Strategy overview

  • Creating a positive learning environment: School climate and student behavior interventions focus on creating safe and productive learning environments for students. They seek to improve classroom culture and address troubling behavior before it escalates. These interventions should avoid classroom exclusion as a punitive measure whenever possible, as practices such as suspensions are associated with negative impacts on academic development and increased likelihood of dropping out. Evidence-based, comprehensive reforms seek to make change at multiple tiers, as described by the Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) model: school-wide, in group settings, and at the individual level. Utilizing tiered interventions allows schools to foster a supportive climate that encourages positive behavior broadly, while also outlining supportive responses when acute behavior issues arise.

  • Taking a school-wide approach: Initiatives often include school-wide programming or the establishment of standards that aim to instill positive culture and preventatively mitigate acute behavioral issues. Such interventions may include setting consistent expectations across classrooms and common spaces, instituting culturally responsive or trauma-informed practices to proactively support students, and teaching students how to identify and interrupt bullying. Approaches may also include the creation of routines like personal greetings at the school entrance or putting hats in lockers before entering the classroom.

  • Utilizing group or classroom-based interventions: Some models focus on classroom-level changes delivered by teachers or focused on individual students. These may include skills-based social-emotional learning curricula designed to foster interpersonal and cognitive skills; classroom management techniques like setting up the seating chart to minimize disruption; setting standards for expected behavior and providing positive reinforcement; and offering students varied avenues for positive contributions to the classroom. Other interventions include group-based support services like group counseling, that is designed to address mental health concerns while supporting whole-student social-emotional growth. Teachers should receive robust training and ongoing professional development as they implement reforms.

  • Developing student-level behavior plans with support services: Rather than responding to challenging behavior with punitive or exclusionary measures like suspensions or detention, reform models frequently include concrete practices to address individual student behavior. This may involve the creation of Functional Behavioral Assessment plans or implementation of practices like Check In Check Out, wherein students meet one-on-one with a school staff member to set daily goals and reflect on how the day went. Many schools also utilize one-on-one sessions with a counselor or behavior specialist paired with support services to address student needs, including those related to mental health.

  • Moving away from punitive practices: An increasingly common approach to promoting positive student behavior and school climate is through school-wide restorative justice implementation. Restorative justice practices focus on building and maintaining community and relationships in a way that enables positive conflict resolution. It shifts away from exclusionary punishment and instead creates structured spaces for direct dialogue between all members of the school community, including students and/or school staff. At its core, restorative justice focuses on addressing the conditions that allow an incident to occur and healing for all individuals involved.

  • Supporting the wellbeing of staff: Teachers and staff who work in schools with a high incidence of trauma may experience high levels of stress and trauma themselves. Experts emphasize the importance of supporting teacher and staff wellbeing as a foundational element of successful school climate interventions. Interventions to support teacher wellbeing may include making available mental health resources or providing training on topics such as mindfulness during paid prep time. Other interventions, like group therapy or restorative justice programs, require that teachers and staff participate. Participation may take place in staff-only groups in advance of implementation with students, and/or with students throughout the school year.

Multiple systematic reviews and meta-analyses found that interventions focused on school climate and student behavior are associated with statistically significant, positive impacts on academic outcomes.

  • A 2018 systematic review of school disciplinary reforms found that they are associated with a statistically significant drop in cases of school expulsion.

  • A 2018 meta-analysis of interventions aimed at reducing aggressive and disruptive behaviors found that school-based interventions led to significant and positive effects.

  • A 2016 research synthesis found that Positive Behavior Supports and Interventions-Tier 1, wherein school-wide behavioral expectations are set in line with community values, were associated with a positive impact on student behavior. 

  • A 2015 meta-analysis of school disciplinary reforms found a significant decrease in disruptive behaviors.

  • A 2015 meta-analysis of different types of school suspensions found that suspensions  have a significant negative impact on academic achievement and increase the likelihood of dropout.

Before making investments in school climate, city and county leaders should ensure this strategy addresses local needs.

The Urban Institute and Mathematica have developed indicator frameworks to help local leaders assess conditions related to upward mobility, identify barriers, and guide investments to address these challenges. These indicator frameworks can serve as a starting point for self-assessment, not as a comprehensive evaluation, and should be complemented by other forms of local knowledge.

The Urban Institute's Upward Mobility Framework identifies a set of key local conditions that shape communities’ ability to advance upward mobility and racial equity. Local leaders can use the Upward Mobility Framework to better understand the factors that improve upward mobility and prioritize areas of focus. Data reports for cities and counties can be created here.

Several indicators in the Upward Mobility Framework may be improved with investments in high-quality school climate interventions. To measure these indicators and determine if investments in this strategy could help, examine the following:

Mathematica's Education-to-Workforce (E-W) Indicator Framework helps local leaders identify the data that matter most in helping students and young adults succeed. Local leaders can use the E-W framework to better understand education and workforce conditions in their communities and to identify strategies that can improve outcomes in these areas.

Several indicators in the E-W Framework may be improved with investments in high-quality school climate interventions. To measure these indicators and determine if investments in this strategy could help, examine the following:

  • Equitable discipline practices: Differences in the rates at which students from key demographic subgroups ever experience different forms of school discipline (office referrals, suspensions, expulsions, restraint, and exclusion) relative to those students’ representation in their school population as a whole.
  • Inclusive environments: Percentage of students reporting belonging in school.
  • Mental and emotional well-being: Percentage of youth with mental or emotional health needs as identified by a universal screening tool.
  • Positive behavior:
  • School safety: Percentage of students reporting high levels of physical, mental, and emotional safety in school climate surveys.
  • Self-management: Percentage of students reporting a high level of self-management on surveys such as the CORE Districts SEL Survey self-management scale (grades 5–12) or Shift and Persist scale for children.
  • Consistency and transparency: Experts cite that students’ uncertainty over behavioral expectations often drives issues related to conduct. They recommend establishing clear behavioral norms for students in all school-related settings that have been agreed upon by supervisory staff and teachers. Furthermore, experts emphasize carrying out school climate intervention practices on a regular basis–not just as a response to an incident of negative student behavior. This will help normalize supportive relationships and practices in school culture, minimizing the stigma associated with taking a break, meeting with a school counselor or participating in a restorative circle or restorative conversation, for example, when an issue arises.

  • Dedicated staff to coordinate and implement school-wide efforts: School climate interventions that necessitate school-wide intervention (such as Restorative Justice or Trauma-Informed Schools initiatives) require significant coordination and facilitation, beyond the capacity of existing staff and teachers. Many successful programs hire a staff person who is responsible for coordinating program activities, staff training, and monitoring and evaluation. They may be hired by the district and oversee program implementation across several schools.

  • Appropriate training and support services for staff and teachers: Staff and teachers who are responsible wholly or in part for the implementation of school climate interventions should be provided necessary training on intervention practices and foundational topics such as restorative practices in education, trauma and harm, conflict and healing, and escalation prevention. These trainings should be made available during existing work time. Furthermore, staff should also be offered support services that are available to students, like mental health resources, in order to encourage culture change within the entire school ecosystem.

  • Voluntary and flexible: Interventions, particularly those designed to address trauma or student mental health, are often most effective when students elect to participate themselves. Furthermore, because issues related to student behavior frequently arise due to a unique challenge a student is facing, allowing interventions to be flexible and decisions to be made that are right for a particular student will be most effective.

  • Maintain high expectations around behavior and academic rigor: Some experts notice that when teachers and staff understand how systemic issues or family dynamics affect students, they might subconsciously expect less from those students both academically and behaviorally. This can result in a less rigorous educational experience for students from marginalized groups. Schools should provide supports for students to enable student development in light of the high level of stress and trauma some students experience, but should maintain a high level of academic rigor.

  • Be intentional about acknowledging systemic inequities: Students inevitably carry their out-of-school experiences into the school environment, and many issues related to school climate and student behavior are impacted by societal realities like systemic racism, xenophobia, and gender inequity and the resulting events such as community violence and housing insecurity. Experts encourage the use of open and honest dialogue among staff and between students and staff about how these realities are impacting situations that unfold at school.

  • Employ a lens of curiosity: Experts encourage teachers and school staff to approach each situation related to student behavior from a point of curiosity, seeking first to understand the challenges the student may be facing versus making assumptions. This policy of inquisitiveness first may help school staff in avoiding unintentional biases when evaluating a situation.

  • Teachers and school staff: Teachers and school staff are frequently responsible, wholly or in part, for implementing proactive and responsive interventions. Their personal relationships with students may be critical in understanding student needs. In cases where nonprofit partners deliver interventions, school staff and teachers can be critical in helping to identify and recruit students that may benefit from services.

  • District and school leadership: Many school climate interventions require a culture change within the school, asking both students and staff to approach relationships differently. Experts observe that these efforts tend to be most successful when principals and other school leadership are invested and lead the change from the top. Furthermore, it may be necessary for school leadership to work with the district to ensure interventions are not at odds with district-wide policies related to discipline. Collaboratively reforming district-wide policies to eliminate overly punitive or exclusionary policies may be an important first step.

  • Community-based organizations: Some interventions may partner with community-based organizations with particular expertise, such as in mentoring or group therapy, to deliver programs or support services in schools. The expertise and added capacity of external organizations can be crucial to program success.

  • Parents and caregivers: Engaging parents and caregivers is critical, particularly when seeking to understand challenging student behavior. School staff and parents can partner to address needs or tailor services to the student’s particular context. It may also be necessary to secure parental consent for student participation in certain programs, like in-school mental health services.

  • Philanthropy: Local funders may enable schools to implement or scale interventions that otherwise would be cost prohibitive within the school’s budget. In some successful examples, philanthropy has not only funded program operating costs, but also hired dedicated program coordinators and seconded the individual to the school.

  • Ensure alignment with district-wide policies: Many interventions move away from traditional approaches to discipline, which may be in conflict with district-wide policies that mandate specific actions in certain scenarios. While experts note that changes should not be at the expense of student accountability, it may be required to collaborate with the district to amend overly punitive discipline policies that hinder the school’s ability to implement new interventions.

  • Evaluate school climate from the student perspective: Experts suggest employing a “day in the student life” walk-through, wherein an adult spends a day shadowing a student. This process can reveal to staff significant discrepancies in climate experienced by students when moving between classrooms or other school common spaces like the hallway, recess, or lunch. Adults supervising these spaces may have different expectations of how students should behave in different spaces, contributing to perceived behavioral issues.

  • Leverage early-adopters: Pursuing a culture change toward trauma-informed or restorative approaches to school climate and student behavior can be a slow endeavor. Early adopters of a new approach, including both students and staff, can be leveraged to generate buy-in among other students and staff, helping to illustrate the value of the intervention.

  • Establish transition plans that support staff with new policies: Experts observe that in some cases where new approaches have been unsuccessful, new policies have failed to be paired with an adequate transition plan to manage the change to a new approach. For example, some schools have eliminated the use of classroom exclusion for disruptive behavior, without providing teachers processes or support mechanisms to handle situations as they arise in the classroom.

  • Partner with parents: Many reform models include parental engagement and support in reinforcing healthy and safe behavior in school. This may include hosting workshops or ongoing courses to teach parents how to de-escalate or mediate behavior, creating clear lines of communication between parents and teachers, and including parent input when designing disciplinary procedures and reforms.

  • Participation rates: Culture change can be near-impossible to quantify, but experts advise monitoring participation in the short-term to evaluate uptake. This may include metrics such as staff participation in professional development or training, the number of students participating in new programming.

  • Student and staff perception of climate: Experts note that the intangible feeling of the school atmosphere can be an informative diagnostic. Qualitative surveys of both students and staff on morale and how they feel about the school environment may illuminate issues. Repeating these processes after implementation of an intervention can provide an indicator of success.

  • Disciplinary rates: Reductions in disciplinary actions, including those resulting in classroom exclusion like suspensions, is a critical indicator of success. It is also imperative to evaluate these rates by student demographics to identify disparities in the frequency of disciplinary actions across groups. This is especially critical given the greater likelihood of experiencing discipline at school among Black students and other students of color.

  • Social-emotional learning or holistic student assessments: Interventions that focus on developing students’ interpersonal or relational skills can be evaluated in terms of attainment of social-emotional learning skills. Assessment tools that may be employed include the Survey for Academic and Youth Outcomes and Holistic Student Assessment.

Evidence-based examples

Volunteer mentoring program matching community members with disadvantaged or at-risk youth
Elementary and middle school success High school graduation Supportive neighborhoods
A K-12 school improvement model that emphasizes relationship building, leveraging real-time student data, and identifying and capitalizing on the strengths of students and staff.
Elementary and middle school success High school graduation
Holistic approach leveraging community partnerships to support student well-being
Elementary and middle school success High school graduation
Culturally adapted program for Latinx parents focused on reciprocity of positive interaction between parents and children
Stable and healthy families Kindergarten readiness
Facilitating mentorship between older and younger youths to build social connectedness
Elementary and middle school success High school graduation

Evidence varies across specific models

Formal, school-based education for children age 4–6
Elementary and middle school success
Alternative justice approach using mediation, peacemaking circles, and family group conferences
Elementary and middle school success High school graduation Supportive neighborhoods

Evidence varies across specific models

Teaching self-awareness, improving emotional self-control, building self-esteem, and more
High school graduation Elementary and middle school success Stable and healthy families Supportive neighborhoods

Evidence varies across specific models

Using social learning and organizational behavioral principles to create a safe and healthy school culture
High school graduation Elementary and middle school success
Reducing the ratio of students to educators in a classroom
Elementary and middle school success
School-wide reform model integrating curriculum, school culture, family, and community supports
Elementary and middle school success
Coordinated set of programs for parents, children, and teachers to support children that have demonstrated or are at risk for behavioral problems
Kindergarten readiness Elementary and middle school success High school graduation
Offers families simple and practical strategies to help their children foster healthy relationships and manage behavior
Stable and healthy families Kindergarten readiness
Comprehensive training for K-12 teachers designed to teach prosocial behaviors
Elementary and middle school success High school graduation
Prevents youth disconnection through work readiness training, paid internships, and mentoring
High school graduation High-quality employment

Results for America would like to thank the following contributors who lent their expertise to the creation of this resource:

  • Dr. Bob Balfanz: Robert Balfanz is a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Education, where he is the director of the Everyone Graduates Center. He has published widely on secondary school reform, high school dropouts, early warning systems, chronic absenteeism, school climate, and instructional interventions in high-poverty schools. He focuses on translating research findings into effective school interventions. In 2013 he was named a Champion for Change for African American Education by President Obama.
  • Dr. Micere Keels: Dr. Micere Keels is a Professor at the University of Chicago, Department of Comparative Human Development. Her research focuses on understanding how sociodemographic characteristics (race-ethnicity and poverty, in particular) structure the supports and challenges that individuals experience. She is particularly invested in systems-change interventions. She is the founding project director of the Trauma-Informed Educational Practices Project.
  • Garrett M. Webster, Sr.: Garrett Webster is the Executive Director of Youth Guidance in Kansas City. He leads the implementation of Becoming a Man (BAM) and Working on Womanhood (WOW), school-based group counseling and mentoring programs with multiple school districts across the metro area. The evidence-based programs target students in grades 6-12 who have been exposed to traumatic stressors and who face social, behavioral, cognitive, or emotional challenges. Youth Guidance serves over 13,000 youth across 9 states and the United Kingdom. His leadership opens doors for students and families to access quality education and sets the stage to prepare for college, career and life.
  • Dr. Sandra Jo Wilson: Dr. Wilson is a Principal Associate in the Social and Economic Policy Division at Abt Associates. She has more than 20 years of experience leading reviews on effective programs for children, youth, and families and is at the cutting edge of systematic review methods and technologies. She directed the Evidence for Program Improvement project, a core components initiative supported by the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation to develop practice guidelines for youth programs that target externalizing behavior, self-regulation, and social competencies. She is currently Director of the Title IV-E Prevention Services Clearinghouse, an evidence clearinghouse established by the Administration for Children and Families to systematically review research on programs and services intended to provide enhanced support to children and families and prevent foster care placements, including parenting skills and parent support programs.
  • David Yusem: David Yusem has 24 years of experience as a leader and practitioner in the field of conflict resolution and restorative justice. For the last 13 years he has coordinated the Restorative Justice (RJ) movement at Oakland Unified School District. The RJ program at OUSD is considered a National model for the implementation of restorative practices in schools. David supports the district-wide implementation of restorative justice practices as a model to relate, repair, and restore. Prior to working at OUSD, David managed the community mediation program at SEEDS, and founded their restorative justice program. David has also initiated RJ pilot programs at the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center and Berkeley Unified School District. David is committed to building caring, engaging, and equitable school communities, and to the elimination of racial disparities in discipline.