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Four Elements for Creating a Positive Learning Environment

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November 07, 2016 11:43 am

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conditions for learning blog

For students to learn, they must feel safe, engaged, connected, and supported in their classrooms and schools. These “conditions for learning” are the elements of a school’s climate that students experience personally. They contribute to students’ academic achievement and success and are associated with improved grades and test scores; strong attendance; positive relationships between students, adults, and their peers; and minimal engagement in risky behaviors, according to The School Discipline Consensus Report (SDCR) developed by The Council of State Governments Justice Center. New research also shows that a positive school climate, of which the conditions for learning are a critical part, can narrow achievement gaps.

But external factors—such as the fatal shootings from this summer and fall—and internal factors—such as exclusionary discipline practices, which disproportionately affect students of color, students with disabilities, and English language learners (ELLs)—can undermine efforts by teachers and school staff to create the learning conditions necessary for students to thrive. Exposure to violence, in particular, affects more than the family and friends of those involved and ripples through communities, ultimately impacting individual students.

With this context in mind, it is critical to explore what educators, parents, and communities can do to support students, especially students of color and students from low-income families who traditionally are underserved, to help them achieve academic and personal success. The need to establish positive conditions for learning is clear, but what exactly does it take for schools to get there?

1. Safety

Before students can succeed academically, they must feel safe, both physically and mentally. Although schools use a variety of measures to ensure students’ physical safety, certain efforts sometimes have negative effects on students, particularly those who are traditionally underserved. While data shows that the rates that teens experience violent crimes in their schools has declined, issues such as racial bias prevail and impact the effectiveness of school safety measures.

Safety extends beyond the physical well-being of students. To have a safe learning environment, students must feel welcomed, supported, and respected. However, school discipline policies and codes of conduct do not always support a positive school climate. For example, exclusionary discipline practices, like removing students from the classroom, suspensions, and expulsions, negatively impact students’ academic performance and their likelihood of graduating from high school. Even more concerning, data shows that schools discipline traditionally underserved students at much higher rates than their peers even though research does not show that these students misbehave more frequently. Building a positive school climate and ensuring students are ready to learn requires school district codes of conduct that promote positive adult and student relationships and work to keep more students in the classroom.

2. Engagement

Recent Gallup data shows a troubling trend—as students move through the K–12 education system, they become increasingly less engaged. By the time students reach eleventh and twelfth grades, only one-third of students report feeling engaged. In a survey of parents of students from low-income communities, the Alliance for Excellent Education (Alliance) finds the majority expressed concern that students’ individual learning needs are not being met and that students are not learning the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the real world.

Personalized learning is one instructional approach that could reverse these trends. This student-centered approach to learning tailors instruction to students’ unique strengths and needs and engages them in challenging, standards-based academic content. Personalizing learning helps students develop skills including thinking critically, using knowledge and information to solve complex problems, working collaboratively, communicating effectively, learning how to learn, and developing academic mindsets. These skills, known as the deeper learning competencies, are not only the skills students need to succeed in school, but the ones that will enable them to succeed in careers and life.

Personalized learning is greatly increasing student engagement in one school district in North Carolina. In the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, currently in its third year of a personalized learning initiative, 81 percent of personalized learning students report feeling engaged in class, compared to only 47 percent of other students in the district.

3. Connectedness

Students must feel connected to teachers, staff, and other students. Schools can nurture these connections by focusing on students’ social and emotional learning (SEL). SEL helps students understand and manage their emotions and interactions with others and build the skills necessary to communicate and resolve conflicts. “SEL programs have been shown to improve students’ social competence, self-awareness, connection to school, positive interactions with others, and academic performance,” according to the SDCR. There are specific practices that educators can adopt to embrace SEL in the classroom, which also create a positive school climate and environment that supports students’ deeper learning.

Teachers are an essential part of fostering the type of learning environment in the classroom that supports student success. And yet many students, particularly students of color and students from low-income families, do not have access to prepared and effective teachers. Educators and administrators need professional development opportunities and training to meet the academic, social, and emotional needs of students to create a positive school climate.

4. Support

Students must feel supported by all those connected to their learning experience. This includes teachers, classmates, administrators, family, and community members. These parties should share an understanding of what positive school climate at the school and classroom looks like so they can work together toward this common goal. School leaders can engage community members, teachers, students, and parents in school climate improvement work through conversations, meetings, surveys, and creating school-community partnerships. School leaders should gather and incorporate the feedback of all of these groups in any school climate improvement work. A quick guide for district and school leaders, teachers, and other members of the school community on how to initiate, implement, and sustain school climate improvements is available here.

How can parents help create a positive learning environment in their children’s schools?

  • Encourage your school leaders to take this survey to measure the current climate at your child’s school and help to identify opportunities for improvement.
  • Learn more about school safety efforts and how they can impact students by reading this blog post. Then follow the action steps outlined in the post to help your child’s school provide a safe environment for students.
  • Check out these actions you can take to learn more about your school or district’s discipline policies and find out how you can advocate for equitable practices.
  • Learn more about personalized learning and advocate for it and other innovative instructional approaches that engage students.
  • Ask your school leaders about the training and professional development opportunities in place for teachers that focus on the social and emotional needs of students.
  • Communicate to your school leaders about the need to incorporate parent, student, and community voice and feedback in any on-going or future school climate improvement work.
  • Check out the Alliance’s Climate Change series to learn more about the conditions that support a positive school climate.

Caroline Waldman is a communications associate at the Alliance for Excellent Education.

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