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Creating Safe and Inclusive School Climates

Dept of Ed LogoOn January 8, 2014 the Department of Education and Justice released a School Climate and Discipline Guidance Package calling on “America’s educators to proactively redesign discipline policies and practices to more effectively foster supportive and safe school climates.” The extensive document states that:

Schools must be both safe and supportive for effective teaching and learning to take place. Three key principles can guide efforts to create such productive learning environments. First, work in a deliberate fashion to develop positive and respectful school climates and prevent student misbehavior before it occurs. Ensure that clear, appropriate, and consistent expectations and consequences are in place to prevent and address misbehavior. And finally, use data and analysis to continuously improve and ensure fairness and equity for all students.

The three principles from the report are summarized below. We have included some of the Engaged Teaching approach action steps that can support schools to address these principles.

PassageWorks’ Faculty Member, Vivian Elliot, shares her inspiration for this critical work with students and school culture. (Video Courtesy of Random Acts of Kindness)


Schools that foster positive school climates can help to engage all students in learning by preventing problem behaviors and intervening effectively to support struggling and at-risk students.

  1. Engage in deliberate efforts to create positive school climates.
  2. Promote social and emotional learning to complement academic skills and encourage positive behavior.
  3. Provide regular training and supports to all school personnel – including teachers, principals, support staff, and school-based law enforcement officers – on how to engage students and support positive behavior.

In 2013, we received a grant from The Denver Foundation to work with the administrators and teachers of North Middle School in Aurora, CO on social and emotional learning practices to help ‘interrupt the school to prison pipeline’. The multi-year Denver Foundation initiative includes multiple schools and nonprofits in the Denver area.  Our project with North Middle School is a collaborative school-wide partnership with the staff that involves courses, professional development, and coaching (read more about PassageWorks’ school-wide projects). The project will foster positive and productive relationships, enhance student engagement and performance, and prevent and respond effectively and compassionately to school and classroom challenges.


Schools that have discipline policies or codes of conduct with clear, appropriate, and consistently applied expectations and consequences will help students improve behavior, increase engagement, and boost achievement.


  1. Set high expectations for behavior and adopt an instructional approach to school discipline.
  2. Involve families, students, and school personnel in the development and implementation of discipline policies or codes of conduct, and communicate those policies regularly and clearly.

Establishing Respectful Boundaries (see Engaged Teaching Approach)
Respectfully establishing clear and compassionate boundaries for ourselves (self-discipline) and with others—in the classroom and in our school communities is extremely important. This includes supporting students and the learning community with a proactive approach to classroom management.

Investing in Relationships and Community (see Roots of Engaged Teaching)
Learning does not happen in a vacuum, but in a very particular context. When we work conscientiously to build trusting relationships and to acknowledge and respond to cultural contexts, we foster our students’ capacity to learn and grow. When we invest in community building and create a healthy classroom environment for learning, we simultaneously foster student safety, and resilience. Academic excellence is inextricably tied to the development of caring relationships (teacher-student, student-student). For this reason, taking the time and space to cultivate an intentional and positive learning environment and learning community is essential to achieving academic outcomes and school safety (Eccles & Roeser, 2011).


Schools that build staff capacity and continuously evaluate the school’s discipline policies and practices are more likely to ensure fairness and equity, and promote achievement for all students.

  1. Train all school staff to apply school discipline policies and practices in a fair and equitable manner so as not to disproportionately impact students of color, students with disabilities, or at-risk students.

Responding to Cultural Contexts (see Roots of Engaged Teaching)
Culture is the water we swim in, the air we breathe, and the lens we see through. Students and teachers come into the classroom with a particular understanding based on their cultural context and background. When we acknowledge the role of culture (including access to resources and other issues related to equity), we are better able to identify, value, and respond to the multiple identities and cultures present in our learning communities. Fostering cultural responsiveness in our students and us is key to meeting academic goals, addressing inequities, and creating inclusive, engaged learning communities. Teachers who recognize or acknowledge the importance of culture often discover powerful opportunities to engage students.

What are some of the steps you are taking in your school? We welcome your comments below.

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