School Learning Climate
Everything students experience from the moment they arrive at school to the moment they leave is part of the School Learning Climate. Expanding on work conducted by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, researchers looked to identify common behaviors that schools engaged in to accelerate student learning (Bryk et al., 2010). Emerging from this research was an emphasis on the impact that School Learning Climate has on student success. In broad terms, School Learning Climate can be described as the overall atmosphere of a school (Coyle et al., 2022; Dorio et al., 2019; Konishi et al., 2022). It is also the shared norms, values, and beliefs held by the staff and the community (Coyle et al., 2022; Dorio et al., 2019). The interactions among the teachers, instructional leaders, students, and the physical and emotional environment created within a school setting are all small pieces of the multi-dimensional idea (Haynes et al., 1997).
Themes of School Learning Climate
As a necessary first step, we need to begin with a look at what is needed in order to create a positive School Learning Climate. Walker and Graham (2021) share that,
“Ensuring that classrooms are high in emotional support, that young children are supported to learn how to self-regulate their own emotions and behavior, and that pedagogy is intellectually demanding – yet accessible – is also a more inclusive approach than continuing to focus on behavior problems and teacher-student conflict downstream.”
Psychologist Abraham Maslow outlined a hierarchy of needs (Maslow, 1942) that need to be considered when it comes to our students, seeing them first as people before we can explore their needs as learners. The needs Maslow outlined range from fundamental needs that make up the foundation of this hierarchy, starting with physiological needs such as food, shelter, water, etc. (Maslow, 1942). After these foundational needs, Maslow moved up the hierarchy to safety and security needs (i.e. emotional, physical, and personal safety, and order), belonging and love (from family, friendship, trust, acceptance), and then esteem (i.e. respect, self-confidence, dignity) (Maslow, 1942). If one of these physiological needs is unmet, it will be necessary to first meet this need before moving further up the hierarchy (Maslow, 1942). Once the physiological needs are met, individuals are then able to focus on meeting their higher-level needs for safety, belonging, and esteem (Maslow, 1942). Just above esteem come the self-fulfillment needs, the first of which is cognitive, or the will to learn and attain knowledge; when safety and security needs are not met, an individual’s ability to retain information taught in the classroom is deeply hindered. To ensure that our students are in a position to engage with and retain learning, this awareness of their needs enables us to then move forward.
During the last two and a half decades the National School Climate Center (NSCC) has worked to promote school climates, sharing that they refer “to the quality and character of school life (2022),” and further outline four key elements for supporting a sustainable environment that is built on fostering the development of students. These elements include the institutional environment, student safety and engagement, and the teaching and learning practices.
Institutional Environments. An essential element of the School Learning Climate is the institutional environment itself, best thought of as a combination of institutional structures and the physical environment. Within the institutional environment environmental order can be considered a major priority, which includes parent and community member participation in school organizations, institutional support for school safety measures and goals, and the maintenance of this cooperative environment between a school and the larger community (Alter & Haydon, 2017; Doyle, 2013; Elrod, B. G., Rice, K. G., & Meyers, J. 2022; Skiba et al., 2016; Tyler et al., 2010). (Bryk et al. 1998). Parents and community members should be encouraged to join local school councils to support the safety measures and goals established by the school, and to maintain this cooperative environment (Alter & Haydon, 2017; Doyle, 2013; Elrod et al., 2022; Skiba et al., 2016; Tyler et al., 2010). When a community comes together to establish goals and values and play a supportive and productive role in the lives of students, those students are more likely to graduate (America’s Promise Alliance and Center for Promise 2015; Villenas & Zelinski, 2018).
Safety. Though it is easy to emphasize the importance of physical safety in the school environment, emotional safety is equally critical. Physical safety can best be thought of as how one feels at school, as well as when traveling to and from school; the presence or absence of bullying, victimization, or threatening messages all factor into whether students view their school as an environment that will keep them safe (Bradshaw et al., 2014; Coyle et al., 2022; Konishi et al., 2022). Emotional safety refers to matters including clarity of rules, fairness (Kutsyuruba et al., 2015; Wang & Degol 2016), established behavior expectations, responsiveness to inappropriate behavior with guidance and redirection, trust, and connectivity (Alter & Haydon, 2017; Doyle, 2013; Elrod et al., 2022; Skiba et al., 2016; Tyler et al., 2010), and whether teachers were responsive to students’ safety concerns (Konishi et al., 2022). Through a combined focus on both physical and emotional safety, these essential elements of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs provides students with a safe space in which to focus on their learning.
Engagement. The National School Climate Center at Ramapo for Children (2022) shares that school connectedness, that is the teacher’s connections to each other, and their perceptions of the school environment, is a powerful predictor of student health and academic outcomes. Interpersonal factors, such as supportive teachers and peers, respect for diversity, social support, and leadership (Barr & Higgins‐D’Alessandro, 2009; Bradshaw et al., 2014; Cohen et al., 2009; Coyle et al., 2022; Elrod et al., 2022; Haynes et al. 1997; National School Climate Center – at Ramapo for Children. 2022; USDOE, 2009) are the foundation for defining engagement. With students spending a majority of their time in school, teachers can look to capitalize on their interactions with one another by developing a cooperative community that is founded on flexible structures (Cowie and Jennifer 2008; Villenas, C., & Zelinski, S. 2018), mutual trust, respect, and open communication being established (Villenas, C., & Zelinski, S. 2018). Engagement within the school setting involves numerous relationships and interactions, which include teacher-teacher interactions (Reeves 2006), student-student interactions (Bukowski et al., 2019; Juvonen 2019; Konishi et al,. 2017; Konishi et al., 2022), and teacher-student relationships (Konishi et al., 2022; Longobardi et al. 2016). Though all of these relationships can be considered important, it is the relationship between teachers and students that falls at the heart of classroom engagement; when teachers are cognizant of student needs and respond positively to those needs students become trusting, feel safer, and are more inclined to be engaged (Walker & Graham, 2021). In their findings, Walker & Graham (2021) revealed that students look to their teacher for emotional support, they can tell when students are emotional and are responsive these emotions, they use a warm, calm instructional voice, smile and laugh, provide students with responsibility and independence, notice when they are struggling with their work and provide support in these areas, and actively engage with genuine interest in social conversations with them (Villenas, C., & Zelinski, S. 2018; Walker, S., & Graham, L. 2021).”
School Learning Climate in Practice
Once a school has a supportive foundation of institutional environment, safety, and engagement, schools are then in a position to intentionally engage in behaviors aimed at building upon this foundation. These teaching and learning practices can significantly impact the school learning climate:
- Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) – PBIS is an evidence-based intervention model is an alternative to punitive measurements with the intent to proactively develop positive relationships between students and staff in order to provide academic and behavioral support in a differentiated, tiered framework, to meet the specific needs of individual students (Elrod et al., 2022; Horner et al., 2010). PBIS serves as a schoolwide framework aimed at improving student outcomes through the development of positive learning environments.
- Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) – SEL is an interactive learning model that aims to improve student self-awareness, self-control, motivation, academic performance, and interpersonal skills (Ainley & Ainley, 2011; Martin et al., 2016; Manzano-Sánchez et al., 2021) by teaching students emotional self-regulation, empathy, and responsibility (Villenas & Zelinski, 2018). This teaching, in particular, gets at the heart of meeting those critical needs as outlined by Maslow (Manzano-Sánchez et al., 2021; Merino-Barrero et al., 2019), reinforcing a supportive School Learning Climate.
- Problem-Based Learning (PBL) – PBL is a learner-centered approach that encourages formal interactions among students which are stimulated by a central problem and through collaboration, encouragement, and discussion, students are empowered to conduct research in order to solve problems (Brouwer, et. al, 2019; Loyens et al., 2006; Schmidt & Moust, 2000).
- Service Learning – Service, or service-learning, is a practice defined as encouraging active engagement, civic responsibility, and reflection within a reciprocal relationship between students, faculty, and the community to address community and school needs, through meaningful opportunities for learning and collaboration.
A focus on School Learning Climate allows us to provide for our students through a focus on their non-academic needs, setting the foundation for academic growth. Though there are many models and practices that aim at improving the learning climate of a school, it is those models that are used appropriately, with fidelity, and with the students at the heart of the work that have had the most success. Through a focus on the practices mentioned here, we are able to cultivate and promote a strong School Learning Climate to promote student learning that builds upon the ideas of safety and engagement we see when schools are able to meet the key elements of Maslow’s Hierarchy. This not only ensures that students can feel supported as whole people, but also helps to encourage a school climate focused on support and empowerment for both students and teachers.
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