New Findings Emerge Regarding the Psychology of School Climate

School climate is becoming a science of education and psychology. Studying it helps us to understand the dynamic nature of learning environments, identify elements that support or threaten those environments, and discover how to improve learning conditions in all schools.

Dr. Garry McGiboney, deputy superintendent for policy at the Georgia Department of Education, recently completed a review of school climate research that includes more than 400 articles and papers featuring perspectives from around the world in numerous cultures.

He found that school climate is a significant factor—regardless of the country, student demographics, community demographics, government or religion, size and location of the school, or the school’s level of staffing—that is linked to student academic outcomes.

“While it’s possible for student achievement results to be positive in a less-than-positive school climate, the research shows that it can, and will, improve if the school climate improves,” said McGiboney. “For underachieving schools and students, the research is very compelling that the chances for improvement will increase significantly when the school climate improves significantly; otherwise, the students will languish in a failing school.”

To better understand why school climate is important to socioemotional development and student achievement, McGiboney looked for elements that link school climate to positive student outcomes. He found that the three defining elements of a positive school climate are the physical conditions of the school building, engagement, and relationships.

According to the research, the fabric of a positive school climate is knitted together by teachers and school leaders. Without their collective efforts to make the school clean, safe, and connected and engaged with students, the odds are that the school climate will be negative.

“This is an important point, obviously, but there is more to it than that,” McGiboney explained. “Whether a school climate is positive or not impacts the efficacy and self-satisfaction of teachers, and is related to teacher retention rates.”

The research supports the notion that Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) is a sound framework for improving school climate. When a school climate is improved—and sustained—the school develops into a “system of care” where teachers and staff members know the difference between symptomatic and defiant behavior and also have a deeper understanding and more concern for students.

Another significant finding is that addressing the whole-school climate is more effective at preventing behaviors such as bullying, intimidation, and harassing than projects or programs that target just those behaviors.

“For a targeted program or project to work, the school climate has to be stabilized first,” said McGiboney. “Once a positive school climate is established, the number of bullying, intimidation, and harassing incidents will diminish—and in schools that implement a targeted intervention, it is more likely to be effective.”

Some findings indicate that unabated bullying can lead to self-destructive ideation or behaviors. Additionally, students with mental illness are less likely to thrive or effectively function in a negative school climate—whereas a positive climate can be central in mitigating effects of mental illness. And in a positive school climate, teachers and staff members are more likely to identify a student in mental distress and make appropriate referrals.

More of McGiboney’s findings can be found in his recently released book titled The Psychology of School Climate.