Safe and supportive K–12 schools that encourage caring relationships are critical to student success. Follow these tips to repair school climate and increase a sense of belonging.
When K–12 students experience learning in an environment that’s safe, supportive, and full of caring relationships, they flourish. Known as school climate, this aspect of education isn’t just critical to student success: It also greatly affects the experiences of staff and families. After all, a negative school climate increases teacher turnover, discourages family engagement, and curtails effective leadership. It’s clear that stressors related to the pandemic, school violence, institutional racism, and increased politicization are further straining school climate across the country.
To solve this problem, it’s essential for district and school leaders to acknowledge how the experiences of students, staff, and families are interrelated and contribute to school climate.
The Current State of School Climate in U.S. Public Schools
According to Hanover’s 2022 national climate survey findings, the overall emotional climate in primary schools is positive (with 93% of staff and 87% of parents reporting that students feel welcome at school). However, at the middle school and high school levels, there’s less agreement among staff, students, and parents about the current state of the emotional climate. For example, 74% of secondary school staff and 67% of parents think their students feel like they belong at school, while only 54% of students say the same.
So, what should educational leaders do to strengthen their school climate? First, let’s identify what a positive climate looks like, then we’ll share proven practices to strengthen student, staff, and family belonging.
Characteristics of a Positive K–12 School Climate
At some schools, a positive climate might be strengthened through frequent feel-good events such as family nights or readathons. At others, a school-wide emphasis on project-based student learning and teacher autonomy may lead to greater climate satisfaction. While school climate can be addressed differently depending on the needs and norms of a school or district community, those with a positive and inclusive atmosphere share at least three common characteristics:
- Students, staff, families, and leaders feel a sense of belonging
- Students, staff, families, and leaders understand their roles and appropriate ways to be involved
- The leadership is transparent about decision-making and communicates with other groups frequently, using multiple modes of communication
See a summary of the best methods for assessing your school climate. Download The Why and How of a Positive School Climate infographic.
Conduct a School Climate Survey to Understand Student, Parent, and Staff Perceptions
To address school climate, district and school leaders must first understand how all parties feel about their school and district. Conduct a survey with your staff, parents, caregivers, and students to assess how they feel about the current climate.
To help districts and schools begin this process, Hanover Research developed a standardized K–12 Climate Survey that educational leaders can use to assess community perceptions of their school/building environment, academic environment, social environment, and sense of inclusiveness. Before you begin the survey, establish a plan for what you will do with the findings and how you will communicate about it with each group in your community.
If a comprehensive district- or school-wide survey isn’t something you can do immediately, you can also look for other ways to assess how people are feeling about the current climate. For instance, ask individuals and groups in meetings or in informal online polls how they’re feeling and what they need right now to succeed in their roles. Find out what kind of support they would welcome. Learn what would increase their sense of belonging. Make space for others to share how they think the district or school community can work together better.
Foster a Greater Sense of Belonging and Inclusion in Your K–12 Community
A strong school climate naturally develops when staff, students, and families feel like they belong. Consider various ways you can intentionally invite, engage, and include more groups into the life of the school and district with the following tips.
- As a leader, look for ways to demonstrate that you support and trust your staff members. Trust and respect are two-way streets: The more they feel trusted to do their job, the more they will trust you to do yours.
- Provide teachers with adequate time to focus on classroom learning and management. When they must take on additional responsibilities or commitments outside of the classroom, take a moment to measure each extra task against the district’s or school’s values to ensure there’s alignment. Alternatively, you can prioritize extra duties or tasks by ranking them as “must do” versus “may do” activities, or “A+ effort” versus “pass/fail” tasks.
- Provide all levels of staff with robust professional development opportunities to support their growth, learning, and job satisfaction.
- Help staff understand the rationale behind district- or school-wide decisions, especially if they weren’t directly involved in the decision-making. Even if they don’t agree with the outcome, the more they can understand what factors and perspectives were considered, the more they will be able to accept a decision.
- Speak openly with staff about the school climate — including during hiring interviews — and help prospective employees understand if it’s an environment in which they would thrive.
- Students need teachers who can give classrooms their full, undivided attention. As mentioned above, avoid overpacking teacher schedules so the classroom can remain their primary focus.
- Ensure students have adequate resources to support their academic, social, and physical well-being.
- Provide appropriate ways for students to give input on what they would like to see happen in their school.
- Students should also hear leaders and staff speak openly about the school climate and understand how they fit into it.
For parents and caregivers:
- Make it easy for family members to understand how to appropriately engage with the school and district. At the start of the school year, establish boundaries and opportunities for families to connect with teaching and administrative staff.
- Provide multiple ways for parents to receive information from the school and district and to provide their feedback.
- Like staff, parents and caregivers should understand the rationale used in decision-making when a change affects them or their children. Provide opportunities to share why a decision was made and explain how the impact on families was considered when making it.
- Just like staff and students, families should hear leaders talk openly about the school climate and understand how they fit into it.
Learn best practices for retaining staff and preventing teacher burnout with our Staff Well-Being Check-In Toolkit.
In a school or district, everyone deserves to feel included, supported, and safe. One of the best ways to deliver on that promise is to regularly ask staff, students, and parents what they need to be engaged and productive members of the learning community.
When the community provides input via surveys or other means, listen to their responses, trust their perspectives, and be prepared to act on the information you receive. Share the findings with the community and explain how you’ll incorporate their feedback to create meaningful change. These steps will go a long way toward creating a more positive school climate, and it all starts with leaders who help make others feel like they belong exactly where they are.