Creating a Climate of Respect - ASCD
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September 1, 2011

Creating a Climate of Respect

School climate reform means measuring the level of respect and then using that information to improve the quality of school life.

School Culture

For some, the notion of respect implies a courteous, decorous, civil, or deferential attitude. Here we use the term to refer to the experience of being taken seriously. Acting respectfully reflects appreciative feelings for another person or group.

In school, respect can sound like this:

They actually listen to me here. The teachers care about what I think and feel. They want me to be part of making this school even better. Like when they realized there's much more bullying going on here than they knew. Now they're really trying to do something about it. —A 15-year-old student

In contrast, this is what the absence of respect can sound like:

They don't care what I think. All they care about are the tests. There aren't even stalls in the bathroom. They dis' us. —A 16-year-old student

Ten percent of kids in my class…are so bad that I've just given up on them. —A teacher

Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot (2000) has suggested that respect "is not something that one can imitate, but something one must embody…. It is only in the individual acts of respect that the quality becomes actual". We agree. But practically, what can we do to make respect an integral part of school climate?

A Look at School Climate Reform

Respectful schools are, by definition, democratically informed learning environments where people feel safe, supported, engaged, and helpfully challenged. Respect doesn't happen in isolation; it's based in relationships. As we learn and teach, we are—or are not—respectful in the context of our social, emotional, civic, and intellectual interactions.

  • People are engaged and respected.

  • Students, families, and educators work together to develop and contribute to a shared school vision.

  • Educators model and nurture an attitude that emphasizes the benefits and satisfaction of learning.

  • Each person contributes to the operation of the school and the care of the physical environment (National School Climate Council, 2007).

We at the National School Climate Center have worked with thousands of schools and districts across the United States to create safe, supportive, and engaging schools. We have worked with more than a dozen state departments of education to support their efforts to improve school climate. We have found that measuring school climate provides data that serve as both an anchor and a flashlight for school climate reform. For example, if students report that they feel unsafe and bullied in school, school communities can use this information as a wonderful springboard for discussion and planning to support effective bully prevention efforts.

Four Crucial Goals

School climate reform focuses on four central overlapping goals that foster respect in school.

Goal 1: Creating Democratic Communities

In respectful schools, everyone's voice is recognized and appreciated. Unfortunately, what we primarily measure today—and, hence, recognize as important—are students' reading, math, and science scores. As important as these are, they do not recognize the varied voices of students, parents, and educators. This is one reason so many students and adults feel unheard and disrespected in school today.

When we measure school climate in valid and reliable ways, we recognize and value all aspects of the learning process—not just the intellectual aspect, but the social, emotional, and civic aspects as well. A democratically informed school climate needs to model the essential elements of democracy—liberty, justice, common good, equality, diversity, and truth—for students to experience and contribute to their school environment in respectful ways. When we measure school climate, we assess important ethical and civic dispositions, such as the fairness of school norms and the extent to which students and adults feel supported.

Recently we observed a 2nd grade classroom teacher who struggled for more than 10 minutes to get students' attention. She repeatedly reminded the children, "You're not following the rule of listening while others speak. You're not following the rule of being seated to be called on." A student calmly replied, "We didn't make those rules. They're your rules."

Even at a young age, students sense when teachers honor their voices. Creating procedures to appropriately and sincerely include students in shaping the tenor of their class time is a fundamental component of engendering respectful and democratically informed classrooms (Marzano, Pickering, & Pollack, 2001). For example, a 2nd grade teacher used a backward design model to invite student voice in establishing class guidelines. He asked his students to brainstorm ideas on what their ideal classroom would look and sound like. He then invited the students to work together to create guidelines that would make everyone accountable for achieving this new vision.

Goal 2: Supporting Students and Teachers

Being supported means that others appreciate those areas that challenge us. Asking students questions such as, What is one thing about your school that you would not change? and What should teachers do to better support your success at school? acknowledges student voice and has a profound and positive effect on students.

One common reason people act disrespectfully is that they feel disrespected themselves. As James Comer (1999) said, emotions are contagious. When we feel listened to, taken seriously, appreciated, and respected, we tend to "pay it forward."

When we measure school climate, we see the extent to which students and adults feel supported. As Adelman and Taylor (2005) detailed, a range of factors can create barriers that undermine student learning—and all these barriers are grounded in unmet needs. Whether a student struggles with an undiagnosed learning disability or enters a new school for the second or third time in a year because of frequent family moves, he or she needs understanding and support.

For example, after we helped a middle school assess its school climate, we learned that 6th graders felt dramatically less safe in school than other students did. In partnership with teachers, school aides, and administrators, we discovered two probable causes: The class had a high concentration of homeless students and students in foster care, and the class had seen at least four different teachers come and go that year. As a result, the school developed measures that responded to these students' unmet needs, such as using the term caregiver instead of parent in standardized forms and replacing Mother's Day and Father's Day celebrations in school by having students note the birthdays of their caregivers and create special cards for those days.

Adults in schools also have needs. They dearly want to be ongoing learners and vital members of a learning community. In fact, this is the mark of a great teacher! Yet schools often don't appreciate or support these needs and can inadvertently contribute to teachers feeling disrespected.

What would it look like, for example, if our learning communities were structured in such a way that a struggling teacher would feel comfortable sharing with colleagues his or her need for assistance? What would our schools look like if all teachers could share best practices in a trusting, nonjudgmental forum?

Goal 3: Ensuring Safe Schools

Perhaps the most pervasive unmet need in our K–12 schools today, for both teachers and students, is to feel socially, emotionally, intellectually, and physically safe. Feeling unsafe is one of the most important forces that undermine respectful norms and school communities.

In our work with schools, we have found that although educators and parents appreciate that many students do not feel safe, they tend to rate this as a mild or only a moderately severe problem. But students almost always report this as a severe problem socially and, to a greater or lesser extent, physically (Cohen, Pickeral, & Levine, 2010). Our findings overlap with recent surveys of more than half a million students, which found that 50 percent of middle and high school students do not feel safe in school (Quaglia Institute, 2010).

People need to feel safe to be respectful to others. If we feel unsafe, we will naturally focus on protecting ourselves; we won't be able to listen to and appreciate others.

In one school, for example, we heard a teacher pose open-ended questions to the entire class. This teacher responded to incorrect answers with the phrase, "Nope, incorrect! Next time, think before responding." It was no surprise that no one in the class wanted to risk being incorrect. Noting her students' reluctance, this teacher sought our assistance. Now, instead of immediately adding commentary to student responses, the teacher probes their thinking with such questions as, How did you come to that conclusion? and How would you explain that answer to a younger child or to someone who did not understand? Honoring all student responses without framing wrong answers as "bad" or "stupid" went a long way in meeting students' need for safety and acceptance.

To promote safe schools, we must help students, parents, and school personnel become upstanders—that is, people who notice and respond in socially responsible ways to cruel, mean, or bullying behavior.1 Too often, if a bystander sees bully-victim behavior, it's acceptable to either collude in this toxic behavior by doing nothing (a passive bystander) or actively egg on the bully (an active bystander). Students who witness bullying can, however, alleviate the situation by simply letting the target of bullying know that they noticed, they care, and they understand how hard this is. In the absence of a comprehensive and sustained bully prevention program in school, directly confronting the bully often makes matters worse.

Upstander norms and behavior provide an essential foundation for respectful schools. All too often, schools rely on the daily recitation of a pledge or display inspirational signs to promote respect and encourage supportive upstander behavior. However, only when a school sincerely enters into the work of making each of its members a living pledge—a living sign of respect—does that respectful norm become embodied schoolwide.

In our national bully prevention and student leadership campaign—BullyBust—we support and recognize students' efforts to transform schools from a culture of bystanders to a culture of upstanders. One elementary school, for example, had all members of the school community explore what its daily respect pledge really meant—in the classroom, on the playground, on the school bus, in the cafeteria, and after school. Teachers intentionally infused learning objectives and activities related to the actions of a bully, victim, and witness into existing lessons. As a result, a culture of upstander behavior became much more visible.

Goal 4: Promoting Student Engagement

Today, one in two students report that they do not enjoy being in school, and more than 48 percent report being bored (Quaglia Institute, 2010). The National Dropout Prevention Center reports that more than 50 percent of students drop out of high school in many U.S. states. Supporting student engagement, and parent and guardian engagement as well, means that we're attuned to everyone's needs and interests—that we're acting respectfully.

When students are engaged, they feel safe and supported to foster positive change in their school communities in authentic and rich ways. (See the sidebar "Five Strategies That Work" at the end of this article.) For example, as part of one school's climate reform work, a 4th grade class in Far Rockaway, New York, observed how students treated one another day to day. Despite the fact that students recited a daily pledge in which they promised to be models for their classmates and others, the 4th graders saw that few took this responsibility seriously. Taking action, the 4th graders now serve on the playground and in the classroom as upstander models for 1st and 2nd graders, showing the younger students what a desired behavior actually looks like.

The Golden Rule—and More

Emotions are contagious. When we treat students and adults with respect, they're much more likely to do the same to others. However, to promote respectful schools, we need to do much more.

A foundation for respectful schools is to measure—and, thus, publicly recognize—how we treat one another and then use this information to create safer and more supportive, engaging, challenging, and joyful schools. By doing so, we can reinvigorate our democracy and encourage students to better understand the world in which they live—and their role in improving it.

What to Measure and How

The National School Climate Center recommends that schools measure their school climate using reliable and valid surveys that

  • Respondents can complete in less than 20 minutes on paper or online.

  • Recognize student, parent or guardian, and school staff member voices.

  • Result in a useful report that presents the data intelligibly and provides research-based suggestions about next steps.

  • Measure the four major aspects of school life:

    • Safety (rules and norms and social as well as physical safety).

    • Relationships (school connectedness/engagement, respect for diversity, social support, and teacher and administrator leadership).

    • Teaching and learning (intentional social, emotional, and civic learning; support for learning; professional development offerings for teachers and administrators).

    • The environment (physical surroundings).

Five Strategies That Work

The following five strategies foster just, equitable, and inclusive classrooms.

  1. Create opportunities for group decision making. Open dialogue engages students in a democratic process in which compromise rather than competition is crucial to making decisions.

  2. Democratize the space. When group decision making or student interaction is key to an effort, rearrange the room. Change which way is the front, move all the desks to the side, or have students sit on the floor in a circle and link arms. Let students have a say; give them a chance to learn from their decisions.

  3. Use multidimensional group projects, and vary the composition of the groups. A good group project should highlight different learning styles and skills. Graphic, textual, presentation, creative, and other components should have equal importance; successful completion of the project will require interdependency among group members.

  4. Vary protocols for classroom sharing. Student sharing in classrooms typically comes through talking or writing; often the fastest or loudest wins the stage. Instead, use reflection and writing time to help students organize their thoughts, have students share through visual art without using language, or have students share in pairs or small groups. Focus on ways for the writer, the thinker, the talker, and the visual artist to share their ideas.

  5. Create conflict around issues. When discussing issues in class, provide a more realistic experience of what a complex issue is. Taking different sides of an issue—not to compete and win, but to come to a collective decision—creates a democratic experience that demonstrates the messiness and complexity of the process.


Adelman, H., & Taylor, L. (2005). The school leader's guide to student learning supports: New directions for addressing barriers to learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Cohen, J., Pickeral, T., & McCloskey, M. (2008). The challenge of assessing school climate [Online article]. Educational Leadership, 66(4).

Cohen, J., Pickeral, T., & Levine, P. (2010). The foundation for democracy: Social, emotional, ethical, cognitive skills, and dispositions in K–12 schools. Inter-American Journal of Education for Democracy, 3(1), 74–97.

Comer, J. P. (1999). Creating successful urban schools. Brookings papers on education policy, 2. Retrieved from

Lawrence-Lightfoot, S. (2000). Respect: An exploration. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.

Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D. J., & Pollack, J. E. (2001). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

National School Climate Council. (2007). The school climate challenge. Retrieved from

Quaglia Institute. (2010). My voice 6–12 student national report 2010 (Executive summary). Retrieved from

Williams, A. (2010). Five strategies for creating just, equitable, and inclusive classrooms. School Climate Matters, 4(4), 3.

End Notes

1 For more information about how to develop a culture of upstanders in schools—and for our six-step bully prevention and pro-upstander effort in particular—see the National School Climate Center website.

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