Committee for Children Blog

School Climate and Social-Emotional Learning

Positive Schools Climate | Students studying | Library

The concept of “school climate” is of great interest to educators today who, in light of regular news reports of school violence, are seeking a way to keep their school community safe for everyone. Although the term has been in use for more than 100 years (Perry, 1908), the exact meaning of school climate is still difficult to pin down.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll use the definition set forth by the National School Climate Council, co-led by the Education Commission of the States: “the quality and character of school life,” with an elaboration: “School climate is based on patterns of students’, parents’, and school personnel’s experience of school life and reflects norms, goals, values, interpersonal relationships, teaching and learning practices, and organizational structures.” Within this concept of school climate lie many dimensions. The National School Climate Council points to four major areas that any school climate assessment should include, then, deeper still, a series of sub-scales:

School Climate Assessment Areas | Social Emotional Learning


1. Rules and Norms
2. Sense of Physical Security
3. Sense of Social-Emotional Security

Teaching and Learning

4. Support for Learning
5. Social and Civic Learning

Interpersonal Relationships

6. Respect for Diversity
7. Social Support—Adults
8. Social Support—Students

Institutional Environment

9. School Connectedness/Engagement
10. Physical Surroundings
11. Leadership
12. Professional Relationships

For teachers and administrators looking to improve the overall feelings and attitudes about their school expressed by students, teachers, staff, and parents, this multilayered description of school climate is a good place to start. Research is catching up with what educators already instinctively know: that students might have a hard time learning if they feel uncomfortable, fearful, or unsafe in school. In fact, one study demonstrates that school climate is a predictor of school disorder: “School climate explained a substantial percentage of the variance in all measures of school disorder….Schools in which students perceived greater fairness and clarity of rules had less delinquent behavior and less student victimization” (Gottfredson, Gottfredson, Payne, & Gottfredson, 2005).

Social-emotional learning (SEL) programs have been shown to improve “students’ social-emotional skills, attitudes about self and others, connection to school, positive social behavior, and academic performance; they also reduced students’ conduct problems and emotional distress,” according to a meta-analysis by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011). SEL programs such as Committee for Children’s Second Step and Steps to Respect curricula can support the elements that contribute to a positive school climate by fostering an environment of respect, inclusion, and safety. Following are some of the specific ways that these programs can help meet the standards set out in the 12-point scale of indicators above.

Sense of Physical and Social-Emotional Security

Committee for Children’s Second Step program has shown to be an effective violence prevention program. Reducing aggression and violence among students is an excellent way to ensure physical and social-emotional security.

Reducing bullying is another powerful way to improve school climate by increasing student safety. Rigorous evaluations have found that the Steps to Respect program can decrease bullying and bystander support of bullying.

School Connectedness/Engagement; Social Support—Students and Adults

Feeling connected to people at school is a critical element of a positive school climate. The Second Step and Steps to Respect programs increase empathy and improve students’ social, friendship, and conflict-resolution skills. These competencies can also improve students’ abilities to make positive social connections with peers while reducing the kinds of negative peer interactions that harm school climate. Programs such as these can help children feel safe and supported by the adults around them so they can build stronger bonds to school and focus on academic achievement (Durlak et al., 2011). The programs support school staff too, with schoolwide policies and training.

Respect for Diversity, Social and Civic Learning

Committee for Children’s programs encourage understanding and respect for diversity, whether in lessons about accepting differences and understanding how and why people perceive things differently (in the Second Step program), or through foundational and friendship skills in the Steps to Respect program. The skills taught in these programs are in alignment with academic content standards, including civics and life skills, among other subject areas.

Read about the Second Step program and academic alignment. [link to PDF]
Read about the Steps to Respect program and academic alignment.[link to PDF]

School Climate: Many Definitions, One Core Concept

The list goes on. These are only a few examples based on just one definition of school climate. Educators will find that Committee for Children programs will align with virtually any definition of positive school climate. The entire school community can work together toward building a school climate that is safe and inclusive, and that encourages all students to remain engaged in school despite the pitfalls of bullying, substance abuse, and peer pressure.


Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R .D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405–432.

Gottfredson, G. D., Gottfredson, D. C., Payne, A. A., & Gottfredson, N. C. (2005). School climate predictors of school disorder: Results from a national study of delinquency prevention in schools. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency. 42, 412–444.

National School Climate Center. (n.d.) School Climate (webpage). New York: National School Climate Center. Retrieved from

Payton, J., Weissberg, R. P., Durlak, J. A., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., Schellinger, K. B., & Pachan, M. (2008). The positive impact of social and emotional learning for kindergartern to eighth-grade students: Findings from three scientific reviews (Technical Report). Chicago, IL: Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.

Perry, A. (1908). The management of a city school. New York: Macmillan.

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