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Components

Although definitions of school climate vary, a comprehensive Safe Supportive Schools measurement model developed by the U.S. Department of Education, based on listening sessions and consultation with researchers and practitioners, reflects the most common concepts. This model includes three main components of school climate: Engagement, Safety, and Environment. The figure below1 illustrates an adapted version of this model—its components and topical areas under each—adapted from the website of the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments (http://safesupportivelearning.ed.gov/school-climate). For more information on the importance of school climate, view a recorded webinar.

School Climate Chart

Engagement

School connectedness—students’ perceptions of safety, belonging, respect, and feeling cared for at school—appears to play a particularly important role in healthy adolescent development. It has been found to provide protection against almost every health risk behavior measured, including substance use, risky sexual behavior, violence, and emotional distress.2 Further, data on connectedness suggest that the more social domains in which adolescents experience connectedness, the less emotional distress and fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress they will experience.3

Connectedness to school has also been shown to be a significant predictor of higher academic achievement among youth,4 including sexual minority youth.5 Analysis of data from the National Education Longitudinal Study shows that supportive, caring relationships between students and teachers, as well as teachers’ positive perceptions of students’ efforts in the classroom, resulted in higher academic achievement for students.6 Participation in extracurricular activities has been shown to be associated with positive academic, psychological, and behavioral outcomes and civic engagement.7

The importance of relationships was also reflected in student, staff, and family data collected through the Safe and Supportive Schools (S3) state grants, which identified support for improving student-student, student-adult, and adult-adult relationships as the highest need across the participating local education agency sites in both 2011 and 2012.8 The positive effect of connection and relationships can also be seen among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students, who have been shown to be less likely to be truant from school if they have a trusted adult at school with whom they can talk about their sexuality.9 Learn more about what schools can do to help LGBT students. 

Safety

Student safety includes feeling safe physically and emotionally from factors such as violence and teen dating violence, bullying and cyber bullying, and substance use. It also includes feeling safe as a result of emergency management plans in place. Students’ perceptions of feeling, or not feeling, safe at school have been shown to have an impact on their educational outcomes. School environments characterized by victimization and hostility are linked to lower levels of engagement and achievement in mathematics and reading,10 and personal experiences with threats, theft, or assault at school have been shown to increase students’ likelihood of dropping out.11 Negative outcomes are pronounced for students who are victims of bullying because these students have been shown to have lower academic achievement than their nonbullied peers. Victims of bullying, as well as bullies themselves, also report feeling unsafe at school at a higher rate than other students.12

Recent data show that students reported a higher level of fear of an attack or harm at school (4 percent) than off school property (2 percent) during the school year,13 and about 6 percent of students reported that they avoided school at least once during the previous month because they felt unsafe at or on their way to school.14 These feelings are often exacerbated for LGBT youth and youth with physical, intellectual, or developmental disabilities. These youth are more likely to face physical and emotional abuse, bullying, and physical assault because of their sexual identity, gender identity/expression, or disability.15 For example, data from a 2011 report show that 63.5 percent of LGBT youth felt unsafe from victimization at school because of their sexual orientation and 43.9 percent felt unsafe because of their gender expression.16

The use and sale of substances at school have also been linked to negative educational outcomes for students. A study conducted by the California Department of Education found that schools reporting a large percentage of students who stated they had been intoxicated or offered drugs on school property exhibited lower scores on academic achievement than other schools whose students did not report these experiences.17

Environment

The school environment includes a variety of factors such as the physical environment, instructional environment, student wellness, and discipline practices.

  • Physical Environment: A well-maintained school environment has been shown to improve student achievement on standardized tests,18,19 and has been linked to increased teacher morale and commitment.20
    • Violent incidents have been shown to repeatedly occur in the same physical spaces in schools. These locations, typically including lunchrooms, hallways, stairwells, and playgrounds, can often be characterized as “unowned,” public spaces that no one in the school feels a sense of responsibility to monitor.21 Identifying these hotspots, assigning adults in the school to monitor them, and reducing student presence in these areas, has been shown to decrease students’ perceptions of these spaces as dangerous.22
  •  Instructional Environment: Research has linked positive school environments to higher academic and behavioral outcomes for students,23 but in the 2007–2008 school year, 32 percent of teachers reported that student tardiness and class cutting interfered with their teaching, and 34 percent agreed or strongly agreed that student misbehavior interfered with their teaching.24 The implementation of classroom management strategies and practices can have a positive effect on decreasing problem behaviors, such as disruptions and aggression.25
  • Mental Health and Well-Being: The Center for Mental Health in Schools estimates that between 12 and 22 percent of school-aged children and youth have a diagnosable mental health disorder.26 Young people with mental health problems have been shown to have lower academic achievement than their peers. Among these students, 14 percent achieve mostly Ds and Fs,27 and 44 percent drop out of school.28 School-based mental health programs can help reduce conduct disorder, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, and depression symptoms in students receiving services.29 Learn more about school-based mental health and hear from young people about how school-based mental health services have helped them.
  • Discipline: Punitive approaches to discipline such as zero tolerance, which embraces systematic suspension and expulsion, have been shown to lead to negative outcomes for youth. For example, data suggest that students who have been suspended are 30 percent more likely to drop out of school,30 be suspended again in the future,31 and perform poorly academically than their peers who have not been suspended.32 Disciplinary actions may be disproportionately delivered; research has shown that African American students and students with emotional disabilities are more likely to experience suspension and expulsion, which places them at higher risk for these negative outcomes.33 Conversely, proactive, schoolwide approaches to discipline have been associated with a decrease in discipline referrals and an increase in student attendance, academic performance,34 and achievement on standardized tests.35 Schoolwide approaches to discipline that focus on prevention reinforce a positive environment in which all students and staff are aware of behavioral expectations, which are enforced with predictability and monitored consistently.36

Resources

National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments
The National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments (NCSSLE) is funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Healthy Students. NCSSLE provides resources, training, and technical assistance on school climate and its components to states, grantees, district administrators, schools, teachers and staff, families, and students. The NCSSLE website highlights the most up to date and seminal research on school climate and provides links to related products, tools, and websites.

StopBullying.gov
StopBullying.gov represents a multiagency federal effort to better understand the issue of bullying and how to prevent and respond to it. In addition to the resources provided for parents and other community members, StopBullying.gov features information to help schools educate students and staff about bullying and implement policies that create an environment of safety.

Office of Safe and Healthy Students
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Healthy Students (OSHS) funds and promotes initiatives, research, and publications on education, health, mental health, safety, and drug and violence prevention. The OSHS website provides an overview of the programs, initiatives, and technical assistance centers administered by OSHS and highlights relevant events, reports, websites, publications, and other available resources.  

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Injury Center: School Violence
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Injury Center works to promote violence and injury prevention by gathering and reporting data, funding programs and prevention activities, and disseminating resources and tools. The School Violence topic page of the Injury Center provides statistics, risk and protective factors, and information about prevention efforts and tools related to school violence.  

1 Adapted from Harper, 2010
2 Resnick et al., 1997
3 Libbey, Ireland, & Resnick, 2002; McGraw, Moore, Fuller, & Bates, 2008
4 Fredricks & Eccles, 2006
5 Seelman, Walls, Hazel, & Wisneski, 2012
6 Muller, 2001
7 Fredricks & Eccles, 2006
8 Child Trends & American Institutes for Research, 2012
9 Seelman et al., 2012
10 Ripski & Gregory, 2009
11 Neild, Stoner-Eby, & Furstenberg, 2002
12 Glew, Fan, Katon, Rivara, & Kernic, 2005
13 Robers, Kemp, Truman, & Snyder, 2013
14 Centers for Disease Control, 2012
15 Kosciw, Greytak, Diaz, Bartkiewicz, Boesen, & Palmer, 2012; Stopbullying.gov, n.d.
16 Kosciw et al., 2012
17 California Department of Education, 2005
18 California Department of Education, 2005
19 Earthman, Cash, & Van Berkum, 1995
20 Cash, 1993
21 Corcoran, Walker, & White 1998
22 Astor, Meyer, & Behre, 1999
23 Brand, Felner, Shim, Seitsinger, & Dumas, 2003
24 Chapman, Laird, Ifill, & Kewal Ramani, 2011
25 Oliver, Wehby, & Reschly, 2011
26 Center for Mental Health in School, 2008
27 Blackorby, Chorost, Garza, & Guzman, 2003
28 Wagner, 2005
29 Hussey & Guo, 2003
30 Fabelo, Thompson, Plotkin, Carmichael, Marchbanks, & Booth, 2011
31 Tobin, Sugai, & Colvin, 1996
32 Mendez, 2003
33 Fabelo et al., 2011
34 Luiselli, Putnam, & Sunderland, 2002
35 Luiselli, Putnam, Handler, & Feinberg, 2005
36 Sprague, 2007

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