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  2. School Climate
  3. How to Improve School Climate

How to Improve School Climate

Working to improve school climate is challenging and takes a comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach that includes building supportive and safe environments and policies and working to support student and adult social, emotional, and behavioral capacity to create a safe, engaging, and supportive school community.1 For example, Safe and Supportive Schools grantees, which are states funded by the Department of Education to create and support safe and drug-free learning environments in high risk schools, who implemented school climate–related strategies and programs reported decreases in substance abuse, harassment and bullying, and suspensions and improvement in school safety scores.2

Some of the aspects of improving school climate are presented below. Although these action items should not be seen as a comprehensive step-by-step approach, they can help teachers, administrators, and other school and district staff plan their efforts to create a positive school climate for all students.

Convene a School Climate Team. Schools can convene a school climate team or take advantage of a group of individuals already engaged around this topic.3 Although teams may vary by school, ideally the same team should address all schoolwide issues. It should be led by an administrator and include representative stakeholders such as school staff (teachers, school psychologists/social workers), district staff, family leaders, and partners from the community.4

Gain Stakeholder Buy-in. Clear messaging about the need to address school climate can help generate stakeholder buy-in. Messaging should use nontechnical language, be tailored to the audience, and include a plan for taking action that illustrates how all voices will be clearly heard during implementation.

Use a Data-Informed Approach. School climate survey data, incident data, qualitative data from interviews and focus groups, and data on school and community programs can provide a comprehensive summary of factors that have an impact on school climate. Student, parent, and staff surveys can offer valuable insights and experiences from various perspectives.5 Survey items and scales should be reliable and valid; adequate response rates should be attained; and data should be collected in a manner that ensures confidentiality.6 Data can be analyzed to determine needs that will inform the development of a schoolwide vision and goals based on those needs.7 Additionally, data can be analyzed over time to identify trends and can be disaggregated by subgroup to understand whether effects differ across groups.8

Understand the Current Context. Reviewing programmatic interventions currently in place, including those for individuals and those schoolwide, will facilitate an assessment of what is effective, what is not, and how programs that are not working well could be altered or replaced.

Develop a Plan and Select Interventions. Developing a theory of action (a logic model) will help guide planning and implementation. Selecting interventions that target areas of need as indicated by data will improve outcomes. These interventions should have been demonstrated to work with the types of students and types of settings in the specific school or district in which they will be introduced. Selecting interventions and supports across a continuum can be helpful to address the varying needs of students and the complexity of school climate. A three-tiered model provides a range of evidence and research-based interventions and supports varying in intensity and can help schools target resources and supports to student needs.

Three Tier Model

Tiered approaches include

  • schoolwide interventions provided to all students at the primary or Tier I level,
  • targeted interventions provided to students identified as at risk at the secondary or Tier II level, and
  • intensive interventions or individualized supports for students with severe and persistent needs at the tertiary or Tier III level.

Implement and Evaluate. Implementing programmatic interventions involves training and supporting staff and continually evaluating program effectiveness and progress. Using a continual quality improvement process that incorporates the analysis of evaluation data and school context will better meet the needs of schools and students.9 To learn more about selecting evidence-based and innovative programs and strategies and their implementation, visit the Evidence and Innovation site and view webinars targeted at implementing school climate programs at http://safesupportivelearning.ed.gov/events/webinars.


youth.gov Using Evidence Microsite
The youth.gov Using Evidence microsite helps users understand the many factors and decision points involved in selecting, implementing, adapting, monitoring, and evaluating evidence-based programs, as well as innovative approaches in areas where little research currently exists.

School Climate and Discipline Resource Package
Created by the Department of Education, in collaboration with the Department of Justice, this guidance package assists states, districts, and schools in understanding the issue of discriminatory school discipline, developing practices and strategies to enhance school climate, and ensuring their policies comply with federal law.

National Center on Intensive Intervention
The National Center on Intensive Intervention (NCII), funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), is part of OSEP’s Technical Assistance and Dissemination Network. NCII works to build district and school capacity to support the implementation of data-based individualization in reading, mathematics, and behavior for students with severe and persistent learning and/or behavioral needs. The NCII website contains multiple resources and tools that schools can access to support their efforts in implementing intensive interventions for students.

National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments
The Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments (NCSSLE) is funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Healthy Students. The NCSSLE website provides helpful information on reviewing student data, accessing current interventions, and implementing evidence-based programs to improve school climate and student outcomes. The NCSSLE School Climate Survey Compendium includes student, staff, and family survey batteries that can be used as part of a needs assessment around school climate. The listing provides information on the constructs measured, appropriate respondents, documentation, and access information for each survey.

National Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports
The National Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) is a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs and 11 technical assistance units across the United States. The Center provides technical assistance and resources to encourage large-scale implementation of PBIS across an array of contexts. The Center’s website offers tools, publications, videos, and training resources that schools, families, and communities can use in their implementation of PBIS.  

1 Osher et al., 2008; Osher, Bear, Sprague, & Doyle, 2010
2 Child Trends & American Institutes for Research, 2012
3 National Center on Safe and Supportive Learning Environments, n.d.1.
4 Dwyer, 2011
5 National Center for Safe and Supportive Learning Environments, n.d.1
6 Osher, 2012
7 National Center for Safe and Supportive Learning Environments, n.d.1
8 Osher, 2012
9 National Center for Safe and Supportive Learning Environments, n.d.1

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