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Building Positive School Climates: Part I

In the U.S. Department of Education document, Guiding Principles: A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline (2014), the first guiding principle that is outlined is entitled “Climate and Prevention.” Positive school climates are described as necessary to, “prevent problem behaviors before they occur and reduce the need for disciplinary interventions that can interfere with student learning” (USDE, 2014).

The document presents six action steps that schools should implement in order to boost academic excellence and student success. The six steps are described in some detail in the USDE document; I’m going to try to summarize each step in one or two sentences.

  1. Engage in deliberate efforts to create positive school climates: schools should conduct a needs assessment, involve a range of stakeholders, craft goals regarding the provision of supports for all students, and collect and use multiple forms of data to propel continuous improvement.
  2. Prioritize the use of evidence-based prevention strategies, such as tiered supports, to promote positive student behavior: schools should implement strategies (such as a multi-tiered system of supports, or MTSS) that identify students in need of more intensive support and should implement a system that provides universal (school-wide), targeted (small group), and intensive (individual student) supports designed to meet the needs of all students in a diverse student body. The Department of Education cites PBIS as a framework that has been found to be effective in improving, “academic, social, emotional, and behavioral outcomes for students” (USDE, 2014).
  3. Promote social and emotional learning to complement academic skills and encourage positive behavior: schools need to take active steps to teach social and emotional competencies (e.g. self-management and -awareness, resilience, responsible decision-making, and social agility), which will contribute to both social development and academic success. In addition, schools need to provide students with opportunities to practice these skills while receiving constructive feedback, in order to support students in being more metacognitive in the area of social and emotional skills.
  4. Provide regular training and supports to all school personnel - including teachers, principals, support staff, and school-based law enforcement officers - on how to engage students and support positive behavior: schools need to provide all individuals who interact with students effective professional learning experiences that are matched to the individual needs of the school personnel and this training should focus on ways to ensure fair treatment of all students. The school should develop and implement procedures for analyzing the effectiveness of these professional development efforts.
  5. Collaborate with local mental health, child welfare, law enforcement, and juvenile justice agencies and other stakeholders to align resources, prevention strategies, and intervention services: schools should develop partnerships in order to more effectively meet student needs, especially those students coping with mental health or emotional issues or trauma. These partnerships can be integral in meeting the needs of students for targeted and/or intensive interventions.
  6. Ensure that any school-based law enforcement officers’ roles focus on improving school safety and reducing inappropriate referrals to law enforcement: schools have a responsibility to make certain that school resource officers are focused on protecting the physical safety of the school through the provision of a clear definition of the role of the officers and their responsibilities, appropriate training, and continuous monitoring through data collection and evaluation.

These six action steps are all supported when schools choose to implement a school-wide system such as PBIS. PBIS is not a program, it is a way of organizing a school's behavioral interventions so that a school can ensure that they are meeting the needs of all students. Having worked with dozens of schools that are implementing PBIS, I can speak from personal experience regarding the difference PBIS makes in the climate of a school. Students enjoy coming to school and are prepared for the rigorous demands of the Common Core State Standards when behavioral expectations are clear and positively stated, students are acknowledged for appropriate behavior, adults in the system deal with misbehavior in a consistent and respectful manner, and behavior is taught as strategically and explicitly as academics.

For more information on PBIS go to or
If you’re interested in training and support for the implementation of PBIS at your school or district, please contact IES.

U.S. Department of Education (2014). Guiding principles: A resource guide for improving school climate and discipline, Washington, DC.

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