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Virginia Journal of Education

Climate Change

Supportiveness, safety, caring and trust make all the difference in schools.

Nobody learns well when they’re uncomfortable. Creating a positive climate is step one to fostering academic and all-around excellence at school. Here’s some advice on how to do that, from the U.S. Department of Education report, “Guiding Principles: A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline”:

Engage in deliberate efforts to create positive school climates. Given the relationship between school climate and academic achievement, schools should take deliberate steps to create a positive school climate in which every student can learn, fully engage in a rigorous curriculum, and feel safe, nurtured and welcome. To begin, and to complement the school’s academic goals, each school community should identify its own goals for such a climate, including school discipline. To develop these goals, schools may involve families, students, staff and other community stakeholders. Schools may also identify areas for improvement by using a comprehensive needs assessment that captures data on student and staff behaviors, experiences and perceptions.

Schools should consider goals covering supports for all students, including students of color, students with disabilities, and students who may be at risk for dropping out of school, or for trauma, social exclusion or behavior incidents. Those with such risks include, but are not limited to, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students; homeless and unaccompanied students; corrections-involved students; students in foster care; pregnant and parenting students; migrant students; English Language Learners; and others. For example, specific goals may include reducing the total numbers of suspensions and expulsions, reducing the number of law enforcement referrals from the school, identifying and connecting at-risk youths to tailored supports, or increasing the availability of quality mental health supports available for students.

As discussed further below, schools should collect and use multiple forms of data in compliance with applicable privacy laws to track progress and propel continuous improvement. Schools should also establish formal structures to support the management and monitoring of this data, involving students, teachers, administrators, parents, health professionals and community representatives, such as school-based climate teams. Such structures may also include identifying personnel to receive complaints or creating regular outlets for students to voice concerns.

Prioritize the use of evidence-based prevention strategies, such as tiered supports, to promote positive student behavior. Schools should implement prevention-based strategies that identify at-risk students and match tiered supports and interventions – universal, targeted and intensive – to meet students’ varied behavioral and developmental needs.

“Universal” supports are supports provided to all students, prior to any display of disruptive behavior. Such supports set expectations for behavior, including during after-hours school-sponsored events, and should include efforts to explicitly teach and model expected behaviors and social and emotional competencies. Lessons may be integrated into the regular academic curriculum, as well as into school-wide activities and programs that involve all students and staff.

“Targeted” supports, such as group interventions, mentoring, peer mentoring and team building are provided to students displaying occasional signs of mild to moderate misbehavior. Students in need of targeted supports can be identified more easily, and their needs or behavior can be addressed more effectively, when universal supports are in place.

“Intensive” supports are individual interventions for students who display frequent, moderate or severe forms of misbehavior, or to students who have experienced trauma or who display other risk factors.

Trained school-based support personnel – which may include counselors, psychologists, behavioral interventionists, social workers, mental health providers, and nurses – can be critical to the effective implementation of tiered supports. These professionals can serve as partners to teachers to help identify student needs and provide school-based emotional and mental health support for struggling and vulnerable students. Additionally, through appropriately designed partnerships with local mental health agencies, a school can fill in potential staffing gaps and expand the range of targeted and intensive interventions it offers as part of its tiered supports.

Promote social and emotional learning to complement academic skills and encourage positive behavior. Social and emotional learning refers to the development of non-cognitive student competencies – including self-awareness, self-management, resilience, social agility and responsible decision-making – which collectively support healthy relationships, community participation, and achievement.

An emerging body of research shows that social and emotional competencies can help students concentrate on learning through self-control, helping them face challenges and understand consequences, and strengthen motivation and perseverance.

By providing students opportunities to practice, receive constructive feedback, and reapply these skills, social and emotional learning programs encourage students to closely examine their own behaviors and choices, consider the effect of their behavior on themselves and their communities, and think about what they might have done differently. Schools should integrate social and emotional learning into both the broader school-wide and the tiered supports described earlier.

Provide regular training and supports to all school personnel – including teachers, principals, support staff and school-based law enforcement officers – on how to engage students and support positive behavior. One of the most powerful tools for preventing disruptive student behavior is the use of sound instructional strategies that motivate and engage students. In addition, when equipped with strategies for responding to inappropriate student behaviors, staff can help promote positive student behavior.

Schools should provide all staff who interact with students with effective professional development and ongoing support, and match professional learning opportunities with the needs of various personnel–teachers, principals or specialized support professionals, such as social workers. All personnel need regular, job-embedded training and coaching on their responsibilities in maintaining a positive school climate. In particular, if school resource officers, school-based police, or any security or law enforcement personnel are on campus, schools should give special consideration to their training and ongoing development. Specialized support professionals can also support teachers and other staff – in addition to students – by identifying training needs and providing ongoing professional development on issues related to their expertise.

In addition to professional development focused on instructional practice, training should emphasize ways to ensure fair treatment of all students. It should include strategies for managing student behavior and promoting student development, understanding the code of conduct and discipline policy and, if law enforcement officers are on campus, information concerning their appropriate roles. Training on more specific strategies may also include the use of tiered supports, de-escalation techniques, conflict resolution, age- and developmentally appropriate responses, and crisis management. Topics may also include related issues, such as civil rights laws, child and adolescent development, disability and special education issues, cultural responsiveness and institutional bias, and student and family engagement.

Finally, efforts to continuously improve school climate should include procedures to assess their effectiveness in improving climate and to measure growth in staff knowledge and skills. For example, schools may use student surveys and personnel evaluations for such purposes.

Collaborate with local mental health, child welfare, law enforcement and juvenile justice agencies and other stakeholders to align resources, prevention strategies and intervention services. Carefully structured partnerships with local agencies can help schools better support student needs and maintain safe environments. Many communities have successfully established such partnerships in ways that are consistent with privacy laws.

Appropriately designed partnerships with local mental health agencies can assist schools in identifying students coping with trauma or mental health or emotional issues, and may also allow schools to expand the range of its tiered supports, as discussed earlier. These partnerships can also ensure the smooth delivery of services between school and community-based mental health providers, and fill in staffing gaps for schools facing shortages of school-based mental health professionals.

Relationships between schools and law enforcement or juvenile justice agencies can also help schools maintain safe environments, helping schools plan for and respond appropriately to emergencies, facilitate re-entry and transition of students from juvenile justice placements, and reduce criminalization. These relationships must be designed with particular care, however, to avoid unintended consequences, such as inappropriate student referrals to the justice system, violation of applicable civil rights laws, or information exchanges that violate student privacy rights.

Schools and local agencies may decide to use cross-agency teams to identify needs; share information if appropriate and in compliance with applicable privacy laws; pool resources; and provide needed services as early as possible in cooperative, non-duplicative ways. These partnerships may also create opportunities for cross-agency professional development to share diverse perspectives and areas of expertise. For example, local mental health agencies may be able to facilitate access to training on child and adolescent development and de-escalation procedures for school personnel and other local partners.

To formalize these partnerships, partner agencies may want to develop written agreements or memoranda of understanding (MOUs) to clarify roles and areas of responsibility, processes, scope of work, staffing and leadership, and lines of communication.

Ensure that any school-based law enforcement officers’ roles focus on improving school safety and reducing inappropriate referrals to law enforcement. School-based law enforcement officers, which refers in this guide to school resource officers (SROs), school security officers, or other campus-based security, can be an important part of a comprehensive school safety plan. It is important, however, for schools to recognize that any arrests or referrals to law enforcement can have negative collateral consequences for students, and that students of color and students with disabilities may experience disproportionate contact with law enforcement and the justice system.

For this reason, schools choosing to use school-based law enforcement officers should carefully ensure that these officers’ roles are focused on protecting the physical safety of the school or preventing the criminal conduct of persons other than students, while reducing inappropriate student referrals to law enforcement. Schools should also ensure that school-based law enforcement officers do not become involved in routine school disciplinary matters. For the same reasons, schools without campus-based security should avoid involving law enforcement or encouraging the use of law enforcement techniques (such as arrest, citations, ticketing or court referrals) in routine disciplinary matters. To ensure the proper functioning of any school-based law enforcement program and to avoid negative unintended consequences, schools should provide clear definitions of the officers’ roles and responsibilities on campus, written documentation of those roles, proper training, and continuous monitoring of the program’s activities through regular data collection and evaluation.



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