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School Climate and Pro-social Educational Improvement: Essential Goals and Processes that Support Student Success for All



There is growing federal and state support for school climate improvement and pro-social education. The National School Climate Council has developed a consensus statement about the foundational importance of intentional pro-social instruction and school climate improvement efforts. In addition, this consensus statement outlines a core set of research- based systemic, instructional and relational goals as well as processes that underscore, characterize and shape both effective school climate improvement and pro-social instructional efforts. Research, policy, practice and teacher education implications are outlined.
School Climate and Pro-social Educational Improvement:
Essential Goals and Processes that Support Student Success for All
National School Climate Council
There is growing federal and state support for school climate improvement and pro-social
education. The National School Climate Council has developed a consensus statement about
the foundational importance of intentional pro-social instruction and school climate
improvement efforts. In addition, this consensus statement outlines a core set of research-
based systemic, instructional and relational goals as well as processes that underscore,
characterize and shape both effective school climate improvement and pro-social
instructional efforts. Research, policy, practice and teacher education implications are
This commentary by the members of the National School Climate Council on pro-
social1educational improvement is based on three essential understandings that were
consensually developed. First, K-12 education is always social, emotional, ethical, civic, and
intellectual in nature. Policy, practice and teacher education leaders need to insure that K-12
education includes intentional, strategic and research based pro-social instruction as well as
intellectual content-based teaching and learning. Second, children and schools require the
support of the "whole village." Schools function best in communities connected together and
helping each other. Finally, all school improvement efforts, including school climate
improvement, are necessarily a continuous process of learning and development.
Today, education policy and accountability systems are not aligned with these three sets of
understandings. Federal and state education policies are primarily focused on content-based
intellectual or cognitive student learning. Schools do not regularly measure and support
student pro-social learning and school-family-community partnerships. The nature and power
of current local, state, and national annual accountability systems (focused almost exclusively
on content-based student learning) highly discourages school leaders from embracing
continuous models of learning and development, especially in the realms of pro-social learning
and school climate improvement.
School climate reform and intentional pro-social instruction are increasingly recognized,
endorsed, and supported by federal agencies and districts across the country as prevention
strategies that reduce inappropriate peer interactions (e.g., bully-victim-bystander behavior),
truancy, and high school dropout rates. A growing body of research supports the position that
these systemic and instructional efforts support schooland ultimately lifesuccess (Pellegrino
& Hilton, 2012).
Educators are often confused about the similarities and differences between pro-social efforts
and school climate improvement. This commentary delineates current positions and best
practices pertaining to the goals and interventions that support pro-social instruction and
school climate improvement efforts for all school community members. There is a critical
interdependence of academic success and pro-social education to develop the whole child.
Only by fully addressing school climate improvement and pro-social education will educational
aspirations be reached for all students. There is compelling and incontrovertible evidence
supporting what is outlined below as a position statement.
The following propositions are presented as a set of research-based recommendations and are
aligned with: the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development’s (ASCD) Whole Child
Initiative, Character Education Partnerships' 11 Principles of Effective Character Education,
Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)’s theory of change,
National School Climate Council’s National School Climate Standards, Coalition for Community
Schools' Models of Community Schools, and the federally funded Center for Mental Health in
Schools' three-component policy framework. These three sets of goals and the outlined
processes support all students having equal opportunities to succeed at school and in life.
These evidence-based improvement goals and processes must inform and shape policy. The
Council plans to develop detailed guidelines and provide specific examples to demonstrate in
practice how to implement the three overlapping practice goals pertaining to systematic or
school-wide processes, pedagogy, and relational management practices. Two propositions
underlie this effort.
There are three necessary core assumptions that provide the foundation for effective school-
wide pro-social or whole child instructional and school climate improvement efforts that
ensure all students have equitable access to success (ASCD, 2014; Brown, Corrigian & Higgins-
D’Alessandro, 2012; CASEL, 2012; Cohen, 2006):
1. School leaders must provide pro-social instruction, governance, and management
infrastructure; they must also address barriers to learning and teaching and re-engage
disconnected students to support healthy development(Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention, 2015; Christenson, Reschly, & Wylie, 2012; National Center for Injury Prevention
and Control, 2009). Individual student engagement is a critical element in providing successful
educational experiences for all students (National Research Council, 2003).
2. Improvement efforts must be focused on universal, comprehensive, pro-active strategies
rather than reactive targeted interventions. To do so requires school community stakeholders
to come together to develop a shared vision, asking themselves, “what kind of school do we
want ours to be?” This creates the foundation for them to become engaged and motivated to
work together. Meaningful school community member involvement allows for the development
of a shared vision with associated core valuesthis is an essential foundation for any and all
school improvement efforts (Cohen, 2006; Fullan, 2011; Mourshed, Chijioke, & Barber, 2010).
3. Any form of school improvement is a continuous process that requires ongoing review by
school leadership and members of the whole school community. This should use social,
emotional, civic, and quantitative and qualitative data from multiple sources (Cohen, McCabe,
Michelli, & Pickeral, 2009; Twemlow & Sacco, 2013).
Learner-centered classrooms foster high levels of engagement and have been shown to
decrease dropout rates, disruptive behavior, and student absences (Rumberger & Roternund,
2012; Cornelius-White, 2007). Research and experience indicate that the three overlapping
goals and practices shape effective pro-social instruction and school climate improvement
1. School-wide goals that promote physically, emotionally, and intellectually safe, supportive,
and engaging climates for learning.
2. Instructional efforts that are culturally responsive and designed to imbed social, emotional,
and civic learning into instruction as an integral component of academic experience.
3. Processes that promote meaningful relationships among students, faculty, and staff.
School-Wide Goals
Educational leaders. District and building leaders need to endorse and lead improvement
efforts (DeVita, Colvin, Darling-Hammond, & Haycock, 2007; Leithwood, Louis, Anderson, &
Wahlstrom, 2004). They need to strive to lead in a transparent democratically informed
manner (Berkowitz, 2011; DeVita, Colvin, Darling-Hammond, & Haycoc, 2007; DuFour & Eaker,
1998; Leithwood, Louis, Anderson, & Wahlstrom, 2004).They also need to engage and include
the whole school community (students, parents/guardians, community members, and school
personnel) to become co-leaders in improvement efforts (Morton & Montgomery, 2011;
Pomerantz, Moorman, & Litwack, 2007; Sheldon & Van Voorhis, 2004; Sheridan, Warnes, &
Dowd, 2004).
Indicators of success. Indicators must include both academic outcomes (e.g., grades,
portfolios) as well as the social, emotional, and civic outcomes essential for school and life
success (e.g. school climate findings; markers of engaged school community members;
indicators of student personal and pro-social development). There must be broad
understanding that academic outcomes cannot be satisfactorily achieved for all students
without a deep, intentional connection to these social, emotional, and civic outcomes.
Learning increases in classrooms that engage students by allowing them to take ownership of
the learning process. Such ownership can only take place in environments that are
characterized by supportive relationships and that provide safe and trusting learning
environments (McCombs, 2004).
Improvement goals are tailored to the unique and contextual needs of the students and the
individual school community (Espelage, & Poteat, 2012; McCabe & Trevino, 2002).
Policies. District level (and ideally state level) policies support the integration of pro-social and
civic instructional efforts and a continuous process of school climate improvement, with full
understanding of the dimensions of school climate (Thapa, Cohen, Guffey & Higgins-
D’Alessandro, 2013).
Adult learning. Adult and professional learning communities are supported in order to build
capacity and sustain efforts through continuous improvement (Davis, Darling-Hammond,
LaPointe, & Meyerson, 2005; Giles, & Hargreaves, 2006; Vescio, Ross, & Adams, 2008).
Codes of conduct. Students, parents/guardians, faculty, and staff have a real voice and
contribute authentically to the development of codes of conduct governing them.
Pro-social education. Pro-social education is an explicit and valued goal (Brown, Corrigian &
Higgins-D’Alessandro, 2012; Greenberg, Weissberg, O’Brien, Zins, Fredericks, Resnik & Elias,
2003), holding equal value to academic goals, and an integral part of the educational process.
All educators should focus on the four ways that pro-social instructional efforts can be
1. Being a helpful living example, role mode, and moral compass (Jennings & Greenberg, 2009;
Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000; Blesky, Vandell, Burchinal, Clarke-Stewart, McCartney, Owen, & The
NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2007).
2. Managing classrooms and offices in dignified and democratically informed ways that focus on
student engagement, co-leadership, and restorative practices (Morgan, Salomon, Plotkin, &
Cohen, 2014).
3. Utilizing pedagogies that promote pro-social instruction and provide personally relevant
learning experiences that have authentic opportunities to contribute meaningfully (e.g.,
cooperative learning, class meetings, consensus building, conflict resolution/mediation, service
learning, empathy building, team building, and moral dilemma discussions). When done well,
studies have shown evidence of academic achievement-related benefits from infusing pro-
social instruction, including: improved attendance, higher grade point averages, enhanced
preparation for the workforce, higher graduation rates, enhanced awareness and understanding
of social issues, greater motivation for learning, and heightened engagement in pro-social
behaviors (Ainley, 2012; Brown, Corrigan & Higgins-D’Alessandro, 2012).
4. Utilizing pro-social educational design models of curriculum development that support the
conscious, thoughtful and strategic infusion of pro-social goals, assessments, and learning tasks
into existing academic curriculum, emphasizing student-centered learning (Heckman & Kautz,
2012; Weissberg, Durlak, Domitrovich & Gullotta, 2015). In addition, there are many evidence-
based, pro-social curricula that have been developed, evaluated, and can be implemented
(e.g., Blueprints, What Works Clearing House, and CASEL's Safe and Sound).
Relational and Management-Related Practices
All school personnel should participate in professional development opportunities that promote
meaningful student-teacher relationships, and that further students’ feeling safe (physically,
emotionally, and intellectually), supported, connected, and engaged in school life and
learning. They should also plan for a school climate that embodies a genuine pervasive sense of
community for everyone. Such a climate encourages members to demonstrate high moral
character and civic engagement.
All instructional staff and curriculum experts should participate in professional development
opportunities that enhance whole child education. Staff should continuously seek to improve
instructional practices to insure that those practices are rigorous, engaging, culturally
responsive, and afford meaningful opportunities for all students to contribute to their learning
and community.
This consensually developed commentary raises a series of questions and implications for
future research, policy, school improvement, and teacher education practices. Researchers can
and must critically evaluate the systemic, instructional, and relational research support for the
framework provided here. Schools, like people, are complex systems. There is growing
consensus that multiple factors necessarily shape effective school-wide and instructional
efforts. There must be support for hierarchical linear modeling (HLM) or multilevel models of
research design2. There must also be support for the further development of HLM informed
Second, policymakers and educational leaders need to grapple with the complexity of effective
pro-social instruction and school wide improvement efforts. School climate policy reform
efforts represent meaningful and positive examples of how some states (e.g. Connecticut,
Georgia, Minnesota, and Ohio) and districts (e.g. Chicago, IL and Westbrook, CT) are working to
do just this. It must be noted, however, that the U.S Department of Education’s implication
that school climate improvement and Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) negate
certain critical differences (Cohen, 2014). Additionally, state and federal accountability
systems that focus on reporting attendance/dropout rates, arrests, achievement gaps, and
bullying also focus on indicators of the quality of school climate, rather than climate itself.
And most current accountability systems use data as "hammers,” rather than a “flashlight”.
This punitive accountability lens is unhelpful and counterproductive. Accountability systems
can and need to recognize, measure, and support a continuous process of learning and
Finally, many K-12 educators and leaders are very aware that educatorslike
parents/guardiansare always teaching social, emotional, civic, ethical, and cognitive lessons
(good or bad) regardless of their content areas and roles. The only question is whether those
lessons are being taught consciously, carefully, and thoughtfully. Thanks to generations of risk
prevention information, health and mental health promotion efforts, and educational research
it is now well known that pro-social instruction supports both school and life success. Academic
instruction in isolation from pro-social instruction tends to have limited impact. When
academic instruction is yoked to school wide efforts that ignite the intrinsic motivation of
students, parents/ guardians, school personnel, and community members to work together
toward a common goal, a transformation process is set in motion that promotes safer, more
supportive, engaging and higher achieving schools.
1. The term pro-social represents the collective summary of programs and practices that have
traditionally been described under a variety of overlapping titles: character/moral education,
social/emotional learning, ethical learning, civic education, service learning, community
service, mental health promotion, and moral community development. The term pro-social
education is intended as a shorthand stipulation that represents the overlapping titles
mentioned here. Pro-social instruction, like whole child education, is a term intended to build
bridges between social emotional learning, character education, civic and democratic
education, service-learning, mental health promotion efforts, etc.
2. HLM-informed statistical models and analyses are based on the notion that we can and need
to identify, operationally define, and measure many factors that influence one another over
time. The units of analysis, for example, are usually individuals (at a lower level) who are
nested within contextual/aggregate units (at a higher level).
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Author: The National School Climate Council (
The National School Climate Council includes the following members: Howard Adelman, Marvin
Berkowitz, Cathryn Berger Kaye, Martin J. Blank, Philip M. Brown, Patricia Ciccone, Jonathan
Cohen, James P. Comer, Peter DeWitt, Arnold F. Fege, Ann Foster, Jo Ann Freiberg, Ann
Higgins-D'Alessandro, Gary A. Homana, Rebecca Sipos, David Hutchinson, William H. Hughes,
Peter S. Jensen, Molly McCloskey, Linda Jeanne McKay, Nicholas Michelli, Carol Nixon, Derek
Peterson, Randy Ross, Sean Slade, Linda Taylor, and Stuart Twemlow.
Corresponding author: Jonathan Cohen, Ph.D. -
Cite This Article as:
National School Climate Council (2015). School Climate and Prosocial Educational
Essential Goals and Processes that Support Student Success for All. Teachers College Record,
Date Published: May 05, 2015 ID Number: 17954, Date Accessed:
5/19/2015 6:10:25 PM
This special issue on School Safety and School Violence includes two "lead papers": A clinical-research summary of current understandings about school safety/violence trends as well as individual, instructional and school-wide preven-tion/health promotion recommendations; and a case study of a school threat situation and the resulting clinical process of understanding and addressing this school violence threat. The ensuing seven papers focus on a range of ecologically informed school violence and safety-related perspectives as well as commenting-appreciatively and critically-on the two lead papers. Although physical violence in schools is ebbing, social-emotional violence continues to be pervasive and profoundly toxic phenomena in K-12 schools around the world. The articles in this special issue address understanding and school violence prevention as well as promoting school safety from multiple vantage points.
Feeling and being safe provides an essential foundation for children to learn and develop in healthy ways. I will summarize the current research and clinically based understanding about K-12 school violence and school safety. I summarize prevalence rates that underscore that school violence is tragically common. I then outline the spectrum of experiences that undermine safety in schools: from normal moments of misunderstanding to microaggressions to mental illness to international acts of verbal/cyber cruelty to “grey zone” sexual-social-emotional experiences, harassment, and rape as well as natural disasters, assault, murder, and suicide. I then summarize research-based policy and practice steps that we can take that will dramatically enhance how safe students feel and are in schools: (1) Supporting prosocial universal K-12 improvement efforts for all students; (2) Supporting coordinated educational, “at risk” and targeted K-12 interventions; (3) Addressing weapons in schools; and (4) Preventing school shootings. Schools are one of the safest places for children and adolescents to be physically. However, this is often not true psychosocially. Today, there is so much that we do understand about how to promote individual and organizational health as well as prevent school violence and intervene most helpfully when it does occur.
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There has never been more federal and state support for school climate reform efforts in America. Paradoxically, most practitioners are not sure what school climate improvement means on day-­‐to-­‐day basis. This commentary details three factors that contribute to school climate reform being more of an idealized goal than an actual school improvement practice today: (i) confusion about what constitutes an effective school climate improvement process in general; (ii) confusion about how school climate reform is similar and/or different from PBIS; and, (iii) educational policies and accountability systems that actually discourage principals and superintendents from actively supporting school climate improvement efforts.
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For more than a century, there has been a growing interest in school climate. Recently, the U.S. Department of Education, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Institute for Educational Sciences, a growing number of State Departments of Education, foreign educational ministries, and UNICEF have focused on school climate reform as an evidence-based school improvement strategy that supports students, parents/guardians, and school personnel learning and working together to create ever safer, more supportive and engaging K–12 schools. This work presents an integrative review on school climate research. The 206 citations used in this review include experimental studies, correlational studies, literature reviews, and other descriptive studies. The review focuses on five essential dimensions of school climate: Safety, Relationships, Teaching and Learning, Institutional Environment, and the School Improvement Process. We conclude with a critique of the field and a series of recommendations for school climate researchers and policymakers.
Americans have long recognized that investments in public education contribute to the common good, enhancing national prosperity and supporting stable families, neighborhoods, and communities. Education is even more critical today, in the face of economic, environmental, and social challenges. Today's children can meet future challenges if their schooling and informal learning activities prepare them for adult roles as citizens, employees, managers, parents, volunteers, and entrepreneurs. To achieve their full potential as adults, young people need to develop a range of skills and knowledge that facilitate mastery and application of English, mathematics, and other school subjects. At the same time, business and political leaders are increasingly asking schools to develop skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and self-management - often referred to as "21st century skills." Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century describes this important set of key skills that increase deeper learning, college and career readiness, student-centered learning, and higher order thinking. These labels include both cognitive and non-cognitive skills- such as critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, effective communication, motivation, persistence, and learning to learn. 21st century skills also include creativity, innovation, and ethics that are important to later success and may be developed in formal or informal learning environments. This report also describes how these skills relate to each other and to more traditional academic skills and content in the key disciplines of reading, mathematics, and science. Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century summarizes the findings of the research that investigates the importance of such skills to success in education, work, and other areas of adult responsibility and that demonstrates the importance of developing these skills in K-16 education. In this report, features related to learning these skills are identified, which include teacher professional development, curriculum, assessment, after-school and out-of-school programs, and informal learning centers such as exhibits and museums. © 2012 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
This chapter focuses on interest as a key motivational construct for investigating the relation between motivation and engagement. The emphasis is on identifying the links between the underlying interest processes and students’ participation in achievement activities. It is suggested that a dynamic systems perspective with its emphasis on the individual as a self-organizing system provides a productive framework for future developments in understanding the sets of processes that support engagement. Central in this analysis will be an examination of the microprocess level to identify the process variables that combine in different patterns of student engagement. Addressing the relation between motivation and engagement at the microprocess level puts a major emphasis on the immediate context of the task and the broader classroom. However, these are nested within expanding contexts of school and community cultures, and the relation between interest processes and engagement in achievement activities will be considered within the framework of investigations into patterns of interest and engagement using data from the PISA 2006 international survey of science achievement.
This chapter first reviews some prominent models of dropping out and the role that individual factors, including engagement, and contextual factors play in the process. It then reviews empirical research related to those factors, with a focus on engagement-related factors. Scholars have proposed a number of models to explain the process of dropping out of school. While there is a fair amount of overlap in the models, they differ with respect to the specific factors that are thought to exert the most influence on dropping out and the specific process that leads to that outcome. The review of conceptual models of the empirical research literature leads to several conclusions about why students drop out. First, no single factor can completely account for a student’s decision to continue in school until graduation. Just as students themselves report a variety of reasons for quitting school, the research literature also identifies a number of salient factors that appear to influence the decision. Second, the decision to drop out is not simply a result of what happens in school. Clearly, students’ behavior and performance in school influence their decision to stay or leave. But students’ activities and behaviors outside of school—particularly engaging in deviant and criminal behavior—also influence their likelihood of remaining in school. Third, dropping out is more of a process than an event.
This chapter serves as an introduction to the history and study of student engagement. We describe the evolution of the construct of engagement and disciplinary differences in theories and use of the engagement construct. We highlight how our work on engagement, arising out of dropout intervention, has changed over the last decade. In addition, we delineate current issues in the study of engagement. The chapter ends with a discussion of future directions to advance the theoretical and applied use of student engagement to enhance outcomes for youth.
The paper summarises the literature and our clinical experience with the bystander role in school bullying and other violence. The shift from bully focus to school climate focus is central, as well as seeing the plight of the bully and victim as not signs of individual psychopathology, but signs of markedly dysfunctional school leadership systems and very dysfunctional dynamics within a school with serious bullying. We suggest based on 20 years of research, that the focus should be on an integrated bottom up approach that allows each school to find its own path. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.