For most kids, going through the years of elementary school is a delightful experience — there are warm, caring teachers who look after them, guide them, and teach them the fundamentals. They have plenty of time to play with friends, feel safe, and be valued for their uniqueness.
But, for kids transitioning into middle and high school, often that experience changes. They no longer feel as cared for, known, or safe as they did in elementary school.
Of course, there are developmental reasons for that — a shift in focus to peer relationships and a heightened sense of consciousness that leads to worries about peer rejection, not to mention the sheer size of most middle and high schools.
There’s solid evidence that kids who have a positive experience at school, specifically an experience of feeling cared for by adults, will have a stronger foundation for success not only academically, but also in life.
As the Search Institute reports, “Research shows that young people who go to school where the environment feels caring and encouraging get better grades, have healthier relationships, get into less trouble, and are interested in and better able to reach their dreams.”
Given that reality, paying attention to what people refer to as ‘School Climate’ is significant.
It makes sense, of course. Kids undergo a tremendous shift throughout their teenage years as they start wrestling with the big questions about life, questions like:
- Do I matter?
- What value do I bring to the world?
- What does a good friendship look like?
If the answers they receive are negative ones, whether that’s from other peers or adults, it will impact how they build their lives.
Or, if they go through school unnoticed, maybe due to their more reserved personality or because they don’t cause problems or stand out in some way, those questions may remain unanswered.
That’s why it’s important for school leaders to be intentional about the culture they create. But what does that even mean?
Culture and school climate are formal ways to talk about someone’s ordinary experience somewhere. It’s the unwritten rules for how things work around here — whether it’s social norms like language or fashion or it’s the level of kinetic energy and volume.
Teens are hyper-aware and sensitive to fitting in, almost at any cost, and social norms dictate much of this.
How does this relate to youth drug use prevention? Research shows that teens always overestimate the percentage of their peers who engage in substance use. In other words, they falsely assume that ‘everybody’s doing it.’
But when teens realize that not as many of their peers engage in substance use as they thought, fewer of them will use substances. Parents and educators can intervene and educate them so they’re able to see clearly and make wiser choices by understanding the social norms approach to substance use prevention.
Human beings adapt to culture — we’re all wired to pay attention at an intuitive level to figure out how to fit in and go with the flow.
It’s not the responsibility of any one person to shape or change the climate of a school. It’s a collective responsibility. But, it does take a vision and a commitment to it.
Kids can make a difference, just as much as a parent or a principal. They can ask questions, share their experiences, and engage in conversations about the culture of the campus.
For parents, you can look for ways to try to understand your child’s experience at school.
- Ask them to walk you through their typical day, especially to share details about how it feels to be in class, to walk around the campus during passing periods, or to describe what it’s like to eat lunch.
- Lead with curiosity, seeking to understand their point of view about their interaction with peers, teachers, and other adults on campus.
- If you’re so inclined, you might look for opportunities to interact with school administrators and ask questions about their perspective regarding the school climate.
Finally, encourage kids to play a role in shaping the school climate to be more positive, inclusive, and caring. You can model small things like greeting neighbors with warmth, engaging with waiters or cashiers in a positive way, and sparking conversations with their friends.
Every kid needs to see what it looks like to play a part in building positive relationships and a warm climate before they know what it looks like to participate.