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Elementary Student Perceptions of School Climate and Associations With
Individual and School Factors
Article · December 2018
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VOLUME 10 ? ISSUE 1 ? PAGES 55–65 ? Spring 2016
Elementary Student Perceptions of School Climate and
Associations With Individual and School Factors
Tamika P. La Salle
University of Connecticut
Faith Zabek
Joel Meyers
Georgia State University
ABSTRACT: School climate has increasingly been recognized as an essential component of
school improvement owing to the established associations between a positive school
climate and academic outcomes for students. Our study examines associations among a
brief measure of school climate assessing elementary student perceptions and the
College and Career Ready Performance Index, Georgia’s comprehensive school
improvement and accountability index. Individual factors including student grade, race/
ethnicity, and gender were also examined in relation to perceptions of school climate.
Multilevel analyses and hierarchical linear modeling indicated that student-level
variables accounted for the majority of variation in perceptions of school climate.
Notably, results revealed a significant and negative interaction among school climate,
school achievement, and gender. These findings suggest that personal characteristics
have a notable impact on students’ experiences and perceptions of climate and should
be considered in the development and implementation of school climate improvement
efforts.
School climate has become an increasingly important area among researchers and school personnel
owing to its demonstrated connections to social, emotional, and academic outcomes. Several studies
have confirmed the reciprocal link between a positive school climate and academic success. For
example, school climate has been positively associated with motivation to learn (Eccles et al., 1993),
total school achievement (Brookover et al., 1978), grade point average (Buckley, Storino, & Sebastiani,
2003), student engagement (Skinner & Belmont, 1993), attendance (Gottfredson & Gottfredson, 1989),
and graduation rates (Thapa, Cohen, Guffey, & Higgins-D’Alessandro, 2013).
The National School Climate Council (2007) defines school climate as follows: “School climate is
based on patterns of people’s experiences of school life and reflects norms, goals, values,
interpersonal relationships, teaching and learning practices, and organizational structures” (p. 4). In
addition, Cohen, McCabe, Michelli, and Pickeral (2009) identified the following four aspects of the
school environment that affect the climate within a school: Safety, Relationships, Teaching and
Learning, and the Environment/Structure. Contained within each dimension, are various subdimensions or elements of school climate. The subdimensions within Safety include physical and social–
emotional safety as well as related rules and attitudes. The area of Relationships contains elements
such as respect for diversity, morale, and leadership. The elements of Teaching and Learning may be
Correspondence concerning this article should be directed to Tamika P. La Salle, Department of Educational
Psychology, 249 Glenbrook Rd., Unit 3064, Storrs, CT 06269; [email protected]
Copyright 2016 by the National Association of School Psychologists, ISSN 1938-2243
the most commonly associated with schools and educational outcomes, and these elements include
quality of instruction and social, emotional, and ethical learning. Last, contained within the
Environmental/Structural dimension of school climate are subdimensions such as cleanliness, the
physical layout of the school, and extracurricular activities.
More recently, Thapa et al. (2013) highlighted another key component of school climate: the role of
school climate in the school improvement process. A school’s climate influences the implementation and
efficacy of improvement efforts (Bryk, Sebring, Allensworth, Luppescu, & Easton, 2010). In addition,
whole school climate improvement efforts “may powerfully influence the prevention of socioemotional,
behavioral, and academic difficulties” (Felner et al., 2001, p.177) and support successful student
development and outcomes. This recognition of school climate as an essential component of school
improvement is timely given the rise of initiatives to increase school climate accountability through
federal grant opportunities (e.g., school climate transformation grants, safe and supportive school
grants) and statewide efforts to measure this construct (e.g., California Healthy Students Survey,
[Furlong, Greif, Bates, Whipple, & Jimenez, 2005], Delaware School Climate Survey [Bear, Gaskins, Blank,
& Chen, 2011], Georgia Student Health Survey [White, LaSalle, Ashby, & Meyers, 2013], Georgia School
Climate Star Rating Index). The state of Georgia represents one example of such statewide efforts to
integrate school climate as part of an accountability and school improvement tool. In 2014, Georgia began
including a School Climate Star Rating Index alongside its annual accountability platform, the College and
Career Readiness Performance Index. The School Climate Star Rating was developed to provide feedback
to schools about a number of school climate–related variables (e.g., school climate, school safety, school
attendance) to inform their school improvement processes. Given these new initiatives that, in part, rely
on school climate data as a school accountability measure, it is important that researchers investigate
relationships between these measures and outcome factors such as student achievement. Our study
investigates that relationship within elementary schools in Georgia.
ELEMENTARY STUDENT PERCEPTIONS OF SCHOOL CLIMATE
At the elementary level, researchers have found school climate to relate positively with school
achievement (Brookover et al., 1978; Johnson & Stevens, 2006) above and beyond student demographic
variables. In fact, after removing the effect of school climate, Brookover et al. (1978) found that school
composition variables such as socioeconomic status and racial composition explained little variance in
mean school achievement. These positive academic outcomes associated with school climate persist
over time and relate to future academic success (Hamre & Pianta, 2001; Hoy, Hannum, & TschannenMoran, 1998). For example, Hamre and Pianta (2001) found that observed emotional support within
elementary school classrooms predicted future academic success, even after controlling for current
achievement level. This suggests that a positive school climate in elementary school may encourage the
development of skills needed for academic success later in life. Our study aims to add to the literature
linking school climate to academic achievement.
Research considering school climate at the elementary school level has largely focused on teacher
perceptions rather than student perceptions of climate (Johnson & Stevens, 2006). This reliance on
teacher report rather than student report for elementary school students may be due to the advanced
cognitive abilities required to accurately complete self-report measures (Merrell, 2003). However,
students “are the best source of information for rating their inner feelings” (Merrell, 2003, p. 486), and it is
important to consider the students’ perceptions using developmentally appropriate self-report measures.
Given that teachers and students do not always perceive climate similarly (Mitchell, Bradshaw, & Leaf,
2010), inclusion of student perceptions is a critical component of assessing school climate. Also, social–
ecological theory suggests that individuals’ perceptions, rather than others’ perspectives or some
objective reality, are critical for understanding their behavior (Bronfennbrenner, 1979; Haynes, Emmons,
& Ben-Avie, 1997; Kuperminc, Leadbeater, Emmons, & Blatt, 1997). Therefore, students’ own perceptions
of climate should be considered when investigating links between school climate and outcome factors,
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such as student achievement. In addition, examining changes in perceptions of school climate across
important school-age transitions (e.g., as students progress through elementary school) may help us
better understand how these transitions affect student perceptions and behaviors. In a review of school
climate literature, Thapa et al. (2013) summarized late elementary school as a “natural window of
opportunity for antibullying and upstander interventions” (p. 363) because students within that age
group begin to make ethical judgments about group norms and peer behaviors. Consequently, in order to
inform positive school climate strategies and interventions, one of the aims of our study is to provide
support for a psychometrically sound measure of elementary school students’ perceptions of school
climate that can be used to investigate students’ perceptions of climate.
When investigating relationships between school climate and outcomes, it is important to recognize that
student perceptions of school climate are influenced by personal characteristics and individual factors,
such as gender, grade, and race/ethnicity (Brookover et al., 1978; Koth, Bradshaw, & Leaf, 2008; Thapa et
al., 2013; Wilson, Pentecoste, & Bailey, 1984). For example, Koth et al. (2008) found that male and ethnic
minority students tend to report less favorable perceptions of school climate. Watkins and Aber (2009)
confirmed that ethnic minority students, specifically Black students, perceived a more negative climate
than their White counterparts. However, contrary to Koth et al. (2008), they discovered that female
students reported a more negative climate than male students.
Studies examining perceptions of school climate among elementary students have often used long selfreport forms such as the school climate measures mentioned earlier that are used in Delaware and
California, the Comer School Development Program Climate Survey (Haynes, Emmons, Ben-Avie, &
Comer, 2001), and the Comprehensive School Climate Survey (Stamler, Scheer, & Cohen, 2009). Though
extended surveys can be effective in guiding school improvement efforts, using a brief measure of school
climate at the elementary level may be more likely to obtain accurate results among an upper elementary
age range, as longer measures require sustained attention, which may tax these students’ reading and
cognitive skills. There is a need for such a measure of school climate (e.g., White et al., 2014) that
addresses the dimensions described in Cohen et al. (2009) and is designed to assess upper elementary
school students’ perceptions using readability levels that are accessible to a wide range of students. Our
study presents the Georgia Elementary School Climate Survey as a brief measure of school climate used
to assess upper elementary students’ perceptions of school climate.
The purpose of our study is to (a) present a brief elementary school climate survey reflective of current
dimensions of school climate for students in fourth and fifth grade; (b) investigate the relationship
between the Georgia Elementary School Climate Survey and student race/ethnicity, gender, and grade;
(c) investigate the relationship between the Georgia Elementary School Climate Survey and school
College and Career Readiness Performance Index scores; and (d) investigate the interaction effects of
student demographics on the relationship between the Georgia Elementary School Climate Survey and
school College and Career Readiness Performance Index scores.
METHODS
The Georgia Elementary School Climate Survey was administered during the 2013–2014 school year to
fourth- and fifth-grade students throughout the state of Georgia. Passive consent procedures were used,
and data were collected anonymously and received in de-identified form from the Georgia Department of
Education. A university institutional review board approved all procedural protocols before data were
obtained. A total of 197,512 fourth- and fifth-grade students participated, representing 1,073 of the 1,325
elementary schools in the state of Georgia. This sample included 49.7% females and 50.3% males and
50.4% fourth graders and 49.6% fifth graders. Participants represented the following ethnic backgrounds:
41.9% White, 35.9% Black/African American, 12.8% Latino/Hispanic, 5.7% Other, and 3.7% Asian or Pacific
Islanders (see Table 1).
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Table 1. Sample Demographics and Means
Grouping Variable
Gender
Grade
Race/ethnicity
Sample
Population
Girls
Boys
Fourth
Fifth
White
Minority
Study
Demographics
41.9%
58.1%
50.4%
49.6%
41.9%
58.1%
Total
School Climate M(SD)
3.25
3.19
3.23
3.19
3.26
3.19
3.22
(.45)
(.48)
(.45)
(.47)
(.44)
(.48)
(.47)
CCRPI
76.18 (12)
Note. CCRPI, College and Career Readiness Performance Index.
Measures
Georgia Elementary School Climate Survey: The Georgia Elementary School Climate Survey is a self-report
scale intended to measure upper elementary students’ perceptions of school climate. The survey was
developed by the Georgia Department of Education, in collaboration with the Center for Research on
School Safety, School Climate, and Classroom Management at Georgia State University and the University
of Connecticut. The elementary version of the survey was adapted from the Georgia Brief School Climate
Inventory (White et al., 2014) to be suitable for upper elementary school students in grades 3–5. However,
the focus of our study is on students in fourth and fifth grade. Both the Georgia Brief School Climate
Inventory and the Georgia Elementary School Climate Survey were designed to assess students’ overall
perceptions of school climate through a brief survey format. The Georgia Elementary School Climate
Survey includes 11 items (see Table 2) of school climate (see Cohen et al., 2009, for a full review). The
Georgia Elementary School Climate Survey also includes the following three demographic questions:
race/ethnicity, gender, and grade. The sample average for school climate was 3.22 (SD 5 .47). Table 1
includes sample means and standard deviations by demographic subgroup.
Table 2. Georgia Elementary School Climate Survey: Items and Factor Loadings
Item
Factor Loading
I like school.
I feel like I do well in school.
My school wants me to do well.
My school has clear rules for behavior.
I feel safe at school.
Teachers treat me with respect.
Good behavior is noticed at my school.
Students in my class behave so that teachers can teach.
I get along with other students.
Students treat each other well.
There is an adult at my school who will help me if I need it.
.492
.315
.452
.464
.658
.515
.440
.635
.498
.572
.481
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College and Career Readiness Performance Index. This index, at the elementary school level, represents a
school’s level of improvement and students’ preparedness for the future. The following performance
indicators are included: (a) Achievement points, (b) Achievement Gap points, and (b) Progress points. A
school may also earn Exceeding the Bar points if they have a Georgia Science, Technology, Engineering,
and Math program certification, a fitness program assessment, or innovative practices to document
student achievement. The College and Career Readiness Performance Index scores range from 0 to 100,
with higher scores representing greater school achievement. The Georgia Department of Education
reports College and Career Readiness Performance Index scores on an annual basis. The sample mean for
the index was 76.18 (SD 5 12).
Analyses
During the preliminary analysis stage, confirmatory factor analyses were conducted in Amos 22 to
confirm the factor structure of the Georgia Elementary School Climate Survey. Confirmatory analysis was
selected because the Georgia Elementary School Climate Survey was adapted from the middle and high
school Georgia Brief School Climate Inventory, which has been previously validated (White et al., 2013).
The confirmatory factor analysis results indicated good model fit between the model and the data: x2 (39)
5 18163.445, p , .001; root mean square error of approximation, .048; standardized root mean square
residual, .03; comparative fit index, 0.99; and Tucker Lewis Index, .941 (Haynes, Comer & Hamilton-Lee,
1989). The internal consistency of the scale was .8. The mean score for school climate was 3.22 (SD 5 .46)
for the total sample. Table 1 includes the mean score and standard deviations by grade, race/ethnicity,
and gender.
Prior to hierarchical linear and nonlinear modeling (HLM) model building, each variable within the data
set was reviewed to ensure that there was not a systematic pattern of missing data or outliers. Given that
missing level 2 variables cannot be accommodated by HLM, schools that were missing College and Career
Readiness Performance Index scores were not included in the analyses. Descriptive statistics were
inspected in order to examine normality of data for all variables. There was no evidence to suggest that
the assumption of normality had been violated. Scores for each variable were normally distributed and
skewness and kurtosis values for each variable were within acceptable ranges (+/2 2; Raudenbush &
Bryk, 2002) suggesting that assumptions of normality were not violated. The variable of school climate
was negatively skewed and kurtotic. However, scatterplots for the variables indicated normal distribution
as well. Maximum likelihood estimates with robust standard errors were used to estimate the
parameters. The overall fit of the model was evaluated on the basis of the likelihood ratio test
(Raudenbush & Bryk, 2002).
Multivariate Results
A multilevel modeling approach was used to examine the main hypothesis using HLM 6.0 due to the
nested structure of the data with students (N 5 197,745) nested within schools (N 5 1,078). Consistent
with previous research (Koth et al., 2008), we hypothesized that a substantial portion of the variance in
perceptions of school climate would exist at the student level and that differences in school climate
perceptions would be explained, in part, by demographic characteristics. We also hypothesized that the
clustering of students within schools would account for a smaller, but noteworthy, portion of the
variance in school climate perceptions. Further, we hypothesized that school College and Career
Readiness Performance Index scores would be associated with perceptions of school climate. Multilevel
analyses were selected because both the data (students nested within schools) and the research
question (the impact of student and school-level variables on perceptions of school climate) are nested
and multilevel in nature (Koth et al., 2008, p. 99; Raudenbush and Bryk, 2002). In other words, there is an
assumption that students within the same school have overlapping variance, and multilevel models
account for the nonindependence of observations, allowing for correlated error structures.
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To estimate the effect of student perceptions clustered within schools, we estimated a two-level
hierarchical linear model using HLM 7 software (Raudenbush et al., 2011). Outcome data (perceptions of
school climate) were measured at the student level, level 1. Additional student (level 1) indicators
included student race/ethnicity, grade, and gender. At the school level (level 2) one indicator was
estimated, school College and Career Readiness Performance Index scores. During each stage, student
and school-level variables were inspected individually to assess the significance of the residual variance.
Model assumptions were checked after each outcome.
RESULTS
Using HLM 7 (Raudenbush et al., 2011), the variance in perceptions of school climate for each level
(student and school) was calculated for the unconditional model (Raudenbush & Bryk, 2002).
Unconditional Model
Intraclass correlations from the unconditional model indicated that the variation in perceptions of school
climate between students and across schools was significant. Specifically, 93% of the variance in
perceptions of school climate was explained by between-student variation (i.e., at the student level).
School-level variables (the clustering of students within schools) accounted for the remaining 7% of
variance.
Multivariate Results
A series of regression analyses examining the relationships between student and school-level variables
and school climate were estimated. Each model was clustered on schools (n 5 1073) to estimate the
standard errors. All of the observed relationships among student level, gender, grade, and race/ethnicity,
and perceptions of school climate were significant. For example, perceptions of school climate decline
slightly between fourth and fifth grade and girls report higher perceptions of school climate than boys.
Results also indicate that White students report more favorable perceptions of school climate than
students identifying as an ethnic minority. However, beta weights for significant variables were small, so
the magnitude of differences between groups should be interpreted with caution.
For the level 2 (school) model, the effect of school College and Career Readiness Performance Index
scores on student perceptions of school climate was estimated. School College and Career Readiness
Performance Index scores (centered around the grand mean) were significantly related to the outcome
variable. As College and Career Readiness Performance Index scores increased, so did perceptions of
school climate.
Multilevel model estimates for the outcome variable are displayed in Table 3. In the final model, both
student and school-level predictors were included to examine possible interaction effects. After
controlling for student (i.e., gender, grade, and race/ethnicity) and school (i.e., College and Career
Readiness Performance Index) covariates, variation in perceptions of school climate across race/
ethnicity, grade, and gender remained significant at the intercept. The effect of gender, race/ethnicity,
and grade was negative for males, ethnic minority students, and fifth-grade students, respectively, when
compared to their counterparts. Further, significant interaction effects were observed among College and
Career Readiness Performance Index scores, climate, and gender. Specifically, for gender, the interaction
effect indicated perceptions of school climate continue to decrease even as school College and Career
Readiness Performance Index scores increase among both males and females, but the effect is more
negative for males. There were no significant interaction effects between school climate, College and
Career Readiness Performance Index, race/ethnicity, or grade.
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Table 3. Multilevel Results for School Climate
Model 1
Model 2
Model 3
Variables
Coefficient
SE
T
Gender
Gender 6 CCRPI
grade
Grade 6 CCRPI
race/ethnicity
CCRPI
Gender
Gender 6 CCRPI
grade
Grade 6 CCRPI
Race/ethnicity
Race/ethnicity 6 CCRPI
2.06**
.002
221.68
2.05**
.005
212.87
2.03**
.004**
2.057**
2.004*
2.052**
.003
.000
.003
.000
.004
229.05
12.727
221.08
22.118
212.73
2.024**
2.001
.003
.000
26.827
21.9
**p , .001; *p , .01.
Note. CCRPI, College and Career Readiness Performance Index.
Model Fit
A series of fit indices were calculated to evaluate the fit of the data to the final model. A likelihood ratio
test is used to assess the goodness-of-fit between nested models. We examined difference in deviance
values between the final model (inclusive of all level 1 and level 2 predictors) and the student model
(containing age, grade, and race/ethnicity covariates) and difference in deviance values between the final
model and the school model (containing the College and Career Readiness Performance Index as a
covariate) to determine whether the more complex (final model with all covariates) significantly reduced
the baseline deviance from the student-only and school-only models. The reduction of deviance from the
student-only model to the final model was significant (x2 (4) 5 151.46, p , . 01) and the school only model
to the final model (x2 (6) 5 1583.92, p , . 01) was significant suggesting that the more complex model with
more predictors represents better model fit.
DISCUSSION
The purpose of our study was to present a brief elementary survey assessing upper elementary students’
perceptions of school climate. The purpose was also to examine the relationships between student and
school variables on upper elementary school students’ perceptions of school climate using a multilevel
framework. Specifically, student demographic variables including grade, race/ethnicity, and gender were
explored. At the student level, school College and Career Readiness Performance Index scores,
representing the Georgia school comprehensive performance index, were examined in relation to climate
and student variables to explore previously identified relationships. The unconditional model indicated
that the majority of variance in elementary student perceptions of school climate is accounted for by
student-level variables including gender, race/ethnicity, and grade (93%). At the school level, school
College and Career Readiness Performance Index scores accounted for an additional 7% of the variance in
perceptions of school climate.
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Individual Level Variables
Student grade, gender, and race/ethnicity were significantly related to student perceptions of school
climate in directions that are consistent with prior research (Koth et al., 2008; Kuperminc et al., 1997).
Males and ethnic minority students reported less favorable perceptions of school climate in comparison
to girls and White students, respectively. Further, fourth-grade students reported higher perceptions of
school climate than fifth-grade students. These findings illustrate that personal characteristics often have
a notable impact on student’s educational experiences and perceptions of school climate. They also
support the need to identify strategies and interventions that promote positive school climates as well as
targeted systems of support for students at risk of experiencing lower perceptions of school climate and
adverse student outcomes.
School Variables
School performance, as accounted for by College and Career Readiness Performance Index scores, was
significantly and positively related to student perceptions of school climate, though the effects were
smaller than expected (Brookover et al., 1978; Koth et al., 2008). Still, results of the study demonstrate
that the revised metric of school performance, the College and Career Readiness Performance Index, is
significantly related to student perceptions of school climate. Overall, these findings suggest that on
average, as College and Career Readiness Performance Index scores increase, so do student perceptions
of school climate.
Interaction Effects
A unique finding of our study was the interaction of school performance with both gender and
perceptions of climate. Contrary to expectations, there was a negative relationship between school
performance and gender. Specifically, as school College and Career Readiness Performance Index scores
increased, perceptions of school climate decreased for both groups and more so for males. These
findings are preliminary and may be further clarified by additional variables that can have a negative
impact on boys’ perceptions of school climate when academic performance increases. Examples of
variables that might have a positive or protective effect include positive teacher–student interactions
(Osterman, 2000), support, sense of connectedness and belonging (McNeely, Nonnemaker, & Blum, 2002),
and attitudes about their teacher (Koth et al., 2008). Factors that may have a negative effect may include
peer victimization (Sulkowski, Bauman, Dinner, Nixon, & Davis, 2014) or negative perceptions about
academics (Brookover et al., 1978). Though conclusions about the variables that may affect perceptions
of climate for the at-risk groups cannot be drawn from a single study, these findings suggest the need for
additional research exploring relationships between student and school variables that may result in
negative perceptions of climate within high-achieving schools.
LIMITATIONS AND FUTURE RESEARCH
Our study presents the Georgia Elementary School Climate Survey, a brief, yet representative, measure of
school climate that can be administered to upper elementary students to gather perceptions of school
climate. Evidence of the relationships between perceptions of school climate and both student (level 1)
and school (level 2) variables were also presented. Still, there are several limitations of the study that
should be noted. First, the sample was limited to elementary students in one southeastern state. Future
studies should be conducted with various populations to determine whether the findings in our study are
replicated among other samples of elementary school students. Also, while the effects of student and
school variables on perceptions of school climate were significant, they were small and should be
interpreted with caution. Both the Georgia Elementary School Climate Survey and the College and Career
Readiness Performance Index are novel measures that can be used for research on school accountability
and school improvement. Preliminary data analyses presented in our study suggest that they represent
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the constructs that they are intended to measure and may be used to clarify the relationships between
school climate, student variables, and achievement. Still, future research is warranted to further confirm
the validity of the measures.
IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE
School psychologists often play a pivotal role in school improvement efforts. Understanding the nature of
relationships between student and school factors and student perceptions of climate is essential to their
ability to identify strategies and preventative programs aimed at promoting a positive school climate;
identify students who are at risk of experiencing a negative school climate; and implement additional,
targeted supports to assist students in need. Our study provides evidence that in addition to using
school climate data to enhance school-wide reform efforts directed to climate improvement, school
psychologists should also pay particular attention to students who may be at increased risk of negative
perceptions of school climate and poor student outcomes. Examples of groups warranting this kind of
attention are boys, ethnic minority students, and students transitioning across grades. School
psychologists can also play a role to ensure that factors in the educational environment (e.g., student–
teacher interactions, student engagement) are effective for all students and targeted to meet the needs of
whole groups (school wide) and subgroups (e.g., males).
School climate continues to stand out as having a notable impact on student outcomes. Our study
continues to support these claims using a brief elementary school climate survey for upper elementary
student perceptions. Findings from our study support the need of school psychologists and educators to
attend to and recognize that student perceptions of school climate vary, even for upper elementary
school students. Particular attention should be focused on efforts to promote positive school climates for
all students, recognizing students who might require additional supports. Years of research have
provided significant evidence indicating that if we want students to do well academically, we must also
recognize and attend to students’ social–emotional needs. Such considerations are especially important
given the increased pressure from federal and state educational agencies requiring districts and schools
to monitor school climate and school climate improvement efforts. Perceptions of school climate, as
gathered through a valid, brief survey is a starting point. The Georgia Elementary School Climate Survey
can help school personnel understand how elementary students feel about the school environment and
can guide targeted intervention efforts that facilitate a positive school climate.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION
Obtain additional information about the Georgia Elementary School Climate Survey by contacting Tamika
P. La Salle at the University of Connecticut: http://education.uconn.edu/tamika-la-salle/
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