Students' ability to learn depends not just on the quality of their textbooks and teachers, but also on the comfort and safety they feel at school and the strength of their relationships with adults and peers there.
Most of education policymakers' focus remains on ensuring schools are physically safe and disciplined: Forty-five states have anti-bullying policies, compared with only 24 states that have more comprehensive policies on school climate.
Mounting evidence from fields like neuroscience and cognitive psychology, as well as studies on such topics as school turnaround implementation, shows that an academically challenging yet supportive environment boosts both children's learning and coping abilities. By contrast, high-stress environments in which students feel chronically unsafe and uncared for make it physically and emotionally harder for them to learn and more likely for them to act out or drop out.
As that research builds, more education officials at every level are taking notice. For example, the federal government has prioritized school climate programs in its $38.8 million grants for safe and supportive school environments, and two states—Ohio and Wisconsin—have developed guidelines for districts on improving school life, according to the National School Climate Center, located in New York City.
Experts say that administrators who focus on using climate merely as a tool to raise test scores or to reduce bullying may set up their reform efforts to fail. Stand-alone programs targeting individual symptoms like bullying or poor attendance may not provide holistic support for students, and emerging research shows such a comprehensive approach is critical to improve school climate.
"There's anti-bullying, which is sort of the top, the visible part of an iceberg, and those are the formal policies where we tell kids, 'OK, don't bully each other,' " said Meagan O'Malley, a research associate at WestEd who specializes in the research group's middle-school-climate initiative in Los Alamitos, Calif. "But then under that, there's everything else that happens in that school, the interactions between people every single day that create an atmosphere that's either supportive of a bullying atmosphere or not. Programmatic interventions have to be one piece of a much larger body of work."
"As much as we need to provide enriched experiences to promote healthy brain development," says Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff, the director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, "we also need to protect the brain from bad things happening to it. We all understand that in terms of screening for lead, because lead does bad things to a brain, mercury does bad things to a brain, … but toxic stress does bad things to a brain, too—it's a different chemical doing it, but it's still a big problem interfering with brain development."
It's easy to focus too much on the visible parts of the school climate iceberg and have school improvement efforts run aground on the massive issues below the surface.
Studies routinely show that students learn better when they feel safe, for example. Yet interventions that focus on visible signs of safety—metal detectors, wand searches, and so on—have not been found to deter crime and actually can make students feel less safe at school. What does reduce bullying and make students feel safer? According to an analysis of the National Crime Victimization Survey, only one intervention: more adults visible and talking to students in the hallways, a mark of a climate with better adult-student relationships.
Likewise, students' ability to delay gratification has been proven to be so linked to academic and social success that the Knowledge Is Power Program charter schools offer T-shirts for students bearing the mantra, "Don't Eat the Marshmallow!" That's a reference to a famous study that used the sweet treat in .