Improving School Climate to Support Student Success

by Sonia Mathew, Civic Learning Manager

The Learning Policy Institute recently published a research brief in September 2018, titled “Educating the Whole Child: Improving School Climate to Support Student Success,” by Linda Darling-Hammond and Channa M. Cook-Harvey. As a key element of Democracy Schools is “school climate,” I was excited to read more about their findings and connect their ideas to strengthening civic learning in schools.

The research brief examines, “how schools can use effective, research-based practices to create settings in which students’ healthy growth and development are central to the design of classrooms and the school as a whole.” The report explores findings related to the science of learning and development, school practices that should come from this science, and policy strategies that can support this work on a wider scale.

Related to the science of learning and development, a key finding from the report that connects to our work in civic learning is that “human relationships are the essential ingredient that catalyzes healthy development and learning.” How do schools cultivate those relationships between students and teachers? What builds teachers’ awareness, empathy, and cultural competence to appreciate and understand their students’ needs and experiences?


Teaching Tolerance has a number of resources and professional development opportunities related to this. Addressing teacher capacity in these areas is essential to promoting the civic development and efficacy in our students.

Darling-Hammond and Cook-Harvey also assert that an implication of the science of learning and development for schools is that there needs to be “supportive environmental conditions that create a positive school climate and foster strong relationships and community.” Schools must work to strengthen relational trust among educators and families. How can families be integrated into the school community? What assets do community members have that can be leveraged in classrooms? Engaging these stakeholders and valuing their expertise can strengthen school and community connections, which is another key element of Democracy Schools.

Additionally, Darling-Hammond and Cook-Harvey recommend that schools become “’identity safe’- i.e. places where all students feel competent and supported in all classroom.” Strategies for promoting identity-safe classrooms include teaching that promotes understanding and developing student voice, responsibility, and belonging in classroom communities. The connection to student voice provides another parallel to the work in Democracy Schools, as our schools strive to find ways for student decision-making to be impactful at various levels of the school community.

A second strategy includes, “Cultivating diversity as a resource for teaching through culturally responsive materials, ideas, and teaching activities, along with high expectations for all students.” Related to this work is addressing racial bias that often exists in schools. Kathleen Osta and LaShawn Route Chatmon from the National Equity Project discuss additional strategies related to this in “Five Steps to Liberating Public Education from its Deep Racial Bias.”

Schools also must prioritize social and emotional learning (SEL) that foster skills, habits, and dispositions that allow for academic growth and development. Developing social and emotional skills helps to cultivate the civic dispositions that we want in our students, so they can be further engaged in their communities.

Darling-Hammond and Cook-Harvey state, “Many schools also infuse social-emotional learning through the curriculum- for example, through curricula focused on perspective-taking and empathy in history and English language arts, and on community and social problem solving in social studies, mathematics, and science. Such efforts produce positive outcomes for student engagement, attachment to school, achievement, attainment, and behavior, including strong collaboration and support of peers, resilience, a growth mindset, and helpfulness toward others.”

These are all qualities we need in our young people to support the strengthening of our democracy and emphasize how a cross-curricular approach can strengthen civic learning.

A final area that connects to our work from this study connects with instructional strategies that support student motivation and efficacy. Inquiry is featured as an important learning strategy and one that the new Illinois Learning Standards for Social Science prioritizes.

Democracy Schools teachers design curriculum and utilize democratic teaching strategies by complementing the curriculum and assessments with civic learning that incorporates student-created essential and supporting questions as well as sustained inquiry. Creating these questions develops opportunities for deeper student engagement and learning.

Recommendations from the report include focusing the system on developmental supports for young people, designing schools to provide settings for healthy development, and ensuring educator learning for developmentally-supportive education. Overall, this emphasizes an alignment between the benefits of civic learning and positive school climate supporting effective learning in schools.

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