Farmers grow crops with yields many times greater than they were only a few generations ago. How did this happen? They began by paying closer attention to the soil — working to optimize the growing environment for their crops.

However, when it comes to our schools, the environment for learning — or what we refer to as school climate — has not changed much in generations. It is time for us to rethink that model.

A growing body of research underscores that we can and need to focus on the following three goals:

  • Make teaching and learning social, emotional, and civic, as well as academic;
  • Engage students, parents, and colleagues in intergenerational school improvement efforts designed to foster safer, more supportive, engaging, and healthy climates for learning in schools; and
  • Understand and address the spectrum of behaviors that undermine students, (and too often, teachers, as well) ability to feel safe in school.

Social-Emotional Learning

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is an instructional effort that focuses on promoting students’ social, emotional, and civic competencies, as well as their academic abilities. SEL district and state policies focus on learning standards and guidelines for teachers who want to understand what students need to know and be able to do, socially and emotionally, by grade level. A body of empirical research affirms that when teachers work to promote these competencies, students become more successful in school and in life.

Some will argue that SEL should not be the school’s responsibility. But when so many of the skills and knowledge that our students will need for future success depend on their ability to interact with other people, this is no longer an issue we can ignore. How many have worked on teams in which one uncooperative member undermines the work of the entire group? Think of how much more effective we could be if everyone was “self-aware, demonstrated empathy and respect for others, knew how to build relationships and communicate clearly” — key competencies of SEL?

It’s also important to recognize that SEL is not just one more subject for which we must find time in the school day. Fifteen years ago, SEL efforts focused on skill-based classroom instruction. But we know now that, to be most helpful, SEL efforts need to be in as many aspects of school life as possible.

School Climate Improvement

School climate refers to the quality and character of school life and is based on patterns of students’, school personnels’, and parents’ expectations, beliefs, social norms, teaching and learning practices, and organizational structures. Whereas SEL focuses on instruction, school climate improvement addresses how we can promote and coordinate a range of schoolwide, instructional, and relational efforts designed to create a classroom and school climate that supports school and life success.

The National School Climate Standards, developed in 2009 with input from many education organizations including NSBA, support school communities in addressing three questions: (1) What kind of school do we want? (2) What are our current strengths, needs, and challenges? (3) Given the inevitable gap between vision and current reality, what systemic, instructional, and relational improvement goals do we want to focus on now?

Many education organizations, including NSBA, have supported school climate change work for decades. Even so, school climate is not something to which we traditionally have paid a lot of attention. Until there is an incident, adults tend to assume that everything is fine. It is important that we gather good information from everyone in the school community, and be prepared for the fact that the perceptions of students, teachers, administrators, and parents will be very different.

While SEL and school climate have different focuses, they are similar in that they are improvement strategies that are intentional, strategic, data driven, and fundamentally collaborative. There are many specific schoolwide, instructional and/or relational school improvement goals that building and district leaders can focus on, depending on their understanding of what will build on past efforts or respond to current issues:

  • Schoolwide goals (including having a community shared vision, policy review and reform, measurement systems,
  • leadership development, codes of conduct, and more);
  • Instructional goals (such as SEL-informed instruction, being a helpful role model, disciplinary practices that support learning, and a range of pedagogic strategies); and,
  • Relational improvement goals (e.g., teacher-student, adult-adult, and student-student relations).

Here are a few ideas that we have found particularly important:

  • Avoid playing the blame game. It is so easy and, in some ways, so human to blame. But, blaming and shaming undermine the process of school boards and educators learning together and setting in motion substantive school improvement efforts.
  • Consider prioritizing student voice and meaningful inter-generational school improvement efforts. For example, is there a seat on your board for a student representative? If not, do you make it a practice to meet with student leaders on a regular basis? The added benefit of encouraging student voice is that it will help to prepare our students to be active and engaged citizens — one of the original goals of public education.
  • Make sure social norms support socially responsible behavior. Student rules and codes of conduct typically don’t focus on how we should respond when we see someone else hurting or being hurt. But, schools typically do have implicit social norms that make it Ok for students and adults alike to be bystanders rather than “upstanders.” This is one of the essential schoolwide improvement goals that prevent and minimize the range of hurtful behaviors that undermine people feeling safe in school: from moments of normal misunderstanding to bullying to even more extreme forms of disrespect, such as sexual harassment and assault.

Bully-Victim-Bystander Behavior

Today, every state and nearly every district has bully prevention laws and/or policies. Too often our bully prevention policies are focused on two goals: identifying the bully and punishing the bully. Obviously, we cannot allow student behavior (or teacher or administrator behavior, for that matter) that disrupts the learning environment, so there must be a mechanism for stopping this behavior.

But there are several problems with a reactive, punishment-based approach. First, a focus on identifying, reporting, and punishing the bully represents a major gap between current bully prevention policy and research. There is a range of individual as well as schoolwide practices that focus on learning rather than punishment and that have been shown to be much more helpful. Second, a “punish the behavior” approach may appear to have resolved today’s issue, but we will have done little to prevent a reoccurrence the day after tomorrow, because we haven’t addressed what caused the behavior in the first place. Third, a great deal of what is disruptive occurs out of sight of adults. The incident that is witnessed in the school hallway is probably just the tip of the iceberg.

Research underscores that sustained SEL and school climate improvement efforts provide the most important foundation for effective bully-victim-bystander prevention efforts.

Next Steps:

These findings suggest several suggested next steps for school board leaders:

  • Develop a shared vision about “what kind of school/district do we want ours to be?” Developing this “vision” and/or an understanding of the values that students, parents, and school personnel all have is a foundationally important first step in school reform efforts. This is important for the two following overlapping reasons: The community needs a shared goal, and, effective school improvement efforts are always—more rather than less—a student, family, and school personnel effort. In addition, when we support students and parents as well as school personnel in developing this vision, we are fostering engagement on the part of students, parents, and our colleagues to learn and work together.
  • Make sure your district’s disciplinary and bully prevention policies are aligned to current research findings. Consider developing a school climate policy. Model policies and road maps are available to support district leaders in doing just this.
  • Consider making knowledge and experience with school climate, SEL, restorative practices, and effective bully-victim-bystander prevention a factor when hiring new teachers and administrators.
  • Develop a strategy to provide staff professional development on integrating social-emotional learning into regular classroom instruction, including how to manage classrooms in democratically informed ways that focus on student engagement and restorative practices (rather than punishment). Encourage the development of professional learning communities and other forms of teacher collaboration.
  • Include prosocial measures (such as school climate surveys) as part of your accountability system. This will allow the community to understand the gaps between vision and current reality. School board leaders also have an opportunity — and, we would suggest as a responsibility — to ensure that data is used as a “flashlight” rather than a “hammer.”
  • Consider including students and parents in a review of your discipline codes to produce a set of behavioral guidelines. Use instruction that gives students authentic opportunities to contribute meaningfully (e.g., conflict resolution, service learning, moral dilemma discussions).
  • Embrace a multiyear framework that supports learning and continuous improvement: Schools—like people —will never be perfect. Research shows that meaningful school improvement takes time. Developing the necessary level of trust among professionals, parents, and students — the core of school improvement — may take years, particularly in schools that struggle with turnover.
  • Be clear about your goals, the strategies that you will use to achieve them, and the measurement that supports learning and improvement in an ongoing manner.
  • We understand that school leaders have limited resources at their disposal, and that our school systems have a limited capacity for change that can be handled at any one time. But we hope that we have made the case for the value of paying close attention to the quality of your school’s learning environment. 

David Hutchinson ( is in his 15th year as a member of Pennsylvania’s State College Area School District and the current president-elect of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. Jonathan Cohen ( is an adjunct professor with Teachers College, Columbia University; co-president of the International Observatory for School Climate and Violence Prevention; and a K-12 educational consultant.

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