by Camara, our Summer 2019 intern
School Environment is not something we talk about often. However, it is critical to consider because, when school environment is positive and supportive, it promotes students’ academic, emotional, and spiritual growth.
Prior to interning at Council, I knew very little about school environment and its effects. For the very little that I knew, I relied heavily on prior experiences as a public school student. Although there were metal detectors, security guards, and numerous security cameras around the school, I still received great support from staff to mitigate the effects of fortification. However, there are school environments that appear more like prisons, fraught with racial tensions and biases, and lack supportive staff, which negatively affect students’ perceptions and futures. Therefore, for those interested in child, family, and education policy, understanding school environment is imperative because of its influence on student academic achievement and character development. This week I’ll use my blog to briefly summarize school environment and provide a few recommendations for schools to enhance their environments for their students’ and staff’s benefit.
In December 2018, Community In Schools (CIS) prepared an Overview of School Environment report which discusses school environment in depth. School environment is defined as “a category of concepts that reflect key attributes of the surroundings or conditions in which people operate in school.” In other words, school environment refers to the overlap of school culture and school climate. School culture is what the school does as a collective in terms of traditions, values, beliefs, and expectations. School climate, on the other hand, reflects the cumulative perspectives of students and staff. Research shows that a positive school climate increases attendance rates and academic achievement, promotes student mental and physical wellbeing and teacher retention, and reduces violence (1). A positive school culture combined with a positive school climate results in a positive school environment. Therefore, the overall school environment receives a multitude of short- and long-term benefits.
In CIS’ overview, they conceptualize school environment into five domains that are consistently identified in the research on both school culture and school climate: 1. Shared Vision, 2. Safety, 3. Community, 4. Academics, and 5. Physical Environment (2). Shared Vision is what a school hopes to accomplish and is reflected by the school’s culture, such as its mission, ceremonies, and values. Safety includes physical and social-emotional safety and behavior management (e.g., conflict resolution). Community refers to the quality of in-school interactions and interpersonal relationships among students and teaching personnel. Academics refer to a school’s educational climate and its effect on students’ academic success and achievement. Physical Environment includes the tangible elements of a school such as its available and accessible resources that aid students’ academic success. When the five domains are positively and consistently established, schools are better able to support and encourage students to reach their full potentials.
A school environment is negatively impacted when one or more of the domains are lacking, negative, or harmful. For example, if a school’s community is burdened with racial tensions and biases among students and teaching personnel, students and teachers may lose their sense of belonging in their own school environment. The feeling of not belonging or being welcomed into their school can negatively impact attendance and graduation rates. School environment can also be negatively impacted through increased fortifying practices in schools (e.g., armed security, metal detectors). In a time when schools are targeted in attempts of mass violence, school boards and administrators have altered and expanded their security measures in an attempt to make schools ‘safer’. However, the expansion of digital surveillance, metal detectors, access controlled doors, and armed security alters students’ perceptions regarding school disorder, safety, and themselves. Further, previous research revealed the expansion of fortification security protocols had the opposite impact of its intentions, resulting in increased violence and disorder (3).
A social environment that lacks inclusivity can foster racial, socioeconomic, and gender disparities. The accumulation of negative interactions, such as acts of violence, stereotypes, and biases from teachers due to identity differences, primarily affects perceptions and experiences of students of color, males, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and students with disabilities or emotional/behavioral disorders (4). For a school environment to cater to all of its students, teachers and administrators need to acknowledge the historical setbacks, marginalization, and systemic or tangible barriers that students of various identities face. In addition, staff must provide support for students to be comfortable in and express their marginalized identities and must act in ways that do not further oppress those identities.
Example Interventions to Improve School Environment
If schools are truly interested in improving their environment, there are various interventions that can promote mental wellbeing, improve school safety while ingraining school order, and help mitigate any divides or tensions that exist among students and staff. Below are some examples of interventions to improve school environment:
Intervention 1: Culturally Responsive School Leadership Training
Training for school administrators and teachers should be interminable as they are dealing with children who are still growing and developing. Cultural responsivity and competency training is essential because not all children derive from the same environments and backgrounds. As leaders, role models, and mentors, teachers and administrators play critical roles in improving school environment. To properly address disparity and diversity issues, administrators and teachers participate in professional development courses online or the district could host these opportunities. From these courses, they receive multicultural training and are given time to reflect on interactions with students. Courses include material on properly addressing disparities and tensions among students and how to be more supportive of students who systemically lack support. These courses can foster more effective classroom and school management, which is linked to reduced suspension rates.
Of the five domains of school environment, cultural responsivity and competency training addresses Shared Vision, Safety, and Community. With teachers and school administrators becoming more culturally aware and competent, a share vision to reduce disparities and properly support all students may emerge. The school’s culture, therefore, reflects those aspirations, which will foster equity and an overall positive school environment. The training can also enhance students’ and staff’s sense of community. As tensions and biases lessen, interactions and interpersonal relationships can strengthen. Consequently, the overall school’s safety (especially emotional safety) can be enhanced because of increased support, inclusivity, and sense of belonging from both students and staff.
To learn more about Culturally Responsive School Leadership Training, check out this research article: click here.
Intervention 2: Promoting School Attachment/Sense of Belonging
Schools can offer activities and programs to promote student-school connectedness, including sports teams, interest-based clubs, societies, and school-wide events that firmly establish a school’s culture. Promoting connectedness through school-based activities provides students with the opportunity to gain a better sense of self, leadership skills, physical activity, and healthier habits. Research has shown that students who participated in extracurricular or school-based activities had higher grades, more positive attitudes and perceptions toward their schools, and higher academic aspirations (5). In addition, school-based activities promote stronger interpersonal relationships with peers, coaches/mentors, and teachers. In sum, when students form a connectedness with their school environment, it relates to academic and personal success.
Promoting school attachment fosters the Community, Safety, Academics, and Shared Vision domains. As students become more involved in school-based activities, they gain a stronger sense of self and community alongside their peers and staff mentors that can contribute to a sense of shared vision. Increased participation also increases school pride and skill building. Students learn more about their academic and non-academic capabilities and push themselves toward success in life. Simultaneously, their mental and physical health improves, which can result in a more positive and safer school environment.
To learn more about Promoting School Attachment as an Intervention: click here.
Intervention 3: Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS)
Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS) is another program that can be used to help establish a strong, positive school culture, promote school connectedness, and successfully reduce violence and misbehavior. PBIS is a method that teaches and encourages students to meet a school’s expectations and engage in preferred behavior. To reduce misbehavior and promote a positive school environment, a support-focused plan is created and implemented by school personnel, family and community members to encourage positive expected social skills and character developing behaviors from students. The team determines their desired behaviors for the school setting and encourages students to engage in these behaviors with altered mission statements, school discipline policies, lessons, etc. North Carolina schools that use PBIS had lower out-of-school suspension rates and higher academic performance than schools that do not use PBIS.
PBIS touches on all of the dimensions of school environment, especially Shared Vision and Physical Environment. Since PBIS encourages positive behavior as a component of its core curriculum, PBIS schools may have more tangible and accessible resources for students than non-PBIS schools. Also, PBIS successfully reduces aggressive behavior, improves academic engagement and achievement, reduces teacher turnover, and improves students’ and staff’s perceptions of school climate. With these reductions and improvements, the school environment enhances.
To learn more about PBIS: click here.
There are many other interventions that can be used to enhance a school’s climate and environment. Performing these interventions, when necessary, can help a school become more of a primary or secondary environment with in which youth develop character, and grow academically, emotionally, and spiritually. Children need to feel safe and enriched with care from their teachers, mentors, and peers. A positive school environment is, therefore, essential to promoting wellbeing and safety for our children and within our community.