Safe, Supportive School Environments: Required for Successful Schools

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Effective teachers and strong principals have been the pillars of improving schools. But a third element is just as important—school environment. To reach students, especially at-risk students, principals and teachers need to build schools that are safe, supportive, challenging, and socially and emotionally nurturing.

AIR researchers went to Capitol Hill on Dec. 3, 2013 to talk with policy makers and national education organizations about the latest research and tools for building school-wide learning environments.

Their message: Positive school climate and conditions for learning contribute to improved test scores, attendance, grade promotion, and graduation rates. Efforts to improve school climate and safety also can help reduce violent behavior.

The speakers:

  • Kimberly Kendziora, a principal researcher with AIR, explained who benefits most from safe and supportive learning environments. “These needs are particularly great for children who are vulnerable, such as those who struggle with trauma, the adversities of poverty, and the challenges of disability.” She added that safe and supportive schools create strong conditions for learning where students feel physically and emotionally safe, are connected to and supported by their teachers, feel challenged and are engaged in learning. Peer social and emotional competence affects the safety and learning of individual students.
     
  • AIR Senior Researcher Allison Dymnicki shifted the conversation to promoting essential conditions for learning outside the classroom. She detailed what characteristics to look for in afterschool programs and noted that stakeholders must also consider competing demands and the readiness and motivation before implementing such supports. “It’s important to understand that no one program is the magic bullet,” she said. She suggested considering a range of factors: (a) needs and strengths of the population being served/target population (cultural and linguistic relevance), (b) the setting (school, community), (c) other competing demands and programs already in place and (d) readiness and motivation of the setting and people within the setting.
     
  • Senior Researcher Ann-Marie Faria discussed tools, such as a Quality Rating and Improvement System, to evaluate programs and develop paths for improvement. “We know these conditions for earning matter for school success and for later life success,” she said. “The goal should be to foster positive behaviors during early childhood to support school success.”
     
  • Jillian Ahrens, a first grade teacher, from Cleveland, explained how her district has implemented Conditions for Learning and how teachers have embraced it. “Intuitively teachers get this,” she said. But, she added, they also assume their school’s learning environment is already conducive to learning. The tricky part is to shift the mindset that conditions for learning are automatically in place. Rather, teachers and schools must consistently focus on implementing and improving them.”

AIR operates the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments (NCSSLE), which provides training and technical assistance on issues such as bullying, violence prevention, mental health, substance abuse, discipline, and safety. The Center has supported improvements in school climate in 11 states, over 200 school districts, and more than 700 schools.

AIR experts have developed a tool to benchmark school climate (see Conditions for Learning Survey), assisted districts with school climate surveys, implemented targeted program interventions, conducted training to address risk factors, and provided resources such as bullying training modules for classroom teachers, support staff, and school bus drivers. AIR experts also played a key role in the development and dissemination of the Federal Guidance Package on School Discipline released by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice.

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