How to Foster a Positive School Climate in a Virtual World

May 21, 2020

As COVID-19 upended schools across the country, leaders and teachers transitioned to a remote learning environment with unprecedented speed and managed an array of tactical issues. Schools raced to distribute laptops, provide free-and-reduced lunch to students in need and offer childcare to essential workers. Professional development around remote learning that typically would have happened over months or years was condensed into a few days.

As we continue to adjust to this new virtual learning environment, success will depend, to a large extent, on whether we can shift our focus from tactical to strategic. And there is nothing more strategic than school climate.

Although leaders, teachers and students are not together physically, the climate and culture of the school community continues to exist. If we do not take steps to actively shape our virtual school climate, it will be shaped for us.

School climate matters

A school’s climate is like its personality. The term “school climate” covers everything from norms and values, to the quality of relationships, celebration of diversity, physical and emotional safety and rigorous teaching practices.

You may feel like you have too much on your plate to worry about school climate right now. But the truth is, school climate is the plate. More than 25 years of research tells us that the climate of a school matters; it literally guides how well almost everything gets done.

Positive school climates are characterized by psychological and physical safety, where students feel comfortable expressing themselves, asking questions and taking risks, and educators are free to raise ideas or try new techniques. Having a positive school climate means practicing collaborative decision-making to ensure students’ and teachers’ voices are heard, building connections with the community, delivering excellent academic instruction and supporting the well-being of both staff and students.

Schools with positive climates enjoy not only better academic outcomes, but also a host of social and emotional outcomes, such as reduced bullying, greater engagement and higher school-satisfaction ratings. Teachers, too, benefit from a positive school climate, with studies showing less stress and burnout and greater job satisfaction.

The transition to remote learning has taken an enormous physical and emotional toll on many of our students, educators and leaders, often exacerbating underlying issues with engagement and mental health.

A poll of over 5,000 educators conducted in late March by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence in collaboration with the Collaborative for Academic and Social Emotional Learning (CASEL) found that anxiety was the most commonly felt emotion. Anxiety can affect our ability to concentrate, think flexibly and make sound decisions. In prolonged doses, such as we are seeing and experiencing now, anxiety can degrade the quality of our relationships, job performance and our physical well-being.

The present crisis is a test of the system. A positive school climate prior to the pandemic—including supportive leadership, respect among teachers and trust from families—can act as a school’s healthy immune system, ready to fend off any threats or attacks. For other schools—those without thoughtfully established school climates—this trial may expose pre-existing weaknesses.

Same principles, new strategies

How do you build a positive school climate when your school is virtual? It’s not about changing the traditional domains of school climate; the domains still apply. Rather, it’s about getting creative about best practices for maintaining or building a positive climate under these new conditions.

Organized by domain, below are some potential action steps to support a positive virtual school climate.

Physical and emotional safety

  • Establish a remote learning code of conduct. What are the expectations around chat box comments or taking screenshots of virtual meetings?
  • Create clear and accessible pathways for students to contact school counselors and psychologists.
  • Keep online communities password-protected.
  • Utilize virtual backgrounds for students who may be uncomfortable showing their home or current setting on screen.
  • Start meetings or classes by checking in with students about how they’re feeling before moving into academic content.

Respect for diversity, equity and inclusion

  • Understand there will be wide-ranging homework environments, including varied access to electronic equipment and quiet work areas.
  • Be sensitive to disparities in the health and financial challenges facing households.
  • Calibrate workload thoughtfully. Some students may thrive on continued academic intensity and rigor, while others may need some space and breaks.
  • Beware of possible COVID-19-related biases and stigma, including xenophobia.
  • Provide academic materials in as many formats as possible. Record virtual lessons or meetings, provide both digital and printable copies to broaden your reach.
  • Consider opportunities to leverage individual student skills in technology, digital design or podcasting.
  • Consider augmenting lessons with family members as guest speakers to share their profession, hobby or background as relevant to your content.

Relationships

  • Continue to make space for students to work together through group projects, online breakout rooms and virtual extracurricular activities. Many students are missing the social stimulation of being around friends and peers during this time.
  • Organize a network of students to reach out to each other beyond their friend groups.
  • Hold space for adults to connect through virtual department and faculty meetings. Recommend those who are adapting more easily to help others who are struggling.
  • Encourage educators to incorporate personal check-ins with each student, or hold office hours.
  • Incorporate synchronous learning time to help students and educators feel more connected.
  • Make an effort toward transparency and collaborative decision-making. Include a range of voices in setting community expectations and learning goals.

Supportive teaching practices

  • Support teachers with remote learning professional development opportunities and set realistic community expectations.
  • Model the patience and compassion that you also expect leaders, educators, students and parents to show each other.
  • Move toward individualized learning goals for students, allowing them to self-select the level of challenge they need and can handle right now.
  • Maintain a whole-child approach by linking academic content with opportunities to teach empathy, responsible decision-making, ethics and citizenship, conflict resolution or emotion regulation.

Sense of community

  • Maintain rituals and routines (e.g. morning announcements, weekly newsletters).
  • Encourage students to move forward with things like filming and sharing speeches and performances, and “prom-posals” that had been planned, but have now been canceled.
  • Use social media to highlight the great work of students and teachers with others in the community.
  • Double-down on communication and outreach to families.

Everyone in the school community contributes to the climate: the board, administration, faculty, staff, families and students. Each stakeholder can make a unique and critical contribution to developing and living the shared school vision. This was true in the physical school building, and it continues to be true now.

School climate also is linked to the systemic integration of social and emotional learning (SEL), although they are often managed separately in schools. Research shows that a positive school climate creates the conditions for high-quality implementation of SEL, and likewise, the social and emotional skills of leaders, teachers, and students influence school climate. Aligning each of the above indicators of school climate and SEL can reduce often fragmented efforts to build safe, caring, inclusive and academically productive schools.

Continuous improvement

Even in a virtual environment, we can and should still measure school climate. Conducting periodic surveys and soliciting informal feedback from faculty, staff, students and parents can help hone best practices and generate new ideas.

When we return to our school buildings, we can also learn from our experiences in this virtual environment. How did your school community fare? What strengths shined through as points of pride? What weaknesses in our implementation of SEL were revealed that can now be better addressed? Reflecting on these questions without judgment and with an open mind can help strengthen our schools.

Now more than ever, a positive school climate is necessary to help us maintain a school community that supports the well-being of faculty, staff and students and the continuation of high-quality instruction that is paramount to achieving educational goals.


Scott Levy is the executive director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence in the Child Study Center at Yale University.

Jessica Hoffmann, Ph.D., is the director of adolescent research at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and an associate research scientist in the Child Study Center.

Marc Brackett, Ph.D., is the director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, professor in the Child Study Center, and author of the book Permission To Feel.


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