Understanding and celebrating diversity is a challenge. If you are different than someone else, it can easily trigger feelings of anxiety and fear. Are you going to hurt me? Are you going to like me? Is it safe to be open and honest with you? These worries are—in part—built into how our brains work: We are always attuned to possible dangers. This helps us to survive. Evolutionary psychologists often talk about “in-group” and “out-group” behavior and how being in or out of the group profoundly shapes our behavior.

The National School Climate Center (NSCC) works with youth as well as educational leaders from around the world to support school communities in order to create more supportive, safer, and healthier climates for learning, to support success in both school and life.

One of the many projects we work on with school leaders is helping them to measure school climate. Through short surveys, we ask students as well as parents/guardians and school personnel how they feel: How safe they feel in schools, how connected and supported they feel, what kind of teaching and learning is going on, and more. By using school climate surveys, like our Comprehensive School Climate Inventory (CSCI), we develop helpful strategies that allow us to understand a school’s strengths, needs, and weaknesses.

One of the most common survey findings we have discovered actually has a huge effect on school climate. Parents and educators typically report that some students feel unsafe in schools, but most believe this is only a mild or moderately severe problem. However, students across America report that feeling unsafe in schools is a major and severe problem. We have discovered that this is virtually always rooted in mean, cruel, and/or bullying behaviors linked to an intolerance of diversity. Students tease and bully others who are different (i.e., in “out groups”). And any and all differences can, and too often do, become the focus of mean, cruel, and/or bullying behaviors, including: ethnicity, gender, religious preference, socioeconomic status, body type, sexual orientation, and disabilities.

Helping to make schools safe—socially, emotionally, intellectually, and physically—is an essential goal for virtually all educators, student council and Honor Society members, and parents. It is well known that if we—students or adults—do not feel safe, it undermines our ability to listen, learn, work, and collaborate with others.

Learning and working to make schools safer is not something any one person can do alone. School climate improvement needs to be an effort that educators, other school personnel, parents/guardians, students, and community members/leaders work on together as a “whole village.”

The School Climate Improvement Process

Most school improvement efforts in the United States and around the world today tend to focus on students’ language, math, and science learning. Although there is a growing appreciation for social, emotional, civic, and intellectual learning, most school improvement efforts focus on student cognitive learning. However, these more social forms of learning are always going on and help provide the foundation for success.

“School climate” refers to the quality and character of school life. It is based on patterns of students’, parents’, and school personnel’s experiences of school life, and it reflects norms, goals, values, interpersonal relationships, teaching and learning practices, as well as organizational structures. A sustainable, positive school climate fosters youth development and provides the learning necessary for students to live a productive and satisfying life to which they actively contribute. This climate includes:

  • Norms, values, and expectations that support people feeling socially, emotionally, and physically safe.
  • People who are engaged and respected.
  • Students, families, and educators working together to develop, live, and contribute to a shared school vision.
  • Educators who model and nurture attitudes that emphasize the benefits and satisfaction gained from learning.
  • Each person contributing to the operations of the school and to the care of the physical school environment.

An effective school climate improvement process is one that ignites the intrinsic motivation of students, parents/guardians, school personnel, and community members/leaders to address three essential questions:

  1. What kind of school community do we want ours to be?
  2. What are our current strengths, needs, and weaknesses—not just academically but also socially, emotionally, and civically—as revealed through school climate survey measurement (or any number of other measurement strategies)?
  3. Given the “gap” between our vision and current reality, what schoolwide, instructional, and/or relational goals do students, parents, and school personnel feel are most important to work on together?

School climate improvement is all about teamwork: Students, parents/guardians, school personnel, and community members are learning and working together. Honor Society and student council members especially can be a conduit for positive change in their school. Extraordinary school improvement research has underscored that the principal and other educators can’t foster a school transformation process alone—everyone has to learn and work together. Over the last decade we have learned that mobilizing students to be meaningful co-learners and co-leaders in the improvement process is a key to success!

Upstander Alliance

Being an “upstander” means that you struggle—in the best sense of the word—to consider what it means to do the right thing when seeing or hearing something that is wrong—someone crying, someone being treated in a mean or cruel manner, or someone being bullied. Too often when students and even adults see a student being bullied, they are a bystander—they literally or figuratively walk on by and don’t help. We suggest that this is not socially responsible, and student leaders—such as those involved in student council, NHS, NJHS, or other groups—should strive to set a positive example for the rest of the student body.

For many years, NSCC has showcased a growing body of free information and guidelines for students as well as educators and parents about bully-victim-bystander behavior. Over the last few years, the center has become more focused on developing toolkits and other resources to support students being “change agents” in their school community. All of this serves to foster conversations and behavioral changes that have the potential to shift the social norms of the school from a culture that implicitly supports bystander behavior to a culture that explicitly recognizes, celebrates, and supports upstander (or socially responsible) behavior.

Supporting Student Leadership Around the World

The Tony Blair Faith Foundation’s “Face to Faith” project (www.facetofaithonline.org) supports students from a wide range of different faiths and belief traditions (including those of no faith) in talking with each other—via facilitated video conferences—about their experiences. Face to Faith has learned that the number one concern students report internationally (regardless of geography or socioeconomic status) is bully-victim-bystander behavior.

Face to Faith and NSCC are partnering to support students from around the world learning to do two things. First, our “Standing Up for Each Other” effort will support students discovering the extent to which mean, cruel, and/or bullying behaviors are going on in their school community. And secondly, we provide information and guidelines to affirm students’ understanding of what they as learners and leaders can do to promote more supportive, safer, and healthier school climates. Visit www.surveymonkey.com/r/T6NMWW2 to join the project.

It is important to remember that dialogue is something that is learned. It is critical for students, especially those in chapter or council leadership roles, to experience a range of activities that are explicitly designed to enhance dialogue skills. Learning to have controversial conversations provides an essential foundation for healthy group life and democracy. Rather than shying away from these topics, we must focus on the skills and knowledge that students must learn to be able to have difficult conversations with others.

The School-Community Partnership Process

It really does take the whole village to support children’s healthy development and capacity to learn. Most educational leaders know that K–12 schools need the support and help of community members and leaders, but relatively few schools focus on this foundational goal.

The NSCC has developed a Community Scale and School-Community Partnership Process to support school climate reform efforts. This process can be an exciting way to engage students as leaders in their council or Honor Society chapter. Students take a very short survey to 15 sectors of the larger school community (ranging from faith-based establishments to local media, law enforcement, local political/civic leaders, arts organizations, and more). They ask these two questions:

  1. What are your perceptions of our school/community partnership as it is currently?
  2. To what extent would you be interested in learning about and actively supporting the school’s improvement efforts?

We have been very excited to see how many methods students as well as community members have developed. For example, one community had an Elk Club that included many members who needed students to work on various summer projects. The students and these community members ended up collaboratively hosting a job fair that resulted in many students obtaining summer jobs. In another community, members of a senior citizen complex wanted to learn about what high school students were thinking and doing. And, the high school students decided they wanted to learn from the senior citizens. This has resulted in a new monthly set of meetings that involve students going to the senior citizen facility so both groups can learn from each other.

Community members and leaders also have the ability to support the school’s improvement goals. Several school communities that have identified bully-victim-bystander behavior as a central problem are now working with community members and leaders to address this together. In fact, what it means to be a witness and how we respond to someone being hurt has profound historical and civic implications. Mean, cruel, and/or bullying behaviors are only possible if the community of witnesses passively or actively supports this. And, when parents (not to mention faith-based leaders and local, civic, and media leaders) talk about the role of the witness in human history and/or daily life and recognize the school’s efforts to raise awareness about bully-victim-witness behavior, they can powerfully support the school’s efforts to create a healthy school climate.

Listen to students talking about their experiences with the Community Scale and the School-Community Partnership by visiting www.schoolclimate.org/climate/community-scale.php.

Members of the whole school community-students as well as parents/guardians, school personnel, and community members-should be active co-learners and co-leaders of the school’s improvement efforts. Although the principal should be the “captain of the ship,” remember that school improvement needs to be a “whole village” effort. Students, especially those involved with student council and NHS/NJHS, can and should play a central role in the process. —

Jonathan Cohen, PhD, is the president and co-founder of the National School Climate Center. He’s also adjunct professor in psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and a consultant. He may be reached at 212-707-8799 or [email protected]