What is school climate?

The Link - Issue 7


  1. School climate and school culture are different. Climate is a product of relationships and how people feel about their school. Culture concerns values, meanings and beliefs, and how things are done. Climate can be shifted more easily than culture. A positive school climate enhances learning environments.
  2. School climate is a multidimensional, holistic concept that encompasses a number of domains: safety, teaching and learning, interpersonal relationships, and the (external) environment. It is a result of relationships between students, school staff, parents and the community.
  3. School climate — positive or negative — is a major factor in student achievement, and mental health and wellbeing. For students this includes prosocial behaviour, social inclusion, attendance, belonging and connectedness; and for educators, job satisfaction, retention, self-efficacy, and wellbeing.
  4. Improvement endeavours are more effective when all four climate domains are addressed simultaneously. Effective cycles of improvement are ongoing, “intentional, strategic, collaborative, transparent, and coordinated” [1] and involve whole-school engagement.


  1. Holistic approaches are more likely to be effective when compared to efforts which focus on one domain at a time. A comprehensive review of school climate will help to identify and determine targets for improvement in each domain. Reviews should include all stakeholder perspectives.
  2. Social capital (quality of relationships) is an essential element to be modelled by all members of the school — students, staff and community. This includes supporting social and emotional learning (SEL), peer modelling, and building collaborative, caring relationships.
  3. Leaders who model positive climate characteristics enable change to permeate throughout all areas of a school. These characteristics include building quality interpersonal relationships based on trust, shared leadership across the school (students and staff), and a culture of inclusion.
  4. Professional learning for educators and staff should include social and emotional learning, and link to not only wellbeing and curriculum but also school climate literacy. Teachers who are literate in climate and SEL are better able to model positive behaviours and sustain positive climates.


School climate is increasingly acknowledged as a foundational element in whole-school improvement and education reform. Research evidence associates it with a host of student and educator outcomes, highlighting the substantive role it plays in a school’s wellbeing and learning environments. School climate is now regarded as an essential component of whole-school improvement and success [2, 3].

Why focus on improving climate?

Whether positive or negative, school climate impacts students and educators in wide-ranging ways.Impacts for students include:

  • academic achievement — ongoing assessment, results, and attitudes to and motivation for learning
  • school attendance, retention and drop-out rates
  • mental and emotional health and wellbeing, social and emotional learning, and personal development
  • behavioural issues such as bullying, harassment, aggression, and violence, for perpetrators, victims, and bystanders/upstanders
  • engagement in negative risk taking behaviours
  • self-concept, self-efficacy and self-esteem
  • sense of belonging and connectedness
  • social inclusion for students.

Impacts for educators include:

  • job satisfaction
  • teacher retention, particularly early career educators
  • teacher wellbeing and burnout
  • classroom practices — academic and student management  
  • teacher self-efficacy and resilience
  • mental and emotional health and wellbeing
  • curricula and program implementation.

Research suggests that positive, supportive climates improve program implementation and effectiveness, teacher attitudes to change, and teaching pedagogy and curricula delivery [4].

But what is climate?

Research points to some lack of consensus on whether or not climate and culture are the same [5], how climate is understood and researched, and what school climate reform entails [6].

At its simplest school climate refers to the “feel” that students and staff have about their school (their shared perceptions) and the “quality and character of school life.” [7] It also reflects the “quality of the interpersonal relationships” among students, school staff, parents, and the wider community [8, 9]. Wellbeing expert Professor Sue Roffey calls this social capital: “the levels of trust, mutual responsibility and reciprocity that people experience in their interactions with each other and their sense of belonging to a particular community.” [10]

The relationship between climate and culture is a close one, a symbiosis. Culture “concerns values, meanings, and beliefs [whereas] climate concerns the perception of those values, meanings, and beliefs.” [51] School culture is a narrower concept than climate — culture tells its members “how we do things around here.” [12]  

Climate is in part a manifestation of culture, but as the name suggests, it is more changeable and dynamic than the more entrenched culture.[13, 14] It is “grounded in people’s experience of school life” [15] and is a holistic, multidimensional concept comprised of four important domains (safety, interpersonal relationships, teaching and learning, and the (external) environment).


Feeling safe at school, whether physically, socially or emotionally, is recognised as a powerful factor in student development, wellbeing and learning. Students and school staff can be subject to varying kinds of verbal and physical bullying, harassment and exclusion. The negative impacts of anti-social behaviour extend beyond victims to bystanders/upstanders and the wider school community. Attending to safety therefore goes beyond ensuring physical environments are safe, to enacting school-wide approaches to positive behaviour, communicating clearly articulated rules and norms about behaviour, and implementing these consistently.

Improved academic achievement is both a direct and indirect outcome of safe school climates. Research also identifies reductions in suspension rates, absenteeism, victimisation, violence, aggression, and negative risk taking behaviours. Improvements in mental health and wellbeing, help-seeking, classroom behaviour and student-teacher relationships are also evident. Other factors that positively support feelings of safety include:

  • caring, supportive and respectful relationships between students and students and adults, principal support for teachers, and respectful professional relationships [2, 16, 52]
  • prosocial education such as SEL [18, 19]
  • shared leadership — involving student, teacher and parent voice in decision-making related to school-wide behavioural expectations and interventions to be implemented — increases the likelihood of success [20, 21]  
  • structure (clearly articulated ethos and policies) and support (by peers and school leaders) are positively related to teacher wellbeing and improved feelings of safety [52].

A positive school climate that is “not supportive of any kind of mean­spirited behaviors, including but not limited to bullying and harassment” [18] has whole-school implications. Attention to safety also extends to online spaces and behaviour, and reflects an acceptance of diversity in all its forms.

Interpersonal relationships

Because social capital plays a significant role in school climate, fostering and supporting positive relationships between students and school staff, parents and the wider community is of central importance [9, 10].

Good quality relationships increase students’ feelings of safety and social inclusion, sense of connectedness and belonging to school and community, and overall life satisfaction, whilst reducing rates of bullying and aggression [9, 15, 22, 23]. Healthy interpersonal relationships built on respect and mutual trust are a necessary component of a positive climate [9].

Respect for diversity, and acceptance and inclusion of commonly marginalised groups (for example, those with special needs, ethnic minorities or migrants, those that self-identify as LGBTIQ, or are socio-economically or culturally different are also essential [9, 24]). Having a clear understanding of what a positive school climate might feel like for members of these groups can provide guidance on what to work towards [25]. Student and staff voice ensures everyone in the school community is included regardless of how they identify [26]. Only when students and staff feel included can they benefit from a positive school climate [53].

Supportive student-peer relationships have been identified as more significant than student-teacher relationships for emotional health and wellbeing [54]. Negative interpersonal behaviour has profound impacts on student academic and wellbeing outcomes. It is important when supporting student relationships that the values and ethos of the school are contextualised and have a whole-school focus [27].

Healthy teacher/adult-student relationships, and the presence of caring adults are essential components of how connected students feel to their school. Positive relationship with at least one caring adult (external to family) can significantly impact student wellbeing [28]. Including students, and enabling student voice, in decision-making processes can promote feelings of school connectedness. Positive student-teacher relationships also improve teacher feelings of safety and wellbeing [29].

Positive adult interpersonal relationships are an integral ingredient in school improvement and climate [16].  Respectful, collaborative, supportive, trusting work environments where adults share in the decision making, and feel a part of a shared vision, are vital. Key are those relationships between school executive and other staff. Such relationships impact not only educators but also students as educators enjoy their work, and are motivated to do their best for themselves as well as their students [9].

Teaching and learning

Because schools are learning environments, the impact of school climate on students’ abilities to learn and educators’ abilities to teach is significant. Positive climates that promote “cooperative learning, group cohesion, respect, and mutual trust” support and improve student learning, as well as educator job self-efficacy, satisfaction and performance [2, 30, 31]. They influence teacher practices in the classroom and increase the rigour of their curricula or program implementation [32].

For students, academic achievement is positively impacted by learning environments that include social-emotional learning, and opportunities for student growth, voice and leadership [33]. Gains can be significant, and can positively impact back on school climate.

Service-learning, which connects students to their community and learning to real-world problems, impacts on student engagement and wellbeing, and reduces absenteeism and dropout rates [34, 35]. Meaningful learning, engagement and personal growth can be fostered by providing opportunities for students to apply critical thinking and problem solving skills. Service learning also encourages collaboration and can impact on positive attitudes to diversity and inclusion [36]. This is particularly the case if students are given autonomy of choice in their service learning activities.

The (external) environment

This encompasses both the physical structure of a school and its resourcing, and whole-school connectedness.

Building quality — appearance, layout, climate control, lighting and acoustics, cleanness, design and allocation of space — is recognised as impacting student academic outcomes and behaviour [37, 38], and students’, school staff, and community perceptions of school climate. Improving school grounds and instructional spaces (even in small, low-cost ways) has been shown to significantly improve learning, behaviour and reduce disciplinary issues [38]. Building quality also impacts school staff, affecting teacher wellbeing, self-efficacy, collegiality, professionalism and retention [37].

The impact of school size on climate is not clear, however there is some indication that it can contribute to feelings of student school connectedness, and both positive and negative social capital [2]. Research suggests that larger schools can impact on feelings of safety, and increase the likelihood of negative interpersonal behaviours [39]. Schools can build a greater sense of connectedness and personalisation by creating school within a school structures, or creating context-appropriate communities. Examples include middle school, year cohorts, co-curricular programs, pastoral or house groups.

Schools that focus on supporting student and staff connectedness foster cohesion and cooperation, and have teachers who are likely to know their students well and have trust-based relationships with them [40].

Evidence on impact of size is complicated by additional factors such as whether a school is rural or urban, primary or secondary, and socio-economic factors [41].  

Sense of school connectedness also impacts broadly, from academic achievement and sense of safety, to behaviour, health and wellbeing, and overall student satisfaction [2]. It is considered a protective factor against negative risk taking behaviour.

Working towards improvement

Research into school climate improvement highlights the interdependence of the four elements discussed above. It suggests that focusing on one area, such as whole-school positive behaviour strategies, can positively impact other elements of school climate. However, it also suggests that a singular focus approach can undermine whole-school improvement efforts.  

For schools wanting to improve, climate is recognised as one of the “main leverage point[s],” [5] not only for the gambit of positive outcomes discussed above, but also for driving change at the deeper school culture level. Improvement “is an intentional, strategic, collaborative, transparent, and coordinated” [1] whole-school endeavour.

Measuring school climate

Improvement begins with assessing a school’s existing climate, and should include all stakeholder groups in the process.

Although schools can get a strong sense of their climate by simple means such as reviewing school data (for example, student attendance rates, behavioural data, and teacher retention rates), the use of scientifically sound survey instruments that capture relevant aspects of school climate are central to improvement. Surveys are also an effective method for aggregating individual perceptions to capture a wide range of trends [42] which can be supplemented by a range of qualitative data (for example, interviews, focus groups, observations) [1].

It is also important to gather data from core stakeholder groups (students, school personnel, parents, and ideally the community) to capture different perceptions of a school’s unique climate [43, 44]. Research indicates that different groups can hold diverse perceptions. For example, students and educators can differ on their perceptions of climate at the classroom and school levels, and teachers and administrators can hold disparate views on various aspects of a school’s climate [45, 46]. Characteristics such as gender, age, and background can also impact on perceptions of climate [47].

Capturing a wide range of perspectives and needs also increases stakeholder buy-in and investment in the school’s positive climate [1].

Because climate is subjective, collective, contextual, and dynamic, no two school climates are the same and no school’s climate remains the same over time. This suggests the need to measure school climate regularly. The process begins with obtaining baseline data to support the design of improvements that reflect the contextual uniqueness of a school’s community and climate. The impact of improvements can then be tracked over time. Consequently, measuring school climate for improvement is an iterative process rather than a one-off effort [32].

The importance of leadership

Instructional leadership behaviour impacts climate and influences student outcomes [55, 56]. By modelling behaviours and attitudes that create and sustain a positive climate in their context, leaders foster a positive climate at the school level, which in turn enables teachers to flourish. As a result, teachers are then in a strong position to cultivate that a positive classroom climate [16].

Because climate is largely a product of social capital and the quality of relationships, there are a number of factors leaders can focus on.

Trust is an integral element of social capital. Considered the “lubricant of organizational functioning” [57] it is a foundational feature of healthy relationships, for which school leaders have significant responsibility. Teachers who feel trusted to perform their roles effectively are more likely to exemplify better standards of professionalism [48].

Shared leadership or a team approach, encompasses not only those on the executive team, but also school staff, students and the community. These practices create strong team cultures, encourage autonomy and responsibility, and ensure a whole-school focus on common goals despite differences in strategies and opinions of different stakeholder groups about how those goals might be achieved [20]. Everyone is able to offer valuable insights whilst recognising and respecting the voice of all stakeholders, their unique perspectives, and sensitivities to the manifestation of school climate at different levels [47].

Quality interpersonal relationships between leaders and school staff foster self-efficacy, self-esteem, and resilience, enabling teachers to perform well in the classroom. They are then able to model positive social-emotional skills and resilience to students [49], and nurture positive climates at the classroom level.

Student inclusion in leadership is important. Students not only bring unique perspectives, but are also well placed to engage with the student body and model positive behaviours as they have a clear understanding of the social dynamics of their peer groups [20]. When students are involved in decision making processes in areas such as policy and regulations, curricula and teaching, and school management and planning, their sense of school connectedness increases along with improved learning, wellbeing and behaviour [9].

Policy and practice alignment

Reviewing policies and practices to ensure these reflect a school wide focus on positive school climate is an important aspect of school improvement. Reviews can focus on ensuring practices:

  • are based on sound research evidence and recommended good practice
  • address barriers to learning such as disengagement
  • include comprehensive learning support based on a clear assessment of the needs of the community
  • enhance and support SEL for all stakeholders
  • provide professional learning opportunities for staff
  • explicitly communicate a positive school climate orientation to the whole school community
  • are sustainable over time and reflect a recognition that climate improvement and maintenance is an ongoing process
  • reflect the centrality of social capital in a positive climate.

Comprehensive reviews support school improvement efforts by targeting areas of future and ongoing focus, within a whole-school orientation. Having a clear idea of what school climate is, and what a flourishing climate entails, will help to ensure a review is thorough.

Educator professional learning

Sustained, ongoing professional learning opportunities to build capacity and focus on what school climate is and how it can be fostered in the classroom and wider school is an important aspect of professional growth and climate improvement for all staff [28]. Research notes that “socially and emotionally competent teachers set the tone of the classroom” by fostering healthy relationships with students and between students, and are “role model[s] for respectful and appropriate communication… and prosocial behaviour.” [50] Supporting these capacities can be supported through appropriate professional learning, and should extend to relationships between all school staff and the wider school community.

Providing opportunities for educators to be involved in professional learning communities or teams increases collaboration, creates space for positive interpersonal relationships, promotes contextually relevant learning and problem solving, and supports whole-child education [1, 28].

Social and emotional learning for students

Research suggests that most “teachers who view negative school climate as a problem … see SEL as a solution.” [19] Teaching and modelling SEL is recognised as a way to build and sustain positive school climates, and to improve student behaviour, engagement, mental health, attitudes to self/others/school, and academic outcomes [33]. For schools which do not explicitly focus on this key area of learning, evidence based SEL strategies for students and staff can improve not only school climate but culture [19]. When considering resources to utilise, schools should aim to identify and select those that include: [53]

  • sequenced activities that develop skills step by step
  • active learning, including feedback
  • focused and exclusive time for SEL skills
  • explicit targeting of specific SEL skills.

Contextual specificities of the school and classroom, as well as the individual learning needs of students, should be considered when selecting resources and activities.

Research continues to recognise the integral role of school climate in supporting successful outcomes at all levels of a school. Evidence based school improvement efforts that include explicit attention to school climate are more likely to create environments where all stakeholders flourish.

For a full list of references download the .pdf of this issue of The Link above.

AIS Research Summaries
School improvement
Student voice
The Link