Why and how do we measure school climate?

Photo of Students in hall

Some schools might feel welcoming and supportive to students, staff, and parents who walk through their doors, while others might feel uninviting or even unsafe. School climate refers to the quality and character of school life. Research has shown that a positive school climate is greatly beneficial for both students and educators. It has been linked to higher student academic achievement and graduation rates in addition to reduced student misconduct, bullying, and disciplinary referrals. Positive school climate also helps to reduce teacher burnout by contributing to higher teacher satisfaction and morale.

What kinds of things promote a positive school climate?

A positive school climate includes three main components:

1. Engagement

  • Strong and caring relationships among students, staff, and families
  • Respect for diversity
  • Active involvement and participation in school activities
  • Strong connections and partnerships between schools and the broader community

2. Safety

  • Physical and emotional safety from violence, bullying, harassment, and substance use
  • Emergency readiness and management

3. Environment

  • Clear, consistent, and fair disciplinary policies
  • School-based supports that promote academic success and mental and physical health

How and why do we measure school climate?

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA, 2015), a federal legislation that governs K-12 public education, explicitly recognizes the relationship between school climate and student outcomes in the law’s provisions. The Act specifically requires that state education agencies include at least one non-academic indicator – such as school climate or safety – into their accountability frameworks to affect positive change.

School climate measures can help educators, parents, and the community to:

  • Understand student, staff, and parent perceptions of climate in their schools
  • Set appropriate goals for improving student behavior and student-staff relationships while monitoring ongoing progress
  • Identify and adapt to changing student, staff, and parent needs and priorities
  • Make data-driven decisions about programs and practices that could improve school climate

Surveys are most frequently used to measure school climate. For example, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) developed the ED School Climate Surveys (EDSCLS), which are a suite of survey instruments that measure school climate from the perspectives of middle and high school students, staff, and parents. These surveys are free to download and administer. They measure a range of topics across the 3 school climate components mentioned above (engagement, safety, environment). Here are some example items (answered with responses ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree). How would your school rate?

Components of School Climate Examples Items from Student Survey Example Items from Instructional Staff Survey Example Items from Parent Survey
  • ✅ People of different cultural backgrounds, races, or ethnicities get along well at this school.
  • ✅ I feel like I belong.
  • ✅ This school emphasizes showing respect for all students’ cultural beliefs and practices.
  • ✅ I feel like I belong.
  • ✅ This school communicates how important it is to respect the practices of all cultures.
  • ✅ At this school, my child feelings he/she belongs.
  • ✅ I feel safe at this school.
  • ✅ Students at this school are often bullied.
  • ✅ I feel safe at this school.
  • ✅ I think that bullying is a frequent problem at this school.
  • ✅ My child is safe at this school.
  • ✅ Bullying of students at school or school activities is a problem at this school.
  • ✅ The school grounds are kept clean.
  • ✅ Adults working at this school help students develop strategies to understand and control their feelings and actions.
  • ✅ The school looks clean and pleasant.
  • ✅ This school places a priority on teaching students strategies to manage their stress levels.
  • ✅ The school building is clean and well-maintained.
  • ✅ This school has enough programs that develop students’ social and emotional skills (e.g., self-control, problem solving, or getting along with others).

What kind of information can surveys provide?

Using surveys like the EDSCLS can help you understand how students, staff, and parents perceive school climate. You can see whether there are differences across specific subgroups; for example, how older students may feel differently than younger students, or how staff may not identify bullying as a problem, but students do. So what can you do with this information?

Mike Booher

To get some real-life examples, we spoke with Mike Booher, a consultant for Safe & Civil Schools, who trains school staff on implementing school-wide and classroom-based interventions to improve school climate. Mike is a former school psychologist and Supervisor of Psychological Services for Guilford County Schools in North Carolina and has more than 20 years of experience in the field.

What if a majority of students report that they do not feel safe at school, but staff report no concerns? Mike recommends asking a sample of students deeper and more targeted questions in small focus groups conducted in confidential and comfortable settings. For example, a trusted teacher, counselor, or social worker could meet with a group of representative student volunteers to learn about the why (e.g., “What sorts of experiences make you feel unsafe or disrespected?”), where (e.g., “Are there certain areas at school where you don’t feel safe?”), and when (e.g., “Are there certain times that you feel less safe, such as before and after school?”) of their school safety concerns.

Mike also suggests conducting focus groups with specific subsamples of students, such as representative female students, to gain perspective about their unique experiences.

Mike emphasizes that digging deeper into survey responses can provide direction about action steps to take to improve school climate. For example, school administrators may learn about the need to increase monitoring of certain school areas or hallways to increase students’ feeling of safety. Educators can also examine survey trends over time to assess if improvements have been made or new concerns have emerged.

Specific to the EDSCLS, the EDSCLS Data Interpretation Guide provides a framework and guidelines for interpreting survey results, and the EDSCLS Data Analysis Worksheet can also be used to dig into specific topic area results closely. With these data, you can then use Discussion Guides to interpret scores and put the results in context. Even if your school doesn’t administer the EDSCLS, the discussion guides provide helpful questions to ask about how your school measures up in terms of climate.

How does our team measure and study school climate?

Our SRI Behavior Research Team has used various school climate surveys (such as the School Safety Survey and the Maryland Safe and Supportive Schools Climate Survey) to examine if using certain practices and programs improve perceptions of school climate. Read about this work here!

If you’re also interested in seeing some real data on how California students’ perceptions of school safety are associated with a range of well-being indicators like psychological and social well-being, life satisfaction, etc., click here!

The information presented here is supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through Grant R305A160005 to SRI International. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education.

Topics: School climate

Tags: Engagement Environment ESSA Measure Safety Surveys