School Culture and social emotional learning

Elevating School Climate and Culture with Social Emotional Learning

Table of Contents

What is Social Emotional Learning?

Social Emotional Learning and school climate and culture are directly related.  But how can we work smart and not hard to improve both?  One of the biggest trends in education today is Social and Emotional Learning.  These concepts were labeled as character education in the past.  It may have been part of the D.A.R.E. program. Over time we have seen the need to not just discuss character traits and ways to be a good citizen.  It is needed to teach children to manage their emotions, build relationships, and work cooperatively.  This is accomplished through direct Social Emotional Learning (SEL).  To learn more about what SEL is and the research behind it, visit Why Social Emotional Learning Matters and How to Teach It.

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) states that school culture and climate “promote students’ ability to learn”.  Teachers plan lessons to teach standards that are developed by their state education department.  But without an environment conducive to learning, students will not reach the depth of knowledge that their teachers expect.

School Climate

First, a school’s climate is the effect that the school has on the students, faculty, and staff members who work there.  Building a positive school climate begins with the school’s entrance.  You can feel a school’s climate when you enter the front doors.  The entrance tells you what the school cares about and what the priorities are.  As the principal of an elementary school, my first goal was to make my school a place that was welcoming and warm as soon as you walked in the building.  Our yearly theme is proudly displayed and a display about our faculty and staff are in a place of prominence.

Hallway Displays

The next step in creating a positive school climate is to make the students’ efforts known.  This is achieved by displaying their work, accomplishments, and achievements.  I wanted every student to be able to be celebrated in some way.  The hallway displays in my school included student work outside each classroom.  Of course, this is common in schools, but we took it a step further.  In addition, we included displays that tracked progress on prescriptive computer lessons.  Each grade level treated these displays differently and would sometimes incorporate a competitive element.

Importantly, a higher level of hallway display included bulletin boards.  Specific ones were designated for the recognition of specific accomplishments or more individualized recognition.  These displays included topics such as monthly birthdays and positive recognition for acts of kindness or extra effort.  Including the students’ pictures in the displays make it more personal for the student.  Over time, it gives them ownership of the positivity.  The pictures of students in the hallways gives those students a little celebrity status and makes them proud.  Finally, they become role models for the right reasons and other students want to have their pictures on the walls.  When that happens, then positivity becomes infectious.

Finally, the highest level of hallway display should be designated for the highest recognition.  In my school we used the concept of a Hall of Fame.  Our leadership team set three goals for students to work toward.  These goals included high expectations, but all students could reach the goals with positive behavior, classroom effort, and school attendance.  Students are named as members of the Hall of Fame by reaching all three goals.  Hall of Fame members are named quarterly.

Jumping Hurdles

The way the building looks is a huge hurdle.  However, for those displays to be effective they have to be genuine and meaningful.  Social and Emotional Learning is the crux of a positive school climate.  Next, for students to have positive behavior, to maintain a positive attitude about their classwork, and to care about coming to school, they have to be emotionally stable enough for school to be a priority.  Therefore, in a positive climate, issues like bullying and disrespect are not tolerated by the teachers or by the other students.  A school’s teachers are crucial in creating a positive school climate because they are the ones who will be doing the majority of the recognition.  Ultimately they have to be onboard with the school’s mission to recognize positive accomplishments.

The final hurdle in creating a positive school climate is teacher support.  Student accomplishments and efforts must be recognized by the school administration and ultimately their coworkers.  Not all teachers focus on the positives regularly.  Sometimes it is hard to focus on the positives when the negatives are glaring and disruptive.  To get the teachers to shift their focus, the administrators must support the teachers with all of their needs.  There are teachers who need professional development in content.  Some teachers need it in classroom management.  And some teachers need their own social and emotional learning.  Therefore, this means that the school administration must get to know the teachers on a professional level and a personal level.

School Culture

ASCD describes school culture as “the way teachers and other staff members work together and the set of beliefs, values, and assumptions they share.”  This can only be created by strong and effective leadership.  Therefore, all stakeholders must feel ownership of their part in school culture.  Those roles and expectations must be clearly communicated and the natural leaders within the school must be united in the vision.

Most importantly, in every school there are those teachers who are the natural leaders.  They are the teachers that the school administrator must wrangle onto the leadership team.  These teachers are the influencers and are the people who see the people on the front lines of education.  Navigating the social and emotional needs of the faculty, staff, and students of a building will be made easier by a close connection with the natural leaders in the building.  Ultimately, this leadership team can give the administrators a different perspective and will ensure that everyone’s voice is heard when making decisions.

Although everyone in a school may not have the same job, everyone in the school should share the same goals, values, and expectations for themselves and the students.  Teachers, assistants, custodians, and cafeteria workers must all be on the same team.  The mutual respect is palpable and the students feed on the loving relationship between the adults in the building.  Those relationships are fostered by the school administrator and how those professional relationships are supported.

Source of Inspiration

This view of school culture was influenced by the Jostens Renaissance program that promotes the 5 Rs of their Jostens Renaissance Formula:

Respect + Recognize + Reward + Reinforce = Results. 

Jostens Renaissance is a program that focuses on school climate and culture improvement to improve Social Emotional Learning and therefore, student behavior and achievement. Using the teachings of this program, the positive reinforcement had to become an integral part of all of the workings of our school.

An additional resource in improving the school climate and culture is the use of quality software.  FUNecole® is an invaluable tool that our teachers use to provide direct SEL instruction by incorporating it in daily lessons in multiple subjects.   FUNecole® is a project-based interdisciplinary program, that incorporates components of STREAMS (Science, Technology, Reading/Writing, Engineering, Arts, Math, and Social sciences), Digital Literacy, Computer Science / Coding, 21st Century Skills, and Social Emotional Learning.

As a teaching tool, FUNecole® allows the teacher to plan lessons that teach the standards that are required by their state along with positive Social Emotional Lessons.

(Click the image for your 6 week free trial)

Goal One

To improve the school climate and culture, my first goal as an educational leader was to create Professional Learning Communities.  These PLCs would give all of my teachers the opportunity to work directly with other teachers in the building that are not in their regular grade level group.  Our first configuration of the PLCs was to separate the teachers into subject area teams.  This allowed the teachers to focus on the standards and how they were teaching them rather than the drama of daily life in their grade level.  The teachers were required to present what they were doing to teach a standard and then ask for different approaches to the same standard.  By using this approach, it made each teacher vulnerable and supported.  It built relationships and made each teacher a possible resource to other teachers.

Goal Two

The second goal was to get all of the faculty and staff onboard with acknowledging the positives in the building.  This was achieved by creating tools for everyone to use.  The lowest level of recognition we use is school dollars.  Teachers have a supply of these school dollars and they pass them out to deserving students.  They are for the simple accomplishments in the classroom, hallways, cafeteria, and playground.

Those dollars can then be spent in a school store to purchase school supplies or “fabulous” prizes furnished by our PTO.  Another tool was the positive acknowledgement of those specific acts of kindness and extra effort.  The teachers were given special papers to report the event to the office.  Then the child’s picture would be taken and posted on a bulletin board with the information of their accomplishment.  At the end of the week, these accomplishments would then be announced to the school.  A Hall of Fame, like the one we have, is the greatest tool for the teachers to use.  It allows the teacher to work with the students to set goals.  They can then track their progress.  Then they can praise and celebrate.  Everyone remains involved in each student’s success.

To tie it all together…

And finally, yearly themes allow for the entire school to have a focus.  It is a great way to have fun with your school mascot and to have a “school language”.  Just like inside jokes between friends, a school language unites the students, teachers, and staff.  A yearly theme also allows for a focus in decorations, t-shirts, and bulletin boards.  Each summer there can be a fun amount of hype built up about the theme for the next year and it builds an excitement that kicks the school year off in a positive way.  The theme for the year is fun and exciting, but it’s true purpose is to focus on what is important to the school.  I must be chosen with this in mind and it is the first opportunity each year to give your leadership team ownership.


In the end, all of these changes in the building were simple and minimal on their own.  The key was that collectively they let each individual know that they are seen and that positive interaction should be acknowledged.  The teachers and students all have positive role models in each other.  Students and teachers alike, begin to feel that the struggle itself will be acknowledged along with the final accomplishment.

As time goes on, the mutual respect between everyone builds, comfort allows for vulnerability, experimentation, and growth.  This IS Social Emotional Learning.  Conversations with students who have setbacks with their behavior are very different when that child knows the expectations and sees the error of their ways.  It allows the school administrators to hold the child accountable for their actions without judgement but, instead, it is through reflection on the child’s part.

For the adults in the building it is the same, ultimately.  Teaching is no longer completely autonomous.  Everyone is involved in the progression of your lessons and units.  The teachers’ support of each other in planning allows them to ask for help when they are faced with challenges without the feelings of inadequacy.  This is a win-win situation for the teacher and the students.  Social Emotional Learning does not stop with the students.  It is a process for an entire school to go through when improving School Climate and Culture.

About the Author: Alicia Verweij

Alicia is a seasoned educator that is passionate about teaching children to think critically, problem-solve, and function in an ever-changing digital world so that they will be prepared for future careers. She’s an active supporter of new educators and is known as an innovator in STEAM education. As a teaching veteran of more than 12 years, she holds a Master of Education in Educational Leadership, a B.S. in Business Management, an Alternate Route Education Certification, and an endorsement in Gifted Education. She is an educational influencer, founder, and consultant at EDGEucating LLC.

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