How to Create a Healthy School Climate

Derrick Burress
Derrick Burress
High school principal; M.S. in Education
A teacher and her students smiling and working together at a table.

Have you ever walked into a school that you don’t work at and noticed that it “felt different”? While the definition of a school climate can be difficult to nail down, most leaders, students, faculty, and parents can immediately notice if a school feels like a positive and healthy place to be. Fortunately, you can begin building a positive and healthy school climate this year (yes, even in the midst of a pandemic) with a few habits and policy changes.

The National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments notes that a positive and healthy school climate happens when leadership is dedicated to fostering safety, promoting a supportive academic, disciplinary, and physical environment, and maintaining trusting relationships throughout the school community. When you develop and nurture a healthy school climate, benefits follow. For example, a healthy school climate can lead to better attendance and achievement.

Here is what to include in your journey to create a healthy school climate over the next months and years.

Mental and Physical Health in School

It is an antiquated thought to believe that schools are just for education. Many students recognize school as a stable part of their daily routine, and some students confide in teachers about health issues ranging from food scarcity to test anxiety. While your school is certainly not a hospital, it is a building that should offer an environment that supports mental, physical, and overall wellness for your students and your staff.

A healthy school environment offers the guidelines, resources, and support that students and faculty need to stay as healthy as possible.

Establish Guidelines

Brene Brown, an author who writes about leadership and vulnerability, tells us that in all cases, being clear is being kind. This means that people you lead cannot follow guidelines or adhere to boundaries if they are not sure what those guidelines or boundaries are. Everyone, from faculty to students, will be able to adjust their own behavior and expectations based on clearly outlined guidelines.

What does this mean for you? It means that now is the time to review your policies and procedures. Unfortunately, many schools do not have a regular annual review of policies and procedures. Many school districts and buildings can go years without adjusting outdated health and safety protocols. Form a health and safety committee and plan to meet at least yearly to review and adjust your school’s guidelines so that everyone knows the expectations.

Ensure you cover topics ranging from behavioral concerns to handling cyberbullying, and don’t forget to approach these from both a faculty and a student perspective.

Be Visible and Approachable

A healthy school climate begins with an approachable leader. Your team, as well as your students, should know that you are invested in their success and are ready to listen to their concerns or ideas. You can begin building positive relationships with your team and students by committing to getting out of your office.

Successful school leaders know they can find out more about their students and team by strolling the halls at least twice per day. If you aren’t already in the habit of getting out of your office, schedule your “roaming office hours” in your calendar and set an alarm on your smartphone. During your time out of your office, be sure you are waving hello and chatting with students and faculty. Be extra friendly, as your leadership position can often make others feel intimidated. Remember, this daily time out of your office is to encourage communication.

Finally, if someone approaches you with an idea or concern, take the time to genuinely listen. Take notes as needed and thank the person for sharing their thoughts. Give a plan for follow up and stick with it.

Have Resources Available

Building a school climate that encourages health means having the right resources readily available for staff, students, and family members. Consider working with your school counselor, nurse, and other support staff to develop a resource library that anyone can access.

Ensure you include a variety of resources ranging from stress relief to healthy eating to online bullying. You can also solicit reliable information about coronavirus-related topics that include basics like how to wear a mask and socially distance, in addition to mental health topics like depression, isolation, and anxiety.

Develop a well-rounded social-emotional, mental, and physical health library by also consulting with local professionals in your community. Your resource library should feature information students and faculty can grab while on campus as well as online.

Include Staff in Decisions

Finally, you cannot build a healthy school climate all on your own. You must be committed to empowering your staff and inviting them to take part in the process. After all, your teachers and support staff are the ones who can most effectively advocate for students because they know issues and concerns.

You can begin to empower your team by working with them to set school-wide goals. Host a staff meeting where you talk more about healthy school climate and the benefits. Then have a frank conversation of how your school is doing on the path to health; talk about mental health challenges among students and staff as well as physical health shortfalls. When you invite your team to buy into a larger goal, everyone can begin working toward it together.

Next, you can empower your team by asking for their opinions. All too often, school leaders are quick to implement change without first checking to see if the change is needed in the first place. Talk to your team and invite them to share their opinions during staff meetings, smaller committee or department meetings, and even 1:1 interactions. Whether you meet in groups or send out a survey, you can actively ask for their opinions on how to make health a priority in your school.

Finally, use their opinions to propel change and to move your team to your overall goal of a healthy school climate. If you aren’t quite sure how to solve an issue that your staff brought up consistently, ask a community professional to come in and share their expertise.

Building a healthy school climate is well worth the effort. Your students, staff, and family members can benefit from your commitment to physical and mental health. Remember that while you cannot build a healthy school climate overnight, you can begin to take small steps toward that goal this month. How will you begin?

*Updated November, 2020
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