-created set of strategies and research.  

Under ESSA, it is clear that school climate is important for everyone, students and teachers alike. However, no two students or teachers are the same. Each one has differing perspectives and feelings on school and fostering a positive climate that suits everyone is multi-faceted and complex. Yet, according to ESSA, addressing climate is key to improving school-level systems. Furthermore, although climate is based within the schools, ESSA’s recent fact sheet provides examples of how positive school climate is the responsibility of states and districts, as well as the schools themselves. States, for example, can support districts and school through collecting and distributing climate-oriented data on discipline and absenteeism, as well as encourage districts to make their own unique culture and climate plans. Districts can create these plans and pass them on to schools or encourage schools to develop their own. Schools can then engage families through collaborative methods. They can provide consistent feedback and adequate preparation for teachers as well as include student perspectives in instruction and family input.

So why should states, districts, and schools go to all this trouble for something that isn’t, at first glance, directly related to academic success? Research in recent years has begun to discover the relationship between climate and academics, behavior, and teacher retention. In fact, it could be argued that a positive school climate is the foundation for an entire school’s success—if implemented properly and consistently worked on. This article examines the wide variety of positive impacts a strong school climate can yield, and encourages all schools to continually work on improving their culture for the sake of their students and their staff.

Behavioral Impacts of Positive Climate in Schools

A 2011 study examined the impact of relationship building and culture in improving student outcomes. While the study primarily focused on teacher evaluations, it did find some revealing significance in the importance of relationships in the school—something closely tied to positive school climate. The study found that schools with better student perceptions of teaching climate actually had lower dropout rates than schools with negative student perceptions of teaching climate. In addition to perception, schools with more positive student-teacher relationships also had a reduced dropout rate when compared to other similar schools. These results suggest that when students feel accepted in their school community, and have a positive relationship with their instructor, they are more likely to want to attend school each day and feel motivated to keep returning to the building. These results speak volumes on the impact of relationship building and school climate in closing educational inequities.

Additionally, another 2011 study examined a specific strategy for fostering positive school climate. In this study, schools that utilized school-wide positive behavioral supports to cultivate positive school climates had success. School-wide positive behavioral support (SWPBS) is a strategy that aims to prevent negative behaviors, instead of using discipline as a reaction to the presence of existing disruptions. The system tiers students based on their behavioral needs and gives them support and interventions throughout the school year in order to help regulate emotion and behaviors and encourage positive communication. It relies heavily on positive enforcement. Schools that implemented this system experienced a positive shift in culture and positive results on teacher ratings of school climate. There was also a significant decrease in students’ tardiness, unexcused absences, and office discipline referrals. These results suggest that this particular strategy can be very successful in promoting a positive school climate, and these successes translate to more motivated students and fewer disruptions throughout the school day due to negative behaviors.

Academic Impacts of Positive Climate and how that relates to Teachers

Looking now at academic results, a 2009 study found that students in schools with healthy learning environments and positive school climates had positive test scores. The study rationalized that school climates are, in a way, the heart and soul of the school and the essence that attracts high-quality teachers. In fact, in digging deeper into each examined schools’ successes, the study found that school culture and climate were among the top influences in affecting improved student achievement.

Additionally, stronger cultures were found to have better motivated teachers, and highly motivated teachers, unsurprisingly, have greater success in the classroom. This study brings up interesting points. Firstly, it appears that the main way school climate affects student achievement is through the attraction and retention of high performing teachers. Teachers can easily pick up on the culture of the school, and if a school is known for having positive relationships, it can attract top performers. In this way, schools should be careful to foster positive relationships not only among their students but also among their staff. Attracting highly effective teachers is a top priority for many schools, therefore positive culture and climate should be one also.

An Alternative Approach

There are many ways to achieve a happy, supportive, collaborative, and successful culture within schools. Schools may emulate the previously mentioned study and implement school-wide positive behavior systems. Or, they might take a more alternative approach like this Denver elementary school and use alternative methods for discipline. This school chose to use after-school yoga as a way to foster mindfulness among students and find an alternative form of discipline that embraces the practices of social-emotional learning. This approach, although seemingly quite unusual, tries to find the root of students’ behavioral disruptions and examines they reasons behind their disobedience. Although it is the product of mixed research on mindfulness in schools, students did report feeling less like “targets” and more like humans, and many looked forward to these after-school sessions. Whatever approach schools select, it is important that they refer to the strategies listed by ESSA’s fact sheet and keep positive climate a top priority. Students are very perceptive and can often tell when adults are experiencing conflict with one another. Climate, therefore, begins at the top down. Attracting high-quality teachers is an added bonus, but schools should aim to prioritize their culture and remind students and teachers alike that the learning experience is full of mistakes and successes, and each one is valued and supported in their building.


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