4 Ways to Build a Positive K-12 School Climate

Build a better K-12 school climate for students, families, and staff by addressing the academic, social, community, and physical learning environment.

In recent years, school districts have weathered a host of challenges related to health and safety, violence, politics, and unfinished learning. These events have negatively impacted the well-being of students, families, and educators, all of which affect the overall K-12 school climate. School climate is a multi-faceted topic that may be hard to understand without knowing what exactly contributes to a positive one.

A positive school climate is one that strategically promotes a constructive academic environment, family-community inclusivity, healthy social-emotional environment, and safe-building conditions. Use the following insights to develop a comprehensive, data-based strategy to bolster all aspects of a positive climate.

Fixing A Negative K-12 Academic Environment

The academic environment of a school refers to the quality of instruction, attitudes toward learning, and level of resources and accommodations for all students. A negative academic environment results in lower rates of achievement, leading to distrust in educators and lower academic self-confidence in students. In fact, only 34% of secondary school students agree that their student body is motivated to learn. This may have a domino effect on a school’s climate, resulting in collective demotivation.

Resource inequities also influence the state of K-12 academic environments. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted long-standing academic resource inequities as they relate to internet accessibility. With many families struggling to make ends meet, districts should prepare to manage other resource gaps as well such as backpacks, school supplies, and other learning tools.

Teachers and staff must have adequate training to understand the factors that contribute to a negative academic environment and solutions to help remediate it. By promoting teacher learning, districts can foster a collective effort to bridge achievement gaps. In order to fix a negative academic environment, consider the following takeaways:

  • Motivate students by encouraging all educators and staff to model a growth mindset, focusing on goals and achievements rather than shortcomings.
  • Conduct a climate survey to identify equity gaps in learning resources and programming.
Effective learning interventions are an essential part of a healthy academic environment. Accelerate student success with these best practices in math interventions.

Community Inclusivity Builds a Positive Climate

Creating an inclusive school community can unite all groups within a district — students, families, teachers, and staff — to restore trust and shared values that were lost or not even there to begin with. One sign of a poor school community environment is a lack of transparency and consensus among various groups. Half of secondary students report feeling as if they do not belong. By contrast, educators and parents tend to significantly overestimate the rates of belonging within their schools. 74% and 87% respectively report that they believe their students do feel a sense of belonging. This disconnect suggests that many schools lack frameworks to promote transparency and fully understand the state of their climate.

Without a connection to student and family voices, all other aspects of K-12 school climate may suffer. If students do not feel comfortable voicing their concerns, districts lack the understanding and insights needed to improve their climate. Similarly, climate falters when parents and educators lack avenues of communication with district leadership, limiting their ability to advocate for themselves and their students.

Districts must create community-appropriate ways to invite and empower students, family, and staff to engage with schools by considering the following modes of action:

  • Provide clear, accessible platforms for students and families to voice their ideas and concerns. Regularly collect this information and be prepared to make specific adjustments tailored to school concerns.
  • Allow communities to take an active role in improvement efforts through focus groups, surveys, and participatory meetings, with an emphasis on cultural understanding.
  • Promote teacher agency by bolstering the lines of communication to leadership and honoring the input of teachers in decision-making processes.
Searching for a way to strengthen community connections? Start with our Engaging Families and Communities in K-12 Education infographic.

Repairing the K-12 Social Environment

As district leaders and educators know, the COVID -19 pandemic drastically altered crucial years of social development for many students. Strikingly, more than 80% of public schools cite the pandemic’s negative impact on student social-emotional health. Additionally, disparities in discipline practices continue to negatively impact school climate for students of color, especially Black students. Moreover, disproportionate means of behavioral management lead to distrust and low feelings of self-worth.

Many students need tools to manage emotions, build social connections, and tolerate differences and conflict in a healthy way to succeed at school. Social Emotional Learning (SEL) encompasses the soft skills needed to foster a positive social environment. Leading childhood development researchers continue to study and explore the importance of SEL. By helping students create frequent, meaningful, and positive connections in the wake of COVID-19 and other hardships, schools may improve all other aspects of a positive K-12 school climate.

By promoting SEL, students can learn skills to foster meaningful connections and mutual understanding, creating a culture that minimizes alienation or bullying. Districts should also monitor current disciplinary processes to identify behavior management gaps.

To set their schools up for success, district leaders should allocate resources to conduct climate surveys that measure social-emotional competencies. By using data to create measurable action plans, districts can better understand where and why students may need more social-emotional support resources. District leaders must also recognize how social-emotional gaps may be experienced by identity. Consider creating a framework for analyzing behavioral and conflict management that recognizes historically marginalized student experiences.

Learn more about the ‘how’ and ‘what’ of incorporating social-emotional learning into your school climate repair plan with our Social Emotional Program Planning Guide.

Physical Building Environment Significantly Influences K–12 Climate

When school building environments are not managed properly, they can lead to a cascade of issues related to physical or emotional safety, learning disruptions, absenteeism, or even inequitable practices. For example, inadequate facilities can place an undue burden on the 15% percent of public school students with disabilities. Student-led walkouts have also become a growing movement for students who feel frustration toward their schools’ or localities’ management of gun violence and even sexual assault. Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cite a significant increase in students missing school due to safety concerns, over the last 10 years.

Maximizing quality, safety, and security within students’ physical surroundings helps promote attendance, engagement, well-being, and school pride. Districts must realize that schools cannot repair their academic, community, and social-emotional environments when students do not feel a physical sense of comfort, safety, and security.

Districts should not only consider implementing data-backed, inclusive solutions but also provide resources to monitor their effectiveness. Hanover Research recommends the following tips when managing the school building environment:

  • Create a staff culture that values the cleanliness and comfort of school facilities, emphasizing its direct relationship to overall school climate and student well-being. Make sure to provide training on how facilities impact those with disabilities, such as sensory-based considerations for students with sensory processing disorders.
  • Honor the needs of students, families, and staff by providing clear processes for reporting hazards and incidents, bolstering accountability.
  • Aim to create schools with warm, inviting, and accepting classrooms for students to bring their whole selves to class, providing effective ways for students to express themselves.
Learn more about how to promote a safe and supportive physical environment for all students with our School Safety and Security Audit Framework .

The Synergy of a Well-Balanced K-12 School Climate

The issue of school climate cannot be mediated by a single, “silver bullet” solution. Districts should not expect to meet their goals by only managing a singular dimension of school climate.  All four areas of school climate — the academic, community, social-emotional, and building environment — impact one another in significant ways. In the wake of adverse experiences from the COVID-19 pandemic, school violence, and mental health concerns, leaders must view their school climate holistically. Rebuilding trust and promoting academic achievement in 2023–24 requires a comprehensive approach to all areas of a school’s learning environment.

Repairing K–12 climate requires teamwork and data from all angles. Set your district up for success by learning about The Why and How of a Positive School Climate in 2023.

All students can benefit from a well-balanced K-12 school climate.

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