The child walking though schoolhouse doors enters a world filled not only with subject matters such as science, art, and math, but also with people matters such as cherished friends and acquaintances, collaborators and competitors, your crowd and someone else's crowd, the sting of rejection, and quite possibly hated enemies and accursed bullies. At school, children and youth learn how to (not) get along with one another and contribute to a larger whole. They break themselves up into emotionally significant groups and cliques based on gender, race and ethnicity, behavior, and common activities. Children form friendships, some fleeting and others durable. Children develop a pecking order, not as unidimensional as the dominance hierarchies of chickens and elephants, but nonetheless an influential youth-driven social order with a force of its own that each child can accept or reject, and that can accept or reject each child.
This is the first paragraph from the chapter "Child and Adolescent Peer Relations in Educational Context" by Philip C. Rodkin and Allison M. Ryan of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the Handbook of Educational Psychology: Individual Differences, Cultural Variations, and Contextual Factors (vol. 2).
It should also be the first realization we all make when reviewing the issues of education reform, student learning, student behavior, or student growth in the school setting. It's not a program or a curriculum but a realization -- a realization that schools are social settings.
They are -- for better or worse -- settings where children and adolescents learn behaviors, reactions to others behavior, and learn how to function and grow. Some schools actively address this by focusing attention on their environment and developing a positive school climate. A positive school climate, according to the National School Climate Center, is an environment that fosters youth development and learning necessary for a productive, contributing, and satisfying life in a democratic society. At its core, it includes norms, values, and expectations that support people in feeling socially, emotionally, and physically safe. They are environments that provide not only safety but also a sense of safety. I mention sense of safety because too often adults equate safety to physical structures such as metal detectors or to rigid draconian rules such as zero tolerance. But although the potential of these two examples to instill a safe environment is debatable, students' sense of safety is the most crucial factor. Students won't speak out in class if they feel they may be ridiculed, and they won't push themselves in a new venture if they believe they may suffer socially. A student's sense of safety is actually more important than any structure or rule that may exist.
Two weeks ago, along with 150 students, families, researchers, and educators, I attended the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention. Even in this setting, with parents who had suffered the loss of a child to bullying, the argument for more stringent rules, and structures or physical barriers never really eventuated. Instead, the conversations surrounded the premise of this article -- that schools are social settings and schools must realize and harness this.
All schools have a school climate -- a culture that either promotes or hinders effective teaching and learning, student growth and development. Schools can either actively work toward establishing a positive school climate or have a climate imposed upon them.
But as Rodkin and Ryan asked, "Why haven't adults, in this age of education crisis and No Child Left Behind, accepted the message about the fundamental importance of school social dynamics?"
Maybe it's our focus on all things academic? Maybe in our desire to raise test scores we have lost sight of the bigger picture and begun to lose some of what is great about our schools and schooling. Sometimes, rather than narrowing down, we may actually be better off taking a step back first.
The current conversation may be linked to the issue of bullying; however, we should not assume that a positive school climate affects only a defined behavior or set of skills. Focusing on positive school climate development starts to address the educational foundations at the school level. A positive school climate can affect not only an issue such as bullying, but also student attendance, engagement, empowerment, ownership, and risk-taking behaviors, as well as teaching and learning. A positive school climate supports an environment that promotes academic achievement, reduces risk-taking and anti-social behaviors, and can help develop the whole child.
Once we make this realization, our actions -- from establishing education policies through what and how we teach in the classroom -- change. We make decisions based not solely on the end assessment mechanism but on what will help promote a culture of support, engagement, and empowerment--a positive school climate. Issues do not disappear, but evidence suggests that they are greatly reduced. In turn, the school and its students are also frequently better prepared to address and ameliorate their effect.
And as Rodkin and Ryan stated, "If American education is ever to be reformed, it won't happen without the kids."