School Climate

Improving Academic Outcomes through Enhanced Conditions for Learning

The Tennessee Department of Education has taken important strides toward establishing safe and supportive learning environments in its public schools to enhance the quality of students’ school life and to foster conditions for learning that contribute to student’s academic success. The work of the Department was launched under a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Education, which awarded discretionary funding to eleven states under its Safe and Supportive Schools initiative. Funding was used to create an infrastructure for measuring student, parent and teacher perceptions of school climate in schools and is a free resource for Tennessee schools and districts.

School Climate refers to aspects of the school environment that make students feel academically challenged, physically and emotionally safe, and valued and connected to their school settings. Positive school climate depends on the contributions of all members of the school community, including students, parents, school staff and school leaders, to create a safe and supportive environment where every child can succeed. School climate involves ensuring:

  • students’ physical, social and emotional safety;
  • promoting social acceptance and opportunities for participation for students and families;
  • creating a teaching and learning environment with high learning expectations and support for learning achievement for all students; and
  • using fair and restorative disciplinary practices that are consistently implemented by all staff for all students. 

School climate improvement efforts involve comprehensive change in community norms, personal interactions, and institutional procedures, rather than reliance on any single intervention or dimension of behavior or performance. Research and practice have consistently demonstrated an association between positive school climate and improved student learning, teacher retention and school performance.

While there is general consensus as to the importance of school climate and other conditions for learning, data is needed to support good decisions regarding the allocation of limited resources and/or the effectiveness of various policies and practices in bringing about improvements. The data from the Tennessee School Climate Measurement System allows the education community to better understand the relationships between conditions for learning and academic outcomes and better utilize available time and resources.

Tennessee has created an infrastructure for measuring school climate through the construction of reliable and validated survey measurement tools that are custom designed with stakeholder input from students, parents and educators in Tennessee. The survey measurement tools include:

Survey Type Grade Level # of Questions Average Time to complete
High School Survey 9th-12th 104 20 minutes
Middle School Survey 5th-8th 98 20 minutes
Elementary School Survey 3rd -8th 54 10 minutes
Teacher Survey K-12 102 15 minutes
Parent Survey K-12 44 15 minutes

All surveys are built on the same matrix which measures school experience in the three broad areas of (1) engagement (2) safety and (3) environment. This allows for comparison among student, parent and teacher surveys for a school. School level data can be aggregated to develop district level reports.

This free resource is available by contacting Kimberly Daubenspeck at

School Engagement

For students to feel supported and motivated to achieve, they must feel valued and supported in their relationships with other students, teachers, and school leaders, feel a sense of connection to school, and be meaningfully engaged in the school community. The five components of school engagement include:

  1. Supportive Peer Relationships. Students feel safe and supported in a peer environment that is trusting, respectful, caring, cooperative and helpful.
  2. Supportive Relationships with Teachers. Adults play a critical role in creating conditions that support student self-esteem, sense of accomplishment, and feelings of efficacy – all of these are critical for accomplishment and contribution later in life.
  3. Supportive Relationships with School Leadership. School leadership by principals and vice-principals is important to modeling and setting the climate of the school as an institution with which students must effectively interact. School leaders should be available to students, and relate to them with openness, respect and concern.
  4. Parental Involvement. Student perceptions that parents are welcome in the school play an important part in it, and that they are interested and involved in their learning and in school events contributes to a meaningful connectedness to the school.
  5. School Connections and Learning Supports:  Students believe that they are valued members of the school setting, feel a sense of meaningful involvement, security, and belonging in the school environment, and feel that they are supported in their efforts to succeed.

School Safety

For students to focus on learning, they must feel safe and secure while at school and free from threats or physical violence, bullying or harassment, or exposure to substance abuse and its negative consequences.  The four components of school safety are:

  1. Physical safety:  Students should perceive their school to be safe, secure, and free from any physical threats of harm to themselves or their personal property.
  2. Freedom from Substance Abuse:  Alcohol, tobacco, and other illicit drug use undermines student’s ability to achieve academically, is associated with other harmful behaviors, and is incompatible with a school climate of respect, safety, and support for learning.
  3. Freedom from Bullying:  Bullying is one of the most prevalent and harmful forms of school violence. Students experience freedom from bullying when they report little or no exposure to physical, verbal, or social forms of unwanted aggression.
  4. Acceptance of Differences:  Tolerance is a core component of social and emotional safety at school. Students perceive acceptance of differences in background, appearance, and personal lifestyle among students in school environments that are free from teasing or insulting based on personal characteristics.

School Environment:

For students to feel engaged and motivated to learn, they should be in environments that value academic rigor and high expectations for student achievement, establish clear rules and procedures, and provide physical surroundings that are attractive and well-maintained. The three components of school environment are:

  1. Supportive Discipline:  Rules and disciplinary procedures are perceived to be clear, well communicated and reasonable.  School leaders, teachers, and other staff (e.g. School Resource Officers, transportation staff) should be perceived as fair in implementing rules and procedures. Fairness requires consistency and equity in applying rules, including consistency across individual teachers and school staff.
  2. Academic Challenge:  School work needs to be clearly presented and designed to be challenging with sufficient support to achieve. Student achievements should be noted and positive feedback provided.
  3. Approval of the Physical Environment:  Students should approve of the physical appearance of the school. It should be seen as welcoming, comfortable and attractive. Students should feel a sense of ownership in the school building.

Hendersonville High Advisory Impact on School Climate, documents student engagement aspect of Hendersonville High School’s school climate initiative. “Advisory” is a school period during which students from diverse backgrounds and social groups gather together to discuss both personal and school climate issues. The video highlights the positive impacts on bullying, student-student, and student-teacher relationships. 

Campbell County High Flex Lunch presents how “Flex Lunch” promotes student engagement and builds relationships. As a result of the initiative students are able to participate in activities such as cooking, chorus, music, and ROTC.

White County High School Climate Crew presents the important impact of a new student group, “climate crew”, on student relationships, character education, and safety. The group emerged as a result of a traumatic incident and as a response to school climate survey data. The group’s goal is to make their school a “safe and welcome place for everyone.”

Maplewood High Strengthening Connections documents the powerful impact the school’s principal has had on the school’s safety, student-student relationships, student-teacher relationships, and student engagement. In partnership with the dean of students he has transformed connections between school, students, and community.

Documentary:  Saving Lives: Safe and Supportive Schools:  Four Tennessee high schools in a variety of settings have made great strides in increasing school supports for students, increasing school safety, and providing positive learning environments in this documentary.

Anderson County Schools Adventure Based Learning:  Through outdoor adventure based learning, students have opportunities to get out of their comfort zones through character education and team building activities that build self-confidence and self-esteem.  At the Life Development Center, students begin to realize that what seems impossible can be accomplished through the development of life skills.

Lawrence County Friend to Friend Program:  Lawrence County Schools has a culture of adults working together across the system that is making a difference in student achievement.  The Friend to Friend program breaks down barriers to building relationships among students, staff and between staff and students.

Dobyns-Bennett High School BUDS Program:  At Dobyns-Bennett High School there is a sense of mutual respect and relationship building spreading throughout the school.  The BUDS program and Sparkle Squad allow students to celebrate their differences as well as their successes contributing to a safe and respectful learning environment.

Metro Nashville Public Schools and Hamilton County Schools Youth Court Initiative:  The Youth Court Initiative creates a safe and respectful environment in schools through Restorative Justice Practices.  Restorative Justice practices allow students to learn from their mistakes, make amends and repair harm done through their behavior.

The Importance of Building Relationships S3@VU explores the importance of relationships between teachers and students.