School Climate: Creating Spaces Conducive to Children’s Learning

A school's climate can have big effects on children's learning, via commons.wikimedia.org

We often talk about a student’s love of learning as being crucial for their success in school. But what about their love of school itself? In recent years, educators have begun thinking more and more about the impact that a school’s feeling can have on how well children perform, something experts call “school climate.” Broadly defined, school climate encompasses “the feelings and attitudes elicited by a school’s environment”. These emotions create a subjective viewpoint for students, parents, and faculty members towards the school that shapes how much they feel tied to the institution.

Although school climate has yet to be defined or understood concretely, its effects are already palpable: research has shown that perceptions of school climate play a role in student’s academic achievement and motivation in school. A Positive school climate has also bridged the gap between students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and those from higher ones, and has been found to decrease student absences, suspensions, and bullying while boosting students’ psychological well-being. Teachers working in positive climates also burn out less, indicating that these climates produce happier community members all around.

So what exactly goes into a positive school climate? Fortunately, there’s no connection between school climate and socioeconomic status of the school’s members, meaning that a positive climate can be cultivated almost anywhere. The main factors lie across three dimensions: physical, social, and academic. Physical components include keeping up the school’s internal and external appearance, having a low student-to-teacher ratio, as well as ensuring the safety and comfort in the building. Social dimensions encapsulate how strong relationships between students, teachers, and other faculty are; how fair students are treated; how competitive students are with each other; and how involved community members are in decision-making processes at the school. Academic dimensions include the quality of teaching, expectations for student achievement, and the careful tracking and following up on student progress with parents and students.

The common link between these three dimensions of school climate and how they influence child outcomes lies with school connectedness. School connectedness is formed when students view themselves as belonging in the school and having close relationships with other students and faculty. Essentially, a positive school climate will cause kids to feel safe and comfortable within the school and thus develop a connection with it. This connection is what enables schools to successfully protect their students and direct them towards effective learning.

An example of results from a climate survey

An example of results from a climate survey, via rischools.wikispaces.com

Schools can take several steps towards developing a better school climate. Although it’s important to recognize that not all school members react to the climate the same way, this subjective experience provides one easy in for administrators: by assessing how students feel through climate surveys, schools can hear diverse opinions and ensure that all members of the community have a voice in its development. Diversity of experiences within schools can also be addressed inside classrooms: making sure lesson plans and books are available that depict the lives of all different types of students at the school helps create a more inclusive space, one in which every child feels an equal sense of importance. Schools can foster happiness and a sense of common identity in other ways as well: one school greatly improved its climate when it began having daily dance parties and assemblies in which community members sang and learned about artists and cities. Simply by celebrating the work done by students and faculty members, schools can make people feel like they are part of a supportive and joyful environment.

There is still a lot to learn about exactly how to define and measure a school’s climate. We still do not know the direct causal relation between a school’s climate and a student’s success, and it is important to remember that one model will not work for every school; given the different attributes of communities across the world, schools must understand where they fit into the local landscape so they can best meet the needs of the students they service. But making the effort to connect members of the school community has already been worth it: attendance has shot up at schools where teachers are better connected with families, and one teacher noted that kids performed better on her assessments after she made home visits with their families. Ultimately, interactions coming from a place of love seem to have the greatest impact.

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