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School Climate and Emergencies

“School climate” describes a range of campus conditions, including safety, relationships and engagement, and the environment, that may influence student learning and well-being. Positive school climates that promote student learning and well-being often feature:

  • Safe environments free of violence, bullying, harassment, and substance use;
  • Appropriate facilities and physical surroundings;
  • Supportive academic settings;
  • Clear and fair disciplinary policies;
  • Respectful, trusting, and caring relationships throughout the school community; and
  • Available social, emotional, and behavioral supports.

Positive school climates are inclusive of and responsive to students of all backgrounds, regardless of race, color, national origin, language, disability, religion, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

Research shows that creating positive school climates can help districts, schools, and teachers meet key goals, including: boosting student achievement and closing achievement gaps; increasing high school graduation rates; decreasing teacher turnover and increasing teacher satisfaction; and turning around low-performing schools. Positive school climates also enhance safety in the school and community by increasing communication between students, families, and faculty. At the same time, schools reduce various forms of harm to students that can stem from negative school climates, including violence, bullying, and even suicide.

A positive school climate that provides students with ready access to emotional and behavioral supports can affect the capacity of students and staff to prevent, respond to, and recover from emergencies.

  • Prevention

    A positive school climate can help to prevent emergencies because it can reduce the incidence of behaviors that can contribute to crisis (e.g., violence, bullying, harassment, substance abuse). Further, schools with positive school climates engage students in developing strong relationships with staff and peers, increasing the likelihood that students will quickly report potential threats to trusted adults within the school.

  • Response

    Schools with positive school climates teach students the social and emotional competencies that enable them to develop persistence, tolerance of frustration, and ability to manage their emotions during an emergency. The teachers, counselors, school resources officers, and other staff who create positive school climates train regularly on child and adolescent development, and on how to respond appropriately to a variety of student behaviors so they are able to de-escalate aggressive behavior before it becomes a threat to school safety.

  • Recovery

    A positive school climate can help in the recovery from an emergency because it represents a commitment, even prior to an emergency, to providing emotional and mental health services and supports to all members of the community. Schools with such a climate create an environment that recognizes the importance of social and emotional health, and so support the recovery of all members of the school community and promote an understanding that individual needs will vary in a post-emergency situation.

The following steps when implemented as part of a single, comprehensive, and integrated strategy for improving student health and safety will help schools promote a positive school climate.

Conduct a Comprehensive Needs Assessment

School communities are complex systems that include multiple stakeholders and interconnecting environmental factors that influence student health and safety. As such, comprehensive needs assessments of school climate including school engagement, school safety, and the school environment as elements to be evaluated can provide schools with the data support needed to pursue comprehensive approaches to improving school climate. A comprehensive picture of school health and safety can be created by utilizing needs assessments that include student perceptions and, where appropriate, parent and staff perceptions, to help schools identify key issues in need of attention. By monitoring indicators such as the frequency and severity of student risk behaviors, and perceptions of their safety, schools may identify threats to school safety and then use this information to implement the appropriate intervention or program to improve school safety. These data can be most effective when they are used regularly for decision-making and are disaggregated by different groups to determine how they experience the school environment. If a student survey is used to assess culture and climate, student privacy must be protected, including in accordance with the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment, 20 U.S.C. 1232, if applicable.

Use Multi-Tiered Interventions and Supports

School climate can be enhanced by a data-driven, multi-tiered framework that provides a continuum of behavioral supports and interventions to improve student behavior and achievement. A three-tiered framework would comprise the following:

  1. School wide or universal interventions and supports focus both on developing expected behaviors and social-emotional competence, and on preventing problem behavior.

  2. A second tier of interventions targets groups of students who are at elevated levels of risk or exhibiting problem behavior (such as bullying). These groups of students can be identified more easily, and their needs or behavior can be addressed more effectively when a school wide foundation is in place.

  3. A third tier of interventions targets individual students, including traumatized youths, who are at even more elevated levels of academic and social-emotional behavioral need and risk.

While interventions for students who are at elevated levels of risk address their needs and problem behaviors, they should also build the skills that support thriving in life and resiliency in crisis. Using an evidence-based, multi-tiered behavioral framework has been found to improve school climate by reducing problem behaviors like bullying, drug abuse, and poor attendance, while making students feel safer and improving academic performance. Implementation of a school-wide framework provides a structure for schools in which to customize and organize the varied practices and programs they need to provide to their students based on data on student needs and local resources. Further, such a framework may help schools to better identify students struggling with trauma post-event, and select appropriate interventions to help them to recover.

Promote Social and Emotional Competencies

Social and emotional learning is important to enable individuals to learn to understand and manage their emotions and relationships, and to make good decisions. Social-emotional learning can help individuals stop and think before they react, control their response to stress, develop supportive and caring relationships, persist through challenge, seek help, and pay attention to theirs and others’ needs and feelings. These and other social and emotional competencies can help individuals prepare for and respond to emergencies. Students are more likely to develop such competencies when they have good relationships with adults, and when the adults model these competencies.

Related Resources

Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Supports

Harassment and Bullying Prevention

Violence and Suicide Prevention

Facilities and Physical Surroundings

Disciplinary Policies

Culture and Climate Assessments