School Climate Impacts Learning
A growing body of research demonstrates that a strong school climate is associated with positive youth development, effective risk prevention and health promotion efforts, student learning and academic achievement, increased graduation rates, and teacher retention.(1) As defined by the California Department of Education and WestEd, “school climate refers to the conditions or quality of the teaching and learning environment–as created by the community of people involved, their values, beliefs, and interpersonal relationships, and the physical setting itself–that affect the subjective school experiences, attitudes, behaviors, and performance of both students and staff. A positive school climate is one that is supportive, safe, caring, challenging, and participatory for all.”(2)
In California, 42% of 9th graders do not perceive school to be either a safe or very safe place for them to spend their time: over the past year, 37% reported that they had been made fun of because of how they look or talk, 39% reported that mean lies or rumors had been spread about them, and 46% reported that they had been the recipient of sexual comments, gestures, or jokes–while 30% reported being pushed, shoved, or hit and 21% reported being in a physical fight.(3) In addition, fewer than 50% of 9th graders experience high levels of other important features of a positive school climate: high expectations (47%); caring adult relationships at school (30%); and meaningful school participation (13%).(4) Given its well-documented impact on student health and learning, as well as on teacher retention, improvements to school climate are a clear priority.
To learn more about the research on school climate and its impact on student learning, see this 2010 brief from the National School Climate Center (formerly the Center for Social and Emotional Education).
School-Based Health Centers Can Play a Role
School-based health centers (SBHCs) and other school health professionals can play an important role in enhancing school climate, particularly in improving student behavior and rethinking disciplinary approaches. Recently, many schools have begun to move away from zero-tolerance disciplinary policies and to acknowledge the social, emotional, and physical factors that shape student behavior. Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) is an increasingly popular approach. It engages all stakeholders—including teachers, administrators, service providers, and families—in actively teaching and reinforcing expected behavior. PBIS prompts schools to identify and meet student needs that manifest as inappropriate behavior, reducing serious problems and improving overall climate.
Mental health specialists and other school health staff can be integral to the assessment process, through which the underlying causes of a student’s disruptive behavior are identified. SBHCs can also lead the implementation of alternative behavioral interventions, such as anger management sessions, leadership development programming, individual and group counseling sessions, and peer support groups. According to the Center for School, Health and Education at the American Public Health Association, SBHCs have a “natural role” and are a “powerful ally” in efforts to improve school climate.(5)
Resources for Practice
To learn more about how SBHCs can maximize their impact on student achievement, including through contributing to enhanced school climate, see our Ready, Set, Success! toolkit.
Logan and Tennyson Health Centers (Union City and Hayward, California)
Tiburcio Vasquez Health Center’s school clinics provide positive alternatives for students who, at many other schools, would receive disciplinary action. At Logan and Tennyson high schools, youth have the opportunity to participate in afterschool youth leadership and performance art programs instead of serving detention or suspension, or being expelled. The afterschool programs follow a gender-based curriculum and include a strong case management component. In almost all cases, about 90% of the time, students who attend afterschool programs and demonstrate positive behavior are given a second chance by the schools and school district.
The teachers and administrators at Logan and Tennyson High Schools are very supportive of the afterschool programs as an alternative to discipline. School health center leaders conducted a thorough orientation for school staff to the program, allowing them to explain its goals and approach, walking school staff through a universal referral process and necessary paperwork, and answering questions. Today, teachers and administrators make regular referrals to the school based health centers, both to find alternatives to detentions, suspensions, and expulsions, and to proactively address other behavior problems that impede learning.
Santa Maria High School (Santa Maria, California)
At Santa Maria High School, the school and school health center have developed a true collaborative partnership. Together, they provide a wide range of behavior-related support services. These services include: crisis intervention sessions; a grief group for students dealing with loss; a positive choices program, facilitated by adults and peer leaders; and ongoing opportunities for students to build important personal and social skills, such as the skills to foster strong relationships and maintain a healthy lifestyle. During the upcoming school year, Santa Maria High School will work with an outside partner agency, Fighting Back, to provide focused conflict resolution training to students with high levels of need.
The positive choices program is co-led by a school health center therapist and the school’s crisis intervention consultant. Together, students and staff talk about difficult real-world situations, discussing potential actions and their likely outcomes. Students learn how to communicate their emotions using strategies, like “I statements,” that will help them minimize conflict and engage in positive interpersonal interactions. The positive choices program helps students as they develop into caring, responsible adults. It’s not about never messing up, the staff emphasize, but rather about knowing how to grow when you do.
The positive choices program, like other programs offered at Santa Maria High School, supports students in focusing on learning and achieving great things. One student who has a lot of gang influence in his home has committed to a peaceful lifestyle and on-time high school graduation. While the credit for this decision is his alone, health center staff are there to support him every step of the way. They are available when he needs to talk. They help connect him to other men who have chosen to walk away from gangs and who can therefore provide first hand advice and guidance. And, as he becomes more confident and outgoing, they are hoping to support him in becoming a leader able to motivate his peers.
(1) Center for Social and Emotional Education. (2010). School Climate Research Summary: January 2010.http://www.schoolclimate.org/climate/documents/SCBrief_v1n1_Jan2010.pdf.
(2) WestEd. (2010). Workbook for Improving School Climate and Closing the Achievement Gap: Using your California Healthy Kids and & California School Climate Surveys. http://www.wested.org/online_pubs/WB_1221_allv5.pdf.
(3) WestEd. (2010). California Healthy Kids Survey: Weighted Statewide Secondary 2008-2010 Main Report. http://chks.wested.org/resources/Secondary_State_0810_Main.pdf.
(4) WestEd. (2010). California Healthy Kids Survey: Weighted Statewide Secondary 2008-2010 Main Report. http://chks.wested.org/resources/Secondary_State_0810_Main.pdf.
(5) Center for School, Health and Education, at the American Public Health Association. (2011). School Climate, School Success and the Role of School-Based Health Care. http://www.schoolbasedhealthcare.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/APHA4_article_SchoolClimate_9_14_FINALlores.pdf.