Improving School Climate Central to Anti-Bullying Efforts, Say Experts

The importance of school climate was the theme of the National Education Association’s Bully Free Summit held on Tuesday at its national headquarters in Washington, D.C. The summit brought together researchers, policy makers, practitioners, and other key education stakeholders to discuss and frame the critical role that school climate plays in the prevention of bullying.

“Everyone in a school community—principals, teachers, counselors, office staff, custodians, food service workers and bus drivers…everyone who comes in contact with students needs to be involved in creating a safe school climate,” says NEA President Dennis Van Roekel.

NEA also released a research brief at the summit, “The Importance of School Climate,” which was produced by Lindsey O’Brennan and Catherine Bradshaw of the Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence. Bradshaw, deputy director of the center, also facilitated the NEA summit.

“School climate is a significant predictor of student success,” says Bradshaw. “We really need to promote safe, supportive learning environments…so that our students can focus on their academics and not be distracted by bullying…NEA [and its members] are critical to the process, which is why it’s so important for the organization to be leading this conversation.”

The research brief, which is being distributed to educators nationwide, defines school climate, explains its importance, offers strategies for measuring it, and provides schools with ideas to improve their own climate, like gauging perceptions of school climate through surveys of students, educators and parents, and by involving all members of the school community in developing programs to improve the safety and connectedness of the school.

Participants in the panel suggested other methods for improving school climate, many of which involve students. One example was to appoint student ambassadors to each class or homeroom to help school climate teams understand what’s really happening at the student level. Another was having students staff a table at basketball games and talent shows where they’d ask classmates and families to participate in a school climate survey.

Equally important is engaging staff in improving the climate by determining whether they think the climate requires a school-wide change, or just some smaller, targeted efforts. Staff should be given skills-based trainings as well as specific tools and strategies for targeted interventions, like one-on-one mentoring of students who might feel like they aren’t part of the school community.

Another key element to improving school climate, according to the summit participants, is by involving the entire community. Parents might not feel equipped to provide academic assistance, but they do feel they have the know-how to help with bullying prevention efforts. Allow them to join in and also take advantage of agency and association resources in the community. Most community organizations are happy to partner with their neighborhood schools, especially when students and educators reach out to them to gain support for school climate.

“We’ve drawn national attention to the pervasive problem of bullying, and now we must dig deeper,” says Rocio Inclan, NEA’s Director of Human and Civil Rights. “At today’s summit we’ve convened a ‘dream team’ of school climate researchers, policymakers, and practitioners in order to learn more about creating a positive and respectful school climate.”

Inclan says the next step for the remainder of Bully Prevention Month and throughout the coming years is clear: “We will use what we’ve learned from this summit to help out nation’s educators create a school environment where bullying does not occur.”

Find out how you can get involved and join 40,000 other educators in taking the Bully Free pledge at

  • John Woodley

    The problems I experienced are in no way unique but still very serious. I was bullied by the superintendent and my principal as they attempted to make life uncomfortable me and for older teachers and get them to quit. The money saved from their higher salaries is used to fund a 1-1 ipad initiative. I developed mental health problems, went out on sick leave where I was diagnosed with adjustment disorder by the schools chosen forensic psychologist. I contemplated suicide while I continued to fight. Ultimately I just resigned a few months ago. A bully free environment must apply to adults as well.

  • AJ in Central VT

    Firstly, to John W., I am so glad that you are out of that environment and I sincerely hope that you are feeling better. I am experiencing the same situation as you described and only make it each day by trying to focus on that particular day and my students, who of course are almost never the problem. I am in fear all the time that another bullying incident will occur and send me over the edge. Although I too am up there on the pay scale, I have fairly young children and a husband who loves his very low paying social service job. I would do almost anything to get out of here and have been trying for a couple of years now. I am resentful that I have to feel this way at this point in my career and that I even have to contemplate walking away from all I have built up, both financially and professionally. It is beyond my comprehension why anyone would want to make their workers unhappy, particularly people who work with children. Anyway, you are absolutely correct that a bully free environment must exist in the schools pertaining to everyone in the building. Bullying is most often a learned behavior that will not easily be changed, especially when students may be returning home each day to a hostile environment, as well as dealing with overly stressed adults during the day. It is about modeling after all. Figure out what you need to do to take care of you, John and lets try to support each other (not happening in my school).

  • New Teacher

    My heart goes out to John and AJ. Stay strong! As to the article, you have to love how corny summits like this, FAR separated from our own schools, are supposed to have an effect. These suggestions sound pleasant, but as I think to my own classes (secondary education), this might only exacerbate the problem for certain individuals.

    Of course bullies would submit to corny pledges–its quite utilitarian, in fact. Common sense might dictate making oneself open to students such that they come to teachers for help, as I have found *without* the aid of highly paid teaching bureaucrats breathing down my neck. How about anti-bullying groups quite bullying *us* out of common sense?

    For fun, try reading this, NEA. Or will you delete this comment because I dared criticize? I do pay your salaries, you know!

  • Allison

    There are winds of change which have brought bullying to new heights; staff are being systematically bullied by administrators to force them to quit. The methods are welcomed and encouraged by central administration, and school boards. I am glad I can retire to stop the public humiliation, personal attacks, belittling when I offer input in staff meetings, my students accomplishments pointedly ignored while the supporters of the bullies are publicly praised for their work. I can get away. I worry about the others feeling this new toxic wind.

  • Lois

    The identical situation happened to me and I was forced to quit in the prime years of my career too, with 2 teenagers to put through college! I can relate to you, John W., as I was also in a mental health program for depression and anxiety. Every sentence that is written in those comments I can honestly say I’ve had happen to me. So my question is this: obviously the prevalence of this type of behavior is enormous….So why aren’t big organizations like NEA who are there to protect us doing anything about it? I have never seen one positive thing written where someone with fairness and common sense stepped in and stopped this from occurring ; stopped another qualified and dedicated teacher from being forced out of earning their livelihood in this cruel and horrible way.

  • John Woodley

    I’m wondering if the legislature will pass the bill to outlaw adult bullying in schools?

  • RC Castro

    It is not really fun when you are the one that is being bullied. bullying has been the most common issues that is present in every school throughout the world, most of the bullied students suffer from not just physical as well as emotional and psychological distress, this could lower the child’s self esteem and confidence. Parents should always make sure that their children is bully free, they must ensure their child safety and security towards this common problem. So I also suggest a safety application that your child could use if he/she in trouble, just check it here:!/page_home.

  • Steve W.

    To understand bullying, observe the kids in your schools. You’ll see that they gather themselves into groups.. cliques.. herds.. for the same reason that zebras in Africa herd together – kids are naturally insecure, unsure of themselves, and they seek the safety of numbers. The bullies in your schools will always be members of a clique, and the one who bullies ALWAYS has something to “prove” to the clique: either they seek to raise their stature in the eyes of the clique, or they seek to justify their position near the top of the clique hierarchy. Either way, bullying is social climbing – and in ANY act of climbing, the climber grabs something (or here, someone) they perceive as above themselves, and they pull down to lift themselves up. (A “loner” demonstrates the strength of independence – they didn’t need to beg a herd for acceptance, they didn’t feel insecure enough… the bully seeks to steal the loner’s strength and simultaneously justify their own need to cling to a herd.) The easiest target for a 6th grade bully, would be a first grader – but that would not serve the social-climbing needs of the bully. When an older student harasses a much younger one, that isn’t bullying, it’s sadism – which indicates a need for psychiatric intervention. If a suspected bully won’t admit that their target was above them in some way – if the bully insists that they were picking on someone weaker and more helpless, for no gain except the satisfaction of making someone suffer – refer them to mental health services.

    The point of herding together is to be indistinguishable from the rest of the herd – to blend in, to NOT be a conspicuous target. Zebras have evolved coloring that makes it even harder to identify an individual among the group. Kids demonstrate their herd membership by dressing in the same narrow styles. To a large extent, they learn THIS behavior from adults they see every day. Professionals dress differently than maintenance workers or bus drivers… men dress differently than women… the younger adults dress differently than older adults.. law officers (authority) dress differently than civilians (subjects)… teams wear uniforms, and the refs have their own… These style cues permeate our society and teach our kids that “how you dress” is IMPORTANT to identifying “who you are”.

    To some extent, bullies feel justified in acting to “enforce” these societal codes – if a boy decides to wear ‘girly’ nail color, the bullies will rally against his display of independence and demand (sometimes with violence) that he conform to society’s sexist gender codes.

    It could even be argued that current initiatives regarding tolerance of transgendered people are a mechanism to REINFORCE gender stereotypes. The W.H.O. says: ” ‘Gender'” refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women”. Arguably, society is now moving toward allowing male-sex people who identify with the “roles [etc..] considered appropriate for women” to identify AS women… in order for society to keep the underlying sexist customs that establish gender. In other words, the “enlightened” half of society basically says “these things (roles, etc..) are for women only… if you have a penis and like these things, that’s OK – as long as you accept the label “transgendered” and identify yourself as a woman”. THAT is a type of societal oppression akin to bullying.

    I believe that teachers could set a much better example for students – and defuse the social conformity imperative that underlies much bullying – by demonstrating that everything which is OK for anyone, is OK for everyone else. To do this, examine your own performance of gender stereotypes, and deliberately defy them. Nail color is a great place to start – it really is just paint, and there is no real reason why it couldn’t be “acceptable” for anyone to wear. (Tattoos made the transition from “men only” to unisex, back in about 1985-’90… and nail color is overdue for a similar transition.) Skirts, footwear, handbags, makeup – there are lots of things in society that male teachers & administrators could use – as men – to challenge gender stereotypes. It’s harder for women to do this, because society places fewer gender-based restrictions on women’s appearance – but things like hiking boots, Carhart jackets, short hairstyles, camouflage patterns, and generally less emphasis on “look how pretty I am” – would be helpful here.

  • Here is the source of the W.H.O. definitions of “sex” and “gender” that I referenced above:

  • D. Teague, M.Ed.

    My heart goes out to John W. Bullying is alive and well, sadly, in the arena of educators, as well. I know this to be true because it happened to me, too. Not just one site, but two. I sympathize for John, myself and all the others who are either afraid to stand up for themselves or are just complacent. May educators unite regarding the bullying of teachers, as well as, the precious children we educate!

  • DR. Harold W. Sims, retired professor of biology and now the owner of a unique cat shelter situated deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, puts his talents together to produce a musical video, aimed at preventing young children from becoming bullies. By relating the actions of a cat in his shelter, and much of his own imagination, Harold weaves a tale about a cat named “Kevin”, who befriends new cats coming in the shelter door and teaches them the ways of shelter life. Later on, Kevin is bullied by some of the same cats he had once embraced. But Kevin, not wanting to become a bully himself and fight them back, forgives each and every nasty attack and tells the bullies that we can’t help it, that we all differ in some strange ways and that we must end this helter-skelter and get along in this small shelter. In the end, the cats all agree that Kevin is right, bullying is absurd. He tames the bullies one and all, fellowship and love once again fill the hall.
    Lyrics by Harold Sims, colorful illustrations by artist Linda Richardson, and a catchy tune by Grammy winning musician Arthur Stead, and his wife Leslie make this production an educational tool with a tune that will resonate in your head for days.
    A “MUST OWN VIDEO” for anyone working with very young children, pre-school through second grade. If needed, a free copy of The Teacher’s Guide may be downloaded by request at: