Improving School Climate Through a Tiered Approach

Schools are developing multi-tiered systems of supports to provide positive outcomes for their students.

Over the past several years, efforts toward improving “school climate” have been increasingly on the forefront of national and local school initiatives.

But what is a positive school climate?

School climate reflects how each member of a school community experiences school. The National School Climate Center (NSCC) defines school climate as “the quality and character of school life.” According to the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments, funded by the U.S. Department of Education:

A positive school climate is the product of a school’s attention to fostering safety; promoting a supportive academic, disciplinary, and physical environment; and encouraging and maintaining respectful, trusting, and caring relationships throughout the school community no matter the setting — from Pre-K/Elementary School to higher.”

In the 2018 Healthy Youth Survey — a voluntary, biannual survey of Washington students’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors — 79% of 10th graders reported that they feel safe at school, 73% of 8th graders said there were people at their schools to help them if they needed it, and 68% of 6th graders indicated that teachers notice when they are doing a good job and let them know.

However, the survey also reported that 40% of 10th graders felt sad or hopeless for at least two weeks in the past year, and 45% of 8th graders reported feeling nervous, anxious or over the edge in the last two weeks.

So, what exactly does “School Climate Improvement” refer to?

School climate improvement is when a school strategically considers its practices, systems and structures to include all stakeholders and the collection and review of relevant data. According to the U.S. Department of Education, “A positive school climate is characterized by a school that effectively attends to all the social, emotional and academic support needs of its students”(1).

What are the outcomes of improved school climate?

Findings from the American Institute of Research and the US Department of Education National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments show that efforts focused on the improving school climate can yield outcomes such as:

  • increased student engagement,
  • increase in positive student/staff relationships,
  • measurable benefits in student performance, attendance and graduation rates,
  • reduction in drop-out rates, and
  • greater teacher satisfaction and wellness.

What do school climate improvement efforts currently look like in Washington state?

OSPI is following the recommendation of the National Center of Safe and Supportive Learning Environments (NCSSLE) by supporting districts and schools to implement multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS). MTSS is not a program or intervention, but rather a system of organizing programs or interventions so they are delivered appropriately to students.

Justyn Poulos, director of MTSS at OSPI, is helping to lead the efforts to scale up this work in Washington. He points out that the “values assigned to implementing MTSS in Washington schools are: inclusion, equity, collaboration, and family/community engagement.”

The components of MTSS are the same for frameworks implemented for both academic and behavior outcomes. Both Response to Intervention (RTI) for academics and Positive Interventions and Supports (PBIS) for behavior depend upon:

  1. Team driven shared leadership,
  2. Data based decision making,
  3. Family/student/community engagement,
  4. A continuum of supports, and
  5. Evidenced based practices.

What first steps can schools take to improve their climate?

Schools can start by looking at and understanding their data. The Healthy Youth Survey offers a great starting point for measuring school climate through the perception of students. The survey asks several questions specific to school climate.

For a more direct look at perception data, there are multiple surveys to measure the perception school climate by students, families and staff. One short and straightforward school climate survey is the PBIS Apps School Climate Survey.

Whether you are a school leader, family member, student, or school staff member, this Quick Guide on Making School Climate Improvements from the National Center of Safe Support Learning has great ideas for first steps you can take.

How is OSPI supporting schools with MTSS/PBIS?

OSPI is working to scale up implementation of multi-tiered behavioral support systems throughout our state through the Washington School Climate Transformation Grant (SCTG). This five-year grant will largely focus on building capacity to offer more frequent and consistent MTSS training and coaching for districts statewide. OSPI also hosts monthly MTSS Webinars for district leaders and will host it’s annual, MTSS Fest conference on May 4–5.

Contact Joanna Brown, Program Supervisor, School Climate to learn more about school climate efforts in Washington state.