How to Create a Positive School Climate Part 1

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Three practical, research-based suggestions for one of the most effective and important things school leaders can do.

If you’re a school leader, you have problems to solve: bullying, teacher burnout, disengaged students, casual vandalism and litter, and cultural and socio-economic differences, among others. Big issues that affect a lot of people.

Researchers have found that a positive school climate can help solve a lot of those problems. Studies find that it decreases absenteeism, suspensions, substance abuse, and bullying, and increases students’ academic achievement, motivation to learn, and psychological well-being. It can even mitigate the negative effects of self-criticism and socioeconomic status on academic success. In addition, working in this kind of climate lessens teacher burnout while increasing retention. All really good stuff!

But here’s the catch: Creating a positive school climate is really, really hard to do, as any principal will tell you. People have minds of their own, and you can’t make them feel peppy and optimistic on command. It takes elbow grease and much care to implement, simply because human motivations and needs are so complex. Here are some research-tested tips to get you started.

What does it look like?

Let’s take a moment to paint a picture of positive school climate. When you walk onto a school campus, you can immediately get a sense of the school climate by watching the interactions between people and noticing the school’s physical environment.

Do the teachers, students, and school leaders seem happy to be there and are they treating each other with respect? Is the school clean and orderly? Are the bulletin board displays sending out positive messages? Are students engaged in their learning?

In 2007, the National School Climate Council spelled out specific criteria for what defines a positive school climate, including:

  • Norms, values, and expectations that support social, emotional, and physical safety.
  • People are engaged and respected.
  • Students, families, and educators work together to develop and live a shared school vision.
  • Educators model and nurture attitudes that emphasize the benefits gained from learning.
  • Each person contributes to the operations of the school and the care of the physical environment.

So while creating a positive school climate is not easy, it’s also not impossible.

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