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date: 24 March 2018

School Climate and School Social Work Practice

Abstract and Keywords

School climate is critical for school improvement efforts, yet questions remain regarding how best to define and measure the construct. Research demonstrates relationships between a positive school climate and important youth development and academic learning outcomes. As school climate policies continue to develop, clarification regarding the dimensions of school climate and continued research on how school climate impacts school and student outcomes remains important.

Keywords: school climate, school climate policy, school climate research, school climate interventions, school climate definitions, measurement, school social worker, school social work practice, Tier 1 interventions, primary prevention, school improvement

Fostering a positive school climate is critical for social work practice in the school setting (Frey et al., 2013; Iachini, 2015). The national model of school social work practice advanced by the School Social Work Association of America along with the NASW standards for school social work services emphasize this important area of practice (Frey et al., 2013; NASW, 2012). This chapter aims to synthesize some key topical issues related to school climate. First, we begin by discussing how the definition of school climate has evolved over time. Next, we synthesize the research on school climate and discuss how school climate strategies fit within the current emphasis in schools on developing multi-tiered systems of support. We then discuss how to measure school climate and synthesize policy interventions to improve school climate. We conclude with implications for school climate research, practice, and policy.

Definitions of School Climate

Since the early 20th century, educational researchers and practitioners increasingly recognize the protective role that a positive school climate plays in the social, emotional, and academic development of youth (National School Climate Council (NSCC), 2007). Despite the wide interest and growing empirical evidence indicating the benefits garnered by students who attend schools with positive school climates, defining school climate has been an ongoing challenge.

Early definitions of school climate emphasized teachers’ and other staff members’ perceptions and experiences in the school. Halpin and Croft (1963), pioneers of school climate research, defined the organizational climate of the school as teachers’ perceptions of the school’s personality. The school’s personality was viewed along a continuum from open to closed, and was grounded in the collective perception of teachers regarding their school routine, their behavior in school, and social interactions between teachers and between teachers and principals (Halpin & Croft, 1963).

Subsequent research into school climate emphasized student perspectives of the school, and broadened terminology usage and concepts to include relationships within the school and fairness of school rules in school climate definitions. For example, building on previous research of Pyper and his associates (Pyper, Freiberg, Ginsburg, & Spuck, 1987), Simons-Morton and Crump (2003) refer to climate as the unique culture or personality of the school, formed through the interaction among the physical setting, organizational factors, and human relations at school. Thus, according to this definition, school climate is the students’ perceptions of teacher support, clarity and enforcement of school rules, and respectful relations among students (Pyper et al., 1987).

A positive school climate also has been equated with a healthy school (Hoy & Hannum, 1997). A healthy school is one in which there is harmony across the technical (teaching and learning), managerial (the internal coordination of the school), and institutional levels (connections between the school and the community) of the school. In healthy schools, the students, teachers, administrative staff, and community work together, constructively, and in full cooperation (Hoy & Hannum, 1997). Here again, a healthy school climate is a property of the school environment that is collectively experienced by its members and affects their behavior. Latter definitions of school climate expanded to capture other important aspects of students’ experiences at school. These include support for and sensitivity to cultural pluralism and diversity, and an experience of a safe school environment (Brand, Felner, Shim, Seitsinger, & Dumas, 2003). In addition, subsequent operationalization of school climate acknowledged the importance of the perceptions of the entire school community, including how school leadership, teachers and other staff members, the students, and their parents and families experience the climate of their school (Bear, Yang, Mantz, Pasipanodya, & Boyer, 2014; Brand, Felner, Seitsinger, Burns, & Bolton, 2008).

As a way to provide a broad and comprehensive definition for school climate that was inclusive of all of these previously identified important aspects of school climate, a group of researchers, policy makers, and representatives of the U.S. Department of Education from the Safe and Supportive School Center proposed a model for school climate evaluation termed the “Safe and Supportive Schools Model.” In this model, a positive school climate is the product of a school’s attention to fostering safety; to promoting a supportive academic, disciplinary, and physical environment; and to encouraging and maintaining respectful, trusting, and caring relationships throughout the school community. Specifically, three main dimensions are emphasized: Engagement (strong relationships between students, teachers, families, and schools and strong connections between schools and the broader community); Safety (schools and school-related activities where students are safe from violence, bullying, harassment, and controlled-substance use); and Environment (appropriate facilities; well-managed classrooms; available school-based health supports; and a clear, fair disciplinary policy; Safe Supportive Learning, 2015).

Another definition from the National School Climate Council (2007) is also much broader, and covers all of the elements of school climate suggested in previous definitions. According to the NSCC (2007):

School climate is based on patterns of people’s experiences of school life and reflects norms, goals, values, interpersonal relationships, teaching and learning practices, and organizational structures. A sustainable, positive school climate fosters youth development and learning necessary for a productive, contributive, and satisfying life in a democratic society. This climate includes norms, values, and expectations that support people feeling socially, emotionally and physically safe. People are engaged and respected. Students, families and educators work together to develop, live, and contribute to a shared school vision. Educators model and nurture an attitude that emphasizes the benefits of, and satisfaction from, learning. Each person contributes to the operations of the school as well as to the care of the physical environment.”

(p. 5)

In summary, this brief review of school climate definitions exposes differences in how the term has been defined and conceptualized across the decades. The next section synthesizes research on school climate and continues to highlight variation in how school climate is defined.

Research on School Climate

Despite the definitional challenges associated with school climate, the relationship between school climate and academic achievement has been widely researched (Osher, Spier, Kendziora, & Cai, 2009; Shindler, Jones, Taylor, & Cadenas, 2004; Shindler, Jones, Williams, Taylor, & Cadenas, 2009). Several studies have demonstrated that a higher quality climate is associated with higher academic achievements (Shindler et al., 2009). Findings also show that a supportive school climate is associated with behaviors such as cooperative learning and respect (Thapa, Cohen, Guffey, & Higgins-D’Allesandro, 2013). Specific school climate dimensions, such as student-teacher relationships and agreement with the school’s norms and values, have also been linked to advancements in academic achievements (Thapa et al., 2013). Research also suggests that school climate may play a pivotal role in moderating, mediating, or compensating for low SES background on academic achievement outcomes. In a literature review that examined the role of school climate in the context of social-economic background and academic achievements, it was found that school climate can predict academic achievements, regardless of the socioeconomic status (SES) of the students, community, and schools (Berkowitz, Moore, & Astor, 2015). Literature also shows that a supportive school climate is especially beneficial among oppressed populations (Astor, Benbenishty, & Estrada, 2009; Berkowitz et al., 2015).

There also is a large body of literature related to bullying, which is sometimes conceptualized as a negative aspect of school climate and academic achievement. Bullying has been found associated with lower academic achievements and higher rates of school dropout (Glew, Fan, Katon, Rivara, & Kernic, 2005; Pitner, Astor, & Benbenishty, 2015; Swearer, Espelage, Vaillancourt, & Hymel, 2010). School climate also was found to be a protective factor when it comes to bullying and related problems, meaning that the more supportive the school climate, the less bullying and other aggressive and violent behaviors are demonstrated in schools (Swearer et al., 2010; Espelage & Swearer, 2009). Therefore, a positive school climate may potentially influence the levels of bullying and violence in schools, which in turn may impact the academic achievements of students in school.

Research also consistently demonstrates that a supportive school climate has positive associations with students’ emotional, mental health, physical health, and behavioral outcomes (Thapa et al., 2013). A supportive school climate and positive perceived school-climate dimensions are associated with higher self-esteem among students, lower levels of depressive symptoms, and better behavioral adjustment (Brand et al., 2003; Roeser, Eccles, & Sameroff, 1998; Way, Reddy, & Rhodes, 2007; Thapa et al., 2013). A supportive school climate also has been found positively associated with different mental health outcomes (Kuperminic, Leadbeater, Emmons, & Blatt, 1997; Payton et al., 2008; Shochet, Dadds, Ham, & Montague, 2006; Thapa et al., 2013). Research conducted with high school students also suggests that a supportive school climate is associated with less reports of psychiatric problems (LaRusso, Romer, & Selman, 2008; Thapa et al., 2013). Studies also have found that school climate has important implications for substance use. For instance, studies have found that student feelings of low school connectedness in early secondary school is associated with substance use in later years in school (Bond et al., 2007; McNeely & Falci, 2004).

School Climate and Multi-Tiered Systems of Support

As research demonstrates the positive association between a healthy school climate and a range of important educational and well-being outcomes, the promotion of a positive school climate is central to educational improvement efforts. Many schools utilize a multi-tiered systems and support (MTSS) framework to conceptualize the types of programs and services they offer to support students’ academic success and overall healthy development as part of these educational improvement efforts (Barrett, Eber, & Weist, n.d.; Kelly et al., 2010). Within an MTSS framework, programs are often categorized within three tiers (i.e., Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3). Tier 1 programs (often referred to as prevention/promotion programs) are those provided to all students, whereas Tier 2 (early intervention) and Tier 3 (intervention/treatment) programs are those programs that target specific students who may need additional and more individualized support. Efforts to promote a positive school climate fit within this Tier 1 category structure, as these programs are often offered schoolwide or in classrooms to all students. Common Tier 1 programs that target different aspects of school climate include bullying prevention/violence prevention programs, social-emotional learning programs, character education programs, and schoolwide behavioral management strategies. Evidence-based practice websites, such as the What Works Clearinghouse and Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development, synthesize a plethora of existing evidence-based programs that target these different school climate dimensions.

Measurement of School Climate

Because school climate is a centerpiece of many school reform efforts, and specifically Tier 1 prevention and promotion strategies, measuring school climate is important for school social work practitioners and researchers. And, because there is not a clear consensus on the definition of school climate, there are a plethora of tools available that assess different dimensions of the construct. In addition, these tools measure school climate from the perspectives of different stakeholder groups (e.g., students, teachers, parents, etc.). For school social work researchers and practitioners, then, the challenge becomes which of these measures to choose.

There are several critical considerations for school social work researchers and practitioners when selecting a school climate measurement strategy. The first is to identify what specific dimensions of school climate need to be assessed. For example, the Comprehensive School Climate Inventory assesses dimensions such as sense of social-emotional security and respect for diversity (NSCC, 2015). The Community and Youth Collaborative Institute School Experience Family of Surveys, on the other hand, assesses dimensions such as academic press and safety (Anderson‐Butcher, Amorose, Iachini, & Ball, 2013). The Inventory of School Climate-Student (ISC-S), developed by Brand and associates (2003), incorporates parameters pertaining to school safety, support for cultural pluralism, teacher support, consistency and clarity of rules and expectations, student achievement orientation, peer positive and negative interactions, disciplinary harshness, student input in decision making, and instructional innovation/relevance measures. While it is beyond the scope of this chapter to review all of the available school climate measures, it is important to note that there is a School Climate Survey Compendia available through the National Center on Safe and Supportive Learning Environments (2013) that provides a comprehensive list of valid and reliable school climate measures. In addition, Clifford, Menon, Gangi, Condon, and Hornung (2012) and Kohl, Recchia, and Steffgen (2013) also provide comprehensive lists of school climate measures.

One recommendation made by the NSCC and National School Climate Center, grounded in a very broad definition of school climate, is that there are four major areas that school climate assessments should include: (1) Safety Rules and Norms, including sense of physical security, and sense of social-emotional security; (2) Teaching and Learning, including support for learning, and social and civic learning; (3) Interpersonal Relationships, including respect for diversity, social support from adults and from students; (4) Institutional Environment, including students’ sense of engagement and connectedness to the school and the physical surrounding of the school. Again, given the diversity in definitions of school climate, it is critical to understand what dimensions of school climate each measure assesses for, and then select one that fits the school context accordingly. For example, a school social work researcher might be interested in evaluating the effectiveness of a school climate intervention on improving students’ feelings of school connectedness and sense of emotional safety in school. As such, this researcher would want to ensure they selected a tool that assesses these two dimensions of school climate. Likewise, a practitioner might be interested in understanding perceptions of emotional and physical safety in the school setting. Given this, the practitioner would want to make sure to select a measurement tool that assesses these aspects of school climate.

Another critical consideration in the selection of a school climate measurement strategy is whose perspective to assess (Iachini, 2015). In the past, teachers were a critical source of information to understand a school’s climate. Over time, however, there has been acknowledgment that it is critical to gain the perspectives of different members of the school community (e.g., teachers, students, parents, community members, etc.) regarding school climate. As such, there are tools available that can assess the school climate perceptions of each of these stakeholder groups. Moreover, some tools are available in different versions to assess these multiple perspectives. For example, various versions of the Delaware School Climate Surveys were developed, with one developed for students (Bear, Gaskin, Blank, & Chen, 2011; Bear, Yang, Mantz, & Pasipanodya, 2014; DSCS-S), another for teachers (Bear, Yang, Pell, & Gaskins, 2014; DSCS-T), and a third for parents (Bear, Yang, & Pasipanodya, 2014; DSCS-H). And, because school climate is sometimes assessed as part of evaluating a specific intervention, the selection criteria regarding whose perspective to assess may relate to the theory of change underlying the intervention. For instance, if the intervention is expected to change the students’ perceptions as to how supportive their staff is, it would be reasonable to assess students’ perceptions of climate. When interventions attempt to include parents and engage them in school, one may consider adding the parents’ perspectives. For example, if a school social work researcher is evaluating the effectiveness of a bullying prevention offered in the school, it would be important to select a tool that assesses students’ perceptions. If a school social work practitioner was interested in assessing school climate more broadly in their school as part of a needs assessment process, then selecting a tool that can assess student, parent, and teacher/school staff perspectives may be critical.

There are several other considerations in the selection of school climate assessment tools that are important to note. Some tools are available in the public domain and are therefore free of charge to use (e.g., the Academic Optimism of Schools Surveys; the American Institutes for Research Conditions for Learning Survey; the California Healthy Kids Survey). Others, however, can only be used when they are purchased. In addition, some tools are available online, while others are available only in paper-and-pencil formats. And, some tools are available in other languages (such as Spanish), while some are only available in English. Both school social work researchers and practitioners need to consider these differences when selecting a tool. For example, if resources are limited, then both practitioner and researchers would have to consider which tool might work best that is free and in the public domain.

Overall, measuring school climate is critical for both school social work practitioners and researchers. The considerations highlighted here demonstrate the complexity of the decision-making process in selecting a measurement tool to assess school climate.

School Climate Policy

Overall, school climate is a major interest internationally, both in terms of policy and intervention. The perception of what school climate is varies between the different countries, however, and much of this relates to existing educational and related school climate policies. In the United States, for example, while school climate is recognized as a critical issue for schools and for youth success in this setting, policy development on school climate has lagged behind the research evidence (Cohen, McCabe, Michelli, & Pickeral, 2009). Cohen et al. (2009) conducted a policy analysis and found that many states in the United States do not integrate school climate into school improvement and accountability systems. They also found that many states only include school climate issues as they relate to safety, health, or special educational programs or policies. Part of this stems from an emphasis on standardized testing that was fostered through the No Child Left Behind Act (2001). This is troubling because if schools are not held accountable for school climate through accountability systems, the likelihood of systematic assessment and monitoring by schools is diminished (Cohen et al., 2009). It is interesting, however, that many states consider improvements in academic achievement an important outcome of school climate, yet school climate is often marginalized within school improvement planning processes (No Child Left Behind Act, 2001; for example: Minnesota: The Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act [HF 826]).

More recently in the United States, there are federal policies and reports (e.g., the Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities Act of 2004, the president’s Now is the Time Initiative, and Cowan et al.’s [2013] A Framework for Safe and Successful Schools) that do promote the importance of school climate. A National School Climate Center also has been created to support schools engaged in school improvement efforts and has developed a set of school climate standards. Most states in the United States implement some sort of policy relating to at least one of the dimensions of school climate, with safety being one of the most prevalent ones (Thapa, Cohen, Higgins-D’Alessandra, & Guffy, 2012). This is because historically, when we view the development of school, state and federal policies around school climate, these policies were initially established within the context of bullying, school shootings, and suicide among students—so focused on the dimension of safety and on creating safe schools (Dwyer, Osher & Warger, 1998; Safe Schools Act, 1994; No Child Left Behind Act, 2001). This shift in emphasis within school climate policy parallels some of the changes in how school climate is defined that were discussed earlier in this chapter.

School climate is also gaining critical attention as a policy issue in countries across the world (Cohen et al., 2009; Thapa et al., 2013). There are different ministries of education around the world and in the work of the UN that actively promote school climate agendas (Benbenishty & Astor, 2005, 2012; Cohen et al., 2009; Shaeffer, 1999). Also, as in the United States, there are variations in policy when it comes to school climate (Cohen et al., 2009; NSCC, 2007; Thapa et al., 2012). For example, in Europe, there are considerable differences between different countries. In Scandinavian countries, the issues of bullying and victimization receive high attention and there is a specific comprehensive anti-bullying program called KiVa (meaning “against bullying”), which 90% of Finnish schools use systematically (KiVa website, 2015; Salmivalli, Kärnä, & Poskiparta, 2011). Likewise, in England and France, the concept of supportive school systems centers on anti-bullying and the prevention of violence (DfE, 2012; Richard, Schneider, & Mallet, 2012). The main policies are concerned with safety and presume that a safe, positive environment can be improved by respectful and supportive relationships with adults and peers in schools. In Israel, similarly to England and France, the policy around school climate is tied to the prevention of bullying, based on the realization that in order to cope with school violence, a systematic approach that promotes a supportive and respectful school climate is required (Erhard & Zkaria, 2014; Circular Director General, 2015; Israel Ministry of Education, 2015).

In Latin America and the Middle East, there also is growing interest in school climate programs and policies (Cohen, 2015). In recent research that examined school climate in different Arab states, Faour (2012) found that in many of the countries in the Arab world, school climate is perceived as more negative. The findings emphasize difficult conditions for students in which many do not feel safe physically, socially, and/or emotionally in schools (Faour, 2012). Despite the fact that there is increased focus on school climate, continued school climate policy and intervention development is needed in this area and other parts of the world.


Overall, the literature indicates that school climate has important implications for less school violence, aggression, and bullying; serves as a protective factor for learning and personal development; and has a preventative role for different risks. Continued research is needed on school climate, however, as the nature of these relationships is complex. Few studies have been able to demonstrate a causal connection between school climate and academic achievement or bullying. Part of this is because most current studies are cross-sectional. It is extremely difficult to conduct experimental studies that manipulate school climate in randomly assigned schools. Longitudinal studies that assess how climate in one point in time affects outcomes at a latter point in time are also very rare. Another challenge with school climate research is that each study often utilizes a different definition of school climate, which leads to different dimensions being examined while trying to understand the relationship between school climate and other outcomes, such as academic achievements (Berkowitz et al., 2015; Cohen et al., 2009; Thapa et al., 2013). On the one hand, the broad view of school climate helps in gaining understanding about the school climate concept as a whole and its relationship to academic achievement and other outcomes. On the other hand, however, using such a broad definition can limit a nuanced understanding as to how specific dimensions of school climate might be more directly related to certain outcomes. Likewise, variation in how outcomes are assessed within these school climate studies also can make it challenging to compare findings across studies. For example, in school climate studies focused on academic outcomes, some studies rely on standardized test score measures while others rely on school grades. Some also look at the school as the unit of analysis while others investigate the class or the student (Berkowitz et al., 2015). More research is also needed that focuses on developing and empirically testing interventions that aim to impact all facets of school climate. A possible route to advance in that direction would be to consider research and statistical methods of control and intervention while also learning from the successes of atypical schools compared to others (Astor et al., 2009).

In addition to research, there are several implications for practice. Even though promoting a positive school climate is a central goal of school social work practice, many practitioners face the competing time demands from high caseloads of students (Kelly et al., 2010). As such, practitioners need to be able to communicate the importance of promoting a healthy school climate as part of a comprehensive MTSS framework of programs and services. In addition, monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of school climate programs can also help to communicate the importance of this practice goal to broader educational goals.

Overall, then, while school climate has become an important centerpiece of school reform and school social work practice as because it is related to many aspects of positive youth development and student success in schools. Challenges remain, however, with defining and operationalizing the construct. It is critical to note that perhaps some of the challenges and debates on how to define school climate reflect underlying differences in the perspective on the role of schools in society. Are schools designed to focus solely on promoting academic learning, or are schools institutions designed to promote academic success and the development of civically engaged youth who have social-emotional skills to navigate in an increasingly complex society? If schools are designed to be about the latter, then continued work needs to be done to unpack the construct of school climate and develop valid and reliable ways to measure it. Moreover, efforts are needed to more systematically integrate school climate into federal, state, and local school improvement and accountability policies and interventions.


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