Improving School Climate Central to Anti-Bullying Efforts, Say Experts

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by Cindy Long, this article originally appeared on NEAToday.org

The importance of school climate was the theme of the National Education Association’s Bully Free Summit held on Tuesday at its national headquarters in Washington, D.C. The summit brought together researchers, policy makers, practitioners, and other key education stakeholders to discuss and frame the critical role that school climate plays in the prevention of bullying.

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“Everyone in a school community—principals, teachers, counselors, office staff, custodians, food service workers and bus drivers…everyone who comes in contact with students needs to be involved in creating a safe school climate,” says NEA President Dennis Van Roekel.

NEA also released a research brief at the summit, “The Importance of School Climate,” which was produced by Lindsey O’Brennan and Catherine Bradshaw of the Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence. Bradshaw, deputy director of the center, also facilitated the NEA summit.

“School climate is a significant predictor of student success,” says Bradshaw. “We really need to promote safe, supportive learning environments…so that our students can focus on their academics and not be distracted by bullying…NEA [and its members] are critical to the process, which is why it’s so important for the organization to be leading this conversation.”

The research brief, which is being distributed to educators nationwide, defines school climate, explains its importance, offers strategies for measuring it, and provides schools with ideas to improve their own climate, like gauging perceptions of school climate through surveys of students, educators and parents, and by involving all members of the school community in developing programs to improve the safety and connectedness of the school.

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Dr. Catherine Bradshaw and School Climate Specialist Christina Jordan. Photo: Sara Robertson

Participants in the panel suggested other methods for improving school climate, many of which involve students. One example was to appoint student ambassadors to each class or homeroom to help school climate teams understand what’s really happening at the student level. Another was having students staff a table at basketball games and talent shows where they’d ask classmates and families to participate in a school climate survey.

Equally important is engaging staff in improving the climate by determining whether they think the climate requires a school-wide change, or just some smaller, targeted efforts. Staff should be given skills-based trainings as well as specific tools and strategies for targeted interventions, like one-on-one mentoring of students who might feel like they aren’t part of the school community.

Another key element to improving school climate, according to the summit participants, is by involving the entire community. Parents might not feel equipped to provide academic assistance, but they do feel they have the know-how to help with bullying prevention efforts. Allow them to join in and also take advantage of agency and association resources in the community. Most community organizations are happy to partner with their neighborhood schools, especially when students and educators reach out to them to gain support for school climate.

“We’ve drawn national attention to the pervasive problem of bullying, and now we must dig deeper,” says Rocio Inclan, NEA’s Director of Human and Civil Rights. “At today’s summit we’ve convened a ‘dream team’ of school climate researchers, policymakers, and practitioners in order to learn more about creating a positive and respectful school climate.”

Inclan says the next step for the remainder of Bully Prevention Month and throughout the coming years is clear: “We will use what we’ve learned from this summit to help out nation’s educators create a school environment where bullying does not occur.”

Find out how you can get involved and join 40,000 other educators in taking the Bully Free pledge at nea.org/bullyfree.

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