The news is full of stories about failing schools. Bad teachers. Low test scores. The education “crisis.” Our legislators and educators are spending enormous amounts of time and energy trying to find the cure for what ails our schools and our students. Yet, as we debate what’s at the heart of the problem, we tend to ignore one of the most powerful influences on learning: school climate, the degree to which schools offer a welcoming and safe place for children to learn. And by not looking more closely at this powerful factor, we may be overlooking one of the most positive ways to transform the educational environment.  

 

What does a welcoming climate look like?

Welcoming schools emphasize not only academic achievement but also positive relationships among students and teachers, respect for all members of the school community, fair and consistent discipline policies, and family and community involvement.

When assessing a school’s climate, think about the school’s physical surroundings, which make the first impression on students and visitors. Consider the language and images used in signs and announcements. Are they inclusive? Do they represent the diversity of the school’s populations? What books are assigned in English class? Do they reflect a wide range of experiences and people? How is discipline handled? Is it consistent and clearly communicated? Do educators work hard to create classroom environments that are hospitable for students of all backgrounds?

 

How does a welcoming climate affect learning and achievement?

All students should feel that they and their families are included and valued in their school community. Yet a recent study found that only half of high school students feel they are an important part of their school community (YazzieMintz, 2007).

To learn at their best, students must be engaged and motivated. Substantial research shows that students who feel both valued by adults and a part of their schools perform better academically and also have more positive social attitudes, values, and behavior.

Schools can be a refuge for students. A welcoming school conveys to the student a feeling of safety, in spite of what is happening outside the school grounds. It becomes a place away from the chaos around them. Creating such a place and keeping distractions away from the thoughts of the students allows them to fill their minds with knowledge.

A welcoming climate also helps students feel connected to the institution, which in turn is likely to boost accountability measures, such as decreases in absenteeism, fighting, bullying and vandalism, and increases in motivation, classroom engagement, academic performance, school attendance and completion rates.

 

How can we begin to create a welcoming climate?

Though it may seem like a big undertaking, even small moves toward meaningful “climate change” can have a big impact. Individual teachers have the power every day to encourage students to embrace difference, to develop a mindset of hospitality, to challenge stereotypes, language, and practices that promote “insider/outsider” thinking. Small changes give way to bigger changes, leading to more open and welcoming schools where students of all backgrounds can learn and thrive.

Download INCLUDING EVERYONE: Small Changes to Create a Welcoming Classroom