Strategy overview

  • Creating a safe learning environment: School climate and student behavior programs typically focus on creating safe learning environments for all students by improving school climate and classroom culture, addressing troubling behavior prior to escalation, and avoiding classroom exclusion as a punitive measure whenever possible. Evidence-based, comprehensive reforms seek to make change at all levels: school-wide, in group settings, and at the individual level. Evidence-based models have been successfully implemented across age ranges from K-12.

  • Taking a school-wide approach: School climate and student behavior initiatives often include setting new school-wide standards for positive behavior and routines. Such practices may include teaching students how to identify and interrupt bullying, how to ask school staff for help, and demonstrating what respectfulness looks like, alongside routines like greeting each student at the school entrance. The principles underlying these practices and routines are reinforced consistently throughout the school year during all-school gatherings and during class time.

  • Training teachers: As part of a broader reform effort, some models focus on classroom-level changes delivered by teachers. These may include intentional approaches to the physical classroom set up or seating chart; setting standards for expected behavior and providing positive reinforcement; and offering students varied avenues for positive contributions to the classroom. Teachers typically receive robust training and ongoing professional development as they implement the reform.

  • Partnering 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.

  • Moving away from punitive practices: An increasingly common approach to promoting positive student behavior and school climate is through restorative justice programming, which can be delivered to individual students, small groups, and school-wide. Restorative justice practices focus on shifting away from exclusionary punishment (like suspensions) and instead creating formal spaces for direct dialogue between students and/or school staff. At its core, restorative justice focuses on addressing the conditions that allow an incident to occur, and on healing for all individuals involved.

  • Developing student-level behavior plans: To reverse decades of school disciplinary models reliant on exclusion, reform models include concrete practices to address disruptive and/or dangerous student behavior on an individual basis. Such practices include one-on-one sessions with a behavior specialist, a formal intake assessment and resulting plan, and access to wraparound services, such as behavioral and physical health.

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

Promoting positive school climate and student behavior has been shown to improve outcomes predictive of upward mobility. These outcomes, identified by the Urban Institute, are effective public education, preparation for college, school economic diversity, safety from trauma, safety from crime, and just policing.

City and county leaders can assess local conditions for each of these outcomes using the metrics below, identified by the Urban Institute. This assessment can be used to determine whether this strategy is appropriate for their community. (Note: these metrics are a starting point for self-assessment and are not intended to be comprehensive.)

All cities and counties with populations over 75,000 can receive a customized data sheet here.

  • Measuring the effectiveness of public education in your community: Examine the average per-grade change in English Language Arts achievement between the third and eighth grades. These data are available from Stanford University’s Education Data Archive.

  • Measuring preparation for college in your community: Examine the share of 19- and 20-year-olds with a high school degree. These data are available from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

  • Measuring school economic diversity: Examine the share of students attending high-poverty schools by student race or ethnicity. These data are available from the Urban Institute’s Education Data Portal.

  • Measuring safety from trauma in your community: Examine the number of deaths due to injury per 100,000 people. These data are available from the National Center for Health Statistics’ Mortality File and the CDC’s WONDER database.

  • Measuring safety from crime in your community: Examine reported property crimes per 100,000 people and reported violent crimes per 100,000 people. These data are available from the Federal Bureau of Investigations’ Uniform Crime Reporting Program.

  • Measuring just policing in your community: Examine the number of juveniles arrested per 100,000. High rates of juvenile arrests provide a strong indicator of overall system involvement and over-policing. These data are available from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Crime Data Explorer.

  • Hire dedicated behavioral staff: To maximize program effectiveness, prioritize significant investments in staff hours and training. Many models require a new hire, such as a behavioral specialist, counselor, or, for a comprehensive approach like restorative justice, a district coordinator. Additionally, teachers must often undergo extensive and time-intensive training to learn best practices and implement them in their classrooms. With nearly all reforms delivered by school staff, sufficient funding is crucial to achieving substantial changes in practice.

  • Cultivate buy-in among teachers: Given the school-wide nature of many reforms, principals and other school leaders should build a formal process for demonstrating the value of the change and soliciting feedback during the program design and implementation phases. Because many reforms include culture change within classrooms, teacher buy-in is among the most essential components of effective implementation. Some models, like restorative justice, also require teacher leadership and/or participation, making their support foundational to effective delivery.

  • Inform reforms with data analysis: Set concrete outcomes at school, classroom, and individual student levels against which progress can be measured and interventions refined. For instance, at the student level, some evidence-based data tools can help identify intervention points before bullying or teasing can escalate into violence or other severe disruptions. Meanwhile, school-wide data can inform community-wide goals and the corresponding programming that is delivered to help achieve those goals.

  • Prioritize anti-bias and discrimination training: Exclusionary discipline (such as suspensions and expulsions) is disproportionately levied upon students of color (in particular, Black boys) in terms of both frequency and intensity. Given the strong evidence of racial stereotypes, biases, and other forms of discrimination that have historically shaped school discipline, districts should be deliberate in designing and implementing models that include a focus on racial equity, such as certain evidence-based restorative justice models.

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
Strong
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
Proven
Holistic approach leveraging community partnerships to support student well-being
Elementary and middle school success High school graduation
Strong
Culturally adapted program for Latinx parents focused on reciprocity of positive interaction between parents and children
Stable and healthy families Kindergarten readiness
Proven
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
Proven
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
Proven
Reducing the ratio of students to educators in a classroom
Elementary and middle school success
Strong
School-wide reform model integrating curriculum, school culture, family, and community supports
Elementary and middle school success
Strong
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
Proven
Offers families simple and practical strategies to help their children foster healthy relationships and manage behavior
Stable and healthy families Kindergarten readiness
Proven
Comprehensive training for K-12 teachers designed to teach prosocial behaviors
Elementary and middle school success High school graduation
Proven
Prevents youth disconnection through work readiness training, paid internships, and mentoring
High school graduation High-quality employment
Strong