Students’ ability to learn depends not just on the quality of their textbooks and teachers, but also on the comfort and safety they feel at school and the strength of their relationships with adults and peers there.
Most of education policymakers’ focus remains on ensuring schools are physically safe and disciplined: Forty-five states have anti-bullying policies, compared with only 24 states that have more comprehensive policies on school climate.
Mounting evidence from fields like neuroscience and cognitive psychology, as well as studies on such topics as school turnaround implementation, shows that an academically challenging yet supportive environment boosts both children’s learning and coping abilities. By contrast, high-stress environments in which students feel chronically unsafe and uncared for make it physically and emotionally harder for them to learn and more likely for them to act out or drop out.
As that research builds, more education officials at every level are taking notice. For example, the federal government has prioritized school climate programs in its $38.8 million grants for safe and supportive school environments, and two states—Ohio and Wisconsin—have developed guidelines for districts on improving school life, according to the National School Climate Center, located in New York City.
Experts say that administrators who focus on using climate merely as a tool to raise test scores or to reduce bullying may set up their reform efforts to fail. Stand-alone programs targeting individual symptoms like bullying or poor attendance may not provide holistic support for students, and emerging research shows such a comprehensive approach is critical to improve school climate.
“There’s anti-bullying, which is sort of the top, the visible part of an iceberg, and those are the formal policies where we tell kids, ‘OK, don’t bully each other,’ ” said Meagan O’Malley, a research associate at WestEd who specializes in the research group’s middle-school-climate initiative in Los Alamitos, Calif. “But then under that, there’s everything else that happens in that school, the interactions between people every single day that create an atmosphere that’s either supportive of a bullying atmosphere or not. Programmatic interventions have to be one piece of a much larger body of work.”
Students who experience chronic instability and stress have more aggressive responses to stress, along with poorer working memory and self-control, studies show. Building those skills in individual students can raise the tenor of the whole school.
“As much as we need to provide enriched experiences to promote healthy brain development,” says Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff, the director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, “we also need to protect the brain from bad things happening to it. We all understand that in terms of screening for lead, because lead does bad things to a brain, mercury does bad things to a brain, … but toxic stress does bad things to a brain, too—it’s a different chemical doing it, but it’s still a big problem interfering with brain development.”
It’s easy to focus too much on the visible parts of the school climate iceberg and have school improvement efforts run aground on the massive issues below the surface.
Studies routinely show that students learn better when they feel safe, for example. Yet interventions that focus on visible signs of safety—metal detectors, wand searches, and so on—have not been found to deter crime and actually can make students feel less safe at school. What does reduce bullying and make students feel safer? According to an analysis of the National Crime Victimization Survey, only one intervention: more adults visible and talking to students in the hallways, a mark of a climate with better adult-student relationships.
Likewise, students’ ability to delay gratification has been proven to be so linked to academic and social success that the Knowledge Is Power Program charter schools offer T-shirts for students bearing the mantra, “Don’t Eat the Marshmallow!” That’s a reference to a famous study that used the sweet treat in
A 2012 follow-up to Stanford University’s original “marshmallow study,” however, found that regardless of a student’s innate willpower, the child will wait four times longer for a treat when the child trusts the adult offering it to keep his or her word, and when the environment feels secure to the child.
Security and Self-Control
How can a school build a culture of trust and self-control with children from disadvantaged and unstable environments that often work against those characteristics?
At the Children’s Aid College Prep Charter School in the Bronx borough of New York City, it starts as a classic game of telephone, with a class of excited kindergartners passing a message around their circle in theatrically careful whispers.
As is typical, the phrase that starts out as “stop and think” is comically garbled by the time it gets around the circle. But unlike in the traditional playground game, the school’s “life coaches,” Yvenide Andre and Patricia Li, take the students through multiple rounds, asking them to think about how to make the next round better: Listen to each other. Concentrate. Don’t say the phrase louder than needed.
“It’s all life skills: self-control, relating to other people, learning how to respond in the ways we want them to respond,” Li explains.
The charter school, which was launched last fall, specifically recruits children from across the city who are homeless, in foster care, and in abject and concentrated poverty. It started with 132 children in kindergarten and 1st grade, and plans to add a grade each year up to 5th.
Drema Brown, the vice president of education for Children’s Aid, says the school was founded on the premise of acknowledging students’ challenges—but then deliberately putting that aside.
“When you approach these kids from the deficit model of ‘they have all these problems,’ that seeps into everything you do,” Brown says. “We look at it as promise; we make sure every adult in the building understands those vulnerable areas as opportunities to practice our skills as professionals, and not as problems.”
In addition to teachers, the school has full-time life coaches, like Andre and Li, who bridge social services and instruction. Teachers and life coaches are hired for their “commitment to not just delivering content but understanding the child in front of them,” Brown says. Staff members receive continuing training, not just on ways to incorporate character curriculum or social skills into math class, but also on how to respect and respond to students who are acting out.
“Know who they are before they come in,” Principal Ife Lenard tells teachers. “Don’t find out about a student’s problems because of an incident of acting out in the hallway.”
Staff members like Andre and Li work with teachers to help students learn cognitive control and resiliency as well as social and emotional skills.
“People talk about things like ‘caring is sharing,’ but they don’t talk about what to do if someone doesn’t share,” says Lenard, who also has a degree in clinical social work. “There are so many good things that can happen between an adult and a child or group of children, but that has to be modeled.”
Each class in the school is named for a different high-profile college—Columbia, and Spelman and Yale, for example—and even in kindergarten, children are talking about what they want to study when they go to the “big school.”
The administrators and researchers are building the path to college just a few steps ahead of the children. Stephanie M. Jones, an associate education professor at Harvard, and Robin T. Jacob, an assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan Institute of Social Research in Ann Arbor, have partnered with the school to test and develop SECURe, a whole-school-climate model so named for incorporating instruction in “social, emotional, and cognitive understanding and regulation.”
“Executive function and cognitive regulation are a set of building blocks for many of the other skills that are targeted by other social-and-emotional-learning programs,” Jones says. Among those skills: concentrating on a task or transitioning smoothly from one to another; identifying one’s own and others’ emotions and social cues; and engaging in planning and conflict resolution.
“In aggregate,” Jones says, “having a whole population of kids with those skills is going to change the nature of the set of interactions in the classroom, the climate of the school—and it would play out in the lunchroom and playground as well.”
The approach already has shown promise in a pilot study of 5,000 children in kindergarten through 3rd grade at six schools in the 14,200-student Alhambra elementary district in Arizona. Students at schools using the SECURe model in combination with the Success For All literacy program were statistically significantly more self-controlled, less impulsive, and had greater attention spans than their peers at nonparticipating schools. Moreover, the SECURe students also showed some improvement in standardized math and reading tests compared with their peers.
During a life-skills class in October, Li and Andre discuss a picture book on the brain with the kindergarten classes. Though simplified for the kindergartners, the book talks about how children’s brains work, what decisionmaking and self-control are, and how students can think more clearly when “taking care of their brain” by sleeping and eating appropriately.
In addition to the telephone game, the kindergartners play a more advanced game of freeze, in which they dance and wriggle while music plays but then have to freeze and hold a particular position when it stops.
The game is a big hit—producing some stillness but also massive giggle fits—but Andre and Li press the students afterward on what they found hard about the game.
“My body danced like this, and it didn’t want to stop,” says Jordan, a little boy with a curly Mohawk and a grin. A girl mentions having to stop and remember what to do next when the music stopped.
The game offers a chance for discussion about how children might act without thinking, relating to a previous class about feelings and how students respond to arguments and other negative emotions.
Throughout the week, Li says, classroom teachers will refer to these lessons and use what the pupils know about their own thinking process to help them work through discipline issues or other problems in class.
In the area of school climate, far more than academics, teachers and students have the opportunity to solve problems as equals. While a student struggling in math may not be able to articulate his or her own misconceptions about algebra, Thomas L. Hanson, the director of San Francisco-based WestEd’s middle-school-climate project and a senior research associate with the group, and others say, teachers and particularly older students often agree on the main problems when they’re surveyed on school climate.
“In most of the strong school reform models, you see a focus on school leaders, educators, data, standards—but you seldom see students as part of the reform strategy. The progress we can make with students on the sidelines is terribly limited,” says J.B. Schramm, the founder of the Washington-based College Summit, which uses students to encourage one another to attend college.
“Students are not vessels to be filled with knowledge at schools,” he says. “They can drive change.”
Hanson and O’Malley of WestEd have seen that firsthand in 58 high schools and 15 middle schools in Arizona and California, which are implementing “listening circles.”
Each such circle pulls in students from different social, racial, and interest groups from around the school to identify and solve problems related to campus climate. Adults sit outside the circle, in a “listen only” mode, Hanson says.
Teachers and administrators have been surprised at how assertive students can be at those sessions, O’Malley says. For example, she recalls students at one high school who complained about trash regularly piling up on campus. In response, they raised money to buy 30 new trash cans and held a bin-decorating contest around the school. The district superintendent, who happened to be sitting in on the circle, was impressed by the students’ initiative and agreed to pay to repaint the fading building in the school colors of green, white, and beige.
“It’s a very, very powerful experience for a lot of people,” O’Malley says. “Students want forums to express themselves about all things related to school. That’s pretty typical for adolescent development; they want to be heard and understood as individuals.”
Getting students to work together to identify and solve problems can also reduce tensions and bullying among students of different races, social classes, or sexual orientations, the WestEd researchers have found.
A focus on climate can be particularly important in schools with changing demographics, according to research by Amy Bellmore, an assistant professor of human development in the education department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“Within a bully-victim dynamic, there’s an important notion of power: The bully is larger, more popular—or their group is represented to a larger degree,” Bellmore says. “Kids are tuned in to the perspective of decisionmakers within their school environment.”
Schools that celebrate all the different student groups and encourage students from different backgrounds to work together show lower intergroup bullying and more friendships across groups, Bellmore has found. Moreover, she notes, students with friends from a wide variety of backgrounds learn more strategies for coping with stress, be it bullying or a pop quiz.
Bringing students together to improve their campus climate can also help them build their own confidence and resiliency, Schramm says. Students will take more ownership of their learning and their school climate, he says, if school adults listen, help them understand the issues, and enable them to set measurable goals.
“But then you need to give them space,” he says. “If you prepare them but then manage them too tightly, they won’t take charge, because you’re in charge. If you skip either the preparation or the space, it won’t work.”
Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment.