Enhance school climate and improve student behavior with this free eBook!

You’ll learn:

  • The role of a school counselor is changing
  • Social emotional learning can create an optimal learning environment
  • Technology can support social emotional learning
  • Security measures impact school climate
  • Behavior management can improve school climate
  • New technology can improve student behavior


Schools are facing new challenges. The advance of mobile technology has given rise to a culture of hyperconnectivity that puts the ability to conduct research, shop and socialize in the pocket of each student. When the technology was new, schools viewed smartphones as a distraction and banned their use in class. However, accepting that students are wedded to their devices, schools have changed policies, and many districts now incorporate smartphones and tablets into their technology plans. The one-to-one classroom has become one-to-many as school IT systems are configured to interface with multiple devices. While giving every student 24/7 internet access may move schools closer to equality in educational opportunities, we are beginning to see a downside to this constant connectedness.

In a February 2019 PEW Research survey, teens reported that anxiety and depression are common problems among their peers. Achievement pressure is on the rise with 61 percent of students surveyed by PEW saying they are anxious about post-graduation plans and the need to get good grades to reach their goals. PEW points to the pressure created by social media as a contributing factor. Teens and preteens are struggling to understand and develop their personal identities; school counselors know that adolescence will always come with some anxiety over physical appearance, academic performance, and athletic skill, but now the pressure is magnified under the spotlight of Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.

Adding to the stress on students and the school community is the fear that schools are no longer safe.

Although statistics indicate most districts will never experience a school shooting, the possibility of a school being attacked has created a need for school leaders to divert resources to hardening buildings. While metal detectors, armed SROs, and surveillance cameras may placate an anxious public, a NASP survey of the research finds these measures may do more harm than good by creating a fearful school climate that negatively impacts learning and school safety. For socially and emotionally immature students, the anxiety produced by this environment creates significant barriers to learning, and students may act out with inappropriate behaviors.

The Changing Role of the School Counselor

While assisting students with graduation requirements, college applications and career readiness continue to be an important part of a counselor’s job. As part of an education team, school counselors are integral to school programs focused on building the non-cognitive skills essential to academic achievement. It often falls to the counselors, who have a unique relationship with students, to identify an individual student’s needs. This is a tall order as the average student-to-counselor ratio has risen to nearly five-hundred-to-one.

The increasing cultural and racial diversity in the United States means students come to school with varying social and emotional skills. Counselors need well-ordered systems to facilitate collaboration with teachers, administrators, staff, and community members as they develop social and emotional learning programs to create a positive school climate and bolster academic achievement.

Building a Positive School Climate in the 21st Century

The day-to-day atmosphere of a school develops into a culture of norms — the expectations for behavior and relationships between student peers and staff. A positive climate, one in which students feel safe and supported, is essential to improving behavior and learning outcomes. Research has found a definite link between students’ perception of school climate and academic achievement. Schools that have improved their climate show a decrease in absenteeism and improved graduation rates. A climate of fear, frustration, and sense of injustice breeds a survivalist culture. In this look-out-for-yourself atmosphere, teachers and students must do what they can to make it through the day; obviously not an optimal learning environment.

Recognizing this, the National School Climate Council has developed school climate standards. These five standards serve as guidelines for creating programs to promote and sustain a positive school climate.

National School Climate Standards

1) Shared Vision

All members of a school community — personnel, students and parents — must support common goals and jointly develop strategies for achieving these goals. They may begin by identifying issues like chronic absenteeism and assessing the current school climate, which may be done with surveys. With data in hand, stakeholders can determine the best use of resources to address problem areas and design programs to build a safe and connected school environment

2) Policies to Promote Social Skills

Academic excellence doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Students lacking social and emotional skills cannot fully focus on learning. SEL programs, which include civics, ethics and intellectual skills such as logic, lay the foundation for self-regulation and academic success. Systems must be in place to re-engage students who have become disenfranchised, and schools must provide interventions for students with developmental delays, mental health issues and the lasting effects of traumatic experiences.

3) Prioritize Practices to Enhance Engagement

The Standards call for schools to institute classroom and school-wide programs to keep all students engaged in academic and social activities. The National School Climate Council refers to Ryan and Deci’s Self Determination Theory as a framework for enhancing engagement. The theory holds that all humans, to reach their full potential, must have a sense of competency, a sense of autonomy and a sense of connectedness.

Sense of competency – Programs designed to build students’ self-efficacy must go beyond participation trophies and gold stars on spelling quizzes. The self-esteem movement has been blamed for creating a generation that feels entitled to unearned rewards. Students need the opportunity to prove to themselves they have worth and value. Educators must challenge students so students may experience genuine success.

Sense of autonomy – Increasing students’ responsibility and accountability will give them a greater sense of control, which will translate into better self-control. Students that experience success as a result of their own decision-making will develop a growth mindset, a belief that their abilities are not fixed and, with effort, they may succeed where they may have failed in the past.

Sense of connectedness – A sense of connectedness gives a greater purpose to all a student does. Recognizing that they’re part of a greater whole and an important contributor to group goals creates an intrinsic motivation that will drive success in many areas.

4) Inclusive Sense of Community

All members of a school community must feel they are part of that community and are welcome in the school. As the cultural diversity of the nation grows, schools must focus on celebrating the diversity within their districts and ensure that everyone feels safe and free to be themselves in and outside of school. Programs to educate students about diverse cultures and beliefs can facilitate this inclusion.

5) Develop Norms to Promote Social and Civic Responsibilities

All students should have the opportunity to serve the community so they may understand the part they play in society. Students must feel connected to caring adults and discipline must support goals and be respectful of the individual.

The common thread throughout the National Climate Standards is the need for a sense of community. In addition to supporting positive behaviors and academic success, a sense of community is vital for school security. The Federal Commission on School Safety, in its December 2018 report, finds that a culture of connectedness is paramount to preventing school violence.

The Commission’s exhaustive study of school shootings that have occurred over the past three decades found only one commonality among shooters — almost all of them felt isolated from their school community. Community-building strategies depend on shared goals and celebrations to recognize accomplishments. A sense of connectedness makes open communications between students and adults possible. This is critical to identifying individuals that have disconnected and may act out with violence.

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) to Create an Optimal Learning Environment

SEL has become an overarching term for non-cognitive skills programs including character education and development of “soft skills” such as problem-solving, teamwork and conflict resolution. The 2015 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Every Student Succeeds Act, encourages and offers funding for schools to advance SEL as part of a comprehensive education program. However, SEL programs are not just nice add-ons to academics; they are a prerequisite to a healthy school climate and academic achievement.

Competency in social and emotional skills is affected by multiple factors within and outside of school, with home environment, socioeconomic status and family culture being a child’s first and strongest influences. Integrating SEL into regular instruction has proven to be an effective way for students to develop these skills and reap the benefits of better self-discipline, productive social interactions and increased control over emotional responses. A 2011 analysis of school-based SEL interventions found that SEL programs, in elementary, middle and high school, produce positive results. In addition to increasing prosocial behaviors, students in these programs performed better academically.

Developing SEL Programs to Create an Optimal Learning Environment

Recognizing the importance of social and emotional learning to student success, The Wallace Foundation launched a six-year initiative to improve SEL practices in six communities and contribute to the field of SEL knowledge. To this end, they have created a wealth of resources for schools, including a comprehensive guide to implementing SEL programs. The Foundation categorizes SEL skills into three domains:

Cognitive regulationSelf-regulating mental processes are critical to keeping a student on track to reach a goal. Maintaining focus, controlling impulses and switching attention between tasks as a situation demands are skills that children learn in the course of normal development. Children subjected to adverse conditions may show a delay in the development of these executive functions. Metacognition, an awareness of one’s own thought processes, falls within this domain.

Emotional processes – Understanding and knowing how to appropriately express one’s own feelings is essential to building healthy relationships and experiencing a sense of connectedness. Emotional skills include the ability to empathize with others and understand how one’s behavior makes others feel.

Social/interpersonal skills – The ability to interpret verbal and non-verbal social cues, resolve conflicts and cooperate with others are fundamental skills that students need for success in school, work and in their personal lives. Communication and listening skills are central to connectedness. Deficiencies in these skills leave individuals isolated and less able to meaningfully engage with society.

Underlying these three domains is character. The Federal Commission on School Safety points to character development as fundamental to preventing school violence and creating a positive, connected school culture. The Commission’s report acknowledges that a child’s character begins forming at home, but believes schools play an important role in their students’ moral and ethical development. Core values of honesty, respect, fairness, good citizenship and personal responsibility can be learned within school SEL programs.

What do SEL programs look like?

Effective SEL programs are designed within the context of a school’s environment and the needs of its students. Programs in a large, urban district with a diverse population will look different than programs in a small, homogeneous rural school.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has created a guide that reviews dozens of SEL programs. These programs may use thematic children’s literature, buddy programs, home-school partnerships, community service projects, role-playing, mindfulness exercises, and journaling. There is an infinite number of ways to teach SEL skills. The Mutt-i-grees Curriculum, a program developed by Yale University School of the 21st Century with The Pet Savers Foundation, integrates SEL with children’s affinity for animals by bringing shelter dogs into the classroom for discussions of empathy and the humane treatment of others.

SEL program best practices

The Harvard Graduate School of Education’s EASEL Lab analyzed 25 SEL programs and identified these features of effective programs:

· Programs are most effective when implemented in supportive environments that promote positive adult-child relationships. Students need to feel safe and valued;

· SEL takes place beyond school walls, and successful programs extend to parents and the community;

· When selecting a program, decisions should be made in consultation with teachers, staff, parents and community members. All stakeholders need to be involved;

· Identification of needs should be data-based. Team members need accurate attendance, behavior and other data;

· Programs work best when aligned with the unique needs of a school or district and set in the context of the surrounding community;

· Adequate time must be allotted for focused, sequenced lessons.

Many of the recommended supports align with the National School Climate Standards, such as including all stakeholders in decision-making, and the brief’s authors suggest that simultaneously implementing SEL and climate improvement programs will strengthen both.

Technology to Support SEL and inspire Positive Student Behavior

At the turn of the century, many schools took advantage of federal funding to wire their buildings for web connections and replace their Macintosh PCs with newer models. Twenty years later, advances in educational technology have left many districts behind with outdated attendance, SIS, administrative, behavior management and security systems.

Underperforming hardware, overtaxed servers and archaic software inhibit the free-flow of communication and discourage collaboration, conditions necessary for a positive school climate.

IT personnel must continually update products to keep systems online and budget restraints require that new technology be patched in or added as separate systems. Disparate programs lack the flexibility, user-friendly interfaces, and integration necessary for efficient management of school operation and data collection. Separate SIS programs, digital grade books, attendance and behavior management systems mean data sets are incomplete and creating useful reports is time-consuming.

New, integrated systems can provide for better security, ease the clerical workload on faculty and staff, facilitate report creation, improve communications, and increase personal accountability to promote a more positive school climate.

Security Measures and their Impact on School Climate

When students and personnel feel unsafe in their schools, learning and teaching are subordinated to self-preservation. Administrators responsible for school security must know who is in the school. They must control who enters the building, identify those who seek entrance and block access to restricted areas. However, overt security measures can undermine efforts to create a welcoming learning environment that encourages risk-taking and the free-flow of ideas.

The National Association of School Psychologists reviewed the research on the impact of school security measures on students. Overt security measures have not proven to be effective in preventing violence from outside intruders or violence between students in the school. Furthermore, these measures increase student apprehension as they create the perception that schools are unsafe places that need to be fortified. One of the most common security measures, surveillance cameras, may simply push criminal activity to unsupervised areas and create a subservient student body that is constantly aware that they are being watched.

A better option for school security is an automated attendance system, state-of-the-art visitor management, and secure door access systems that blend into the school environment while providing an umbrella of security over school buildings.

Automated Attendance

Replacing pen and paper attendance logs with software was one of the first ways many schools entered the digital age. These programs simplified the recording and tabulating of attendance, but these legacy programs may have outlived their usefulness. They still require teachers take time away from lessons to call the roll, and teachers must stop teaching to change the status of tardy students. Password-secured systems require that substitutes manually record attendance and call in absentees to the office. Manual data entry makes these systems prone to human error, and teachers alone are responsible for getting the information right.

RFID technology makes it possible to flip this around and give students responsibility for recording their own attendance. With automated attendance systems, students swipe or tap an ID card at a card reader when they enter the building or classroom. This establishes a connection between the reader and the student’s information, which is stored on a host computer. Card readers may be placed throughout the school, at the cafeteria, library or nurses office, for example, making it possible to locate students and identify those who are not where they should be during a given class period.

These systems generate accurate and timely attendance reports allowing school personnel to identify students who are chronically tardy or absent. A greater benefit, for schools working to build a positive school climate and reduce misbehavior, is the agency these systems give students. They no longer sit passively as an authority figure calls roll. Combined with an Every Student, Every Day initiative, schools can move towards reducing chronic absenteeism and send students the positive message that their presence in school is important.

Visitor Management Systems

Long gone are the times when school doors are left unlocked during the day and visitors could freely move in and out of district buildings. Parents, vendors, substitutes, and others have valid reasons for visiting schools, and most districts have protocols in place to screen out those with nefarious intent. A “greeter” stationed at the school entrance may buzz-in visitors and require they sign-in on a paper log. At the start of the school day and again at dismissal, teachers and staff may be positioned at entrances and in hallways to monitor the flow of students for irregularities. These systems are imperfect.

With a sign-in sheet system, school security personnel have no way to verify the identity of a visitor or know if that person poses a threat to the school. A visitor management system with the ability to scan driver’s licenses or other government-issued ID provides a far greater level of security. Visitors swipe their IDs, and the system prints an ID badge. These systems may be connected to SIS programs to flag issues with child custody and orders of protection while, at the same time, checking the sex offender database for a match. Data collected on the visitor includes a time stamp, photograph, and purpose of visit. This information is immediately available to school personnel on a centralized dashboard.

Secure Door Access

The RAND report, The Role of Technology in Improving K–12 School Safety, finds a strong relationship between school climate and rates of violence in schools. Negative climate indicators, such as the perception of violence, drug use, and disorder, predict incidents of fighting and bullying more than other factors such as school size or location (urban, suburban or rural.) As would be expected, bullying and violence most often occur in isolated areas of the school that has limited adult supervision.

Entry control equipment that has the capability to lock any or all doors in a building from a remote location can block access to restricted areas of the building, ensuring students stay in supervised areas. With secure door access systems, smart ID cards serve as keys allowing authorized individuals access to rooms and areas of the building and barring those without authorization. Data and authorizations are stored remotely and may be adjusted from an administration dashboard. Should a lock-down emergency arise, an administrator may lock all doors at once.

Behavior Management for an Improved School Climate

Traditional behavior management systems rely on handwritten notes and office referrals that tend to gather in a file cabinet. Incident reporting is often inconsistent as students advance through grade levels and interact with different teachers, staff members, and school counselors. The makeup of IEP and 504 teams change, and the child’s parents are often the only consistent presence at review meetings.

Students need to understand expectations and experience consistency in rule enforcement. Effective behavior management systems collect data on behavior issues, interventions, and intervention results. A computerized system simplifies incident recording. Teachers may quickly add notes on behavior to the student’s file where they will become part of a record that will follow students as they advance through grade levels and move to different buildings. A point system that rewards good behaviors may be incorporated when offering extrinsic rewards is deemed appropriate.

Reporting functions help school personnel identify at-risk students and monitor a student’s progress towards behavior goals. These systems automate referrals reducing clerical tasks and providing consistency. Students will recognize that their behavior produces specific outcomes.

As schools become more culturally diverse, school personnel cannot assume all students understand behavioral norms. Sophisticated behavior management programs include a learning component. Students may be assigned sequenced learning modules targeting specific SEL skills. This gives students a sense of control over their learning and creates data to give school counselor and teachers insights into the student’s behaviors and deficits in social/emotional skills.

Integrated Data and Communications

Critical to a positive school climate is the sense of connectedness within the school community. Missed meetings because someone “didn’t get the memo” and parents discovering, well after the fact, that their teenager has been cutting classes creates frustration for everyone. Updated, integrated data and communication systems give all stakeholders access to the information they need while protecting student privacy. Automated attendance systems can alert parents via email, voice or text message when their children check-in to school. Integrated ID cards and cafeteria POS systems may allow parents to check on their child’s food purchases. Updated communication systems give administrators several options beyond email for notifying parents and school personnel about meetings, policy changes, and other concerns.