Schools that prioritize the wellbeing of students and teachers, as well as academic performance, provide a foundation from which to build a welcoming, safe, and supportive place for all children to thrive socially, emotionally, and academically. When students feel cared about, physically, socially, and academically safe, and free to ask questions and express their ideas, they look forward to coming to school every day and develop the confidence and sense of personal agency they need to stay in school and perform well. This not only sensible but proven by decades of research that point to the vital role that school culture and climate play in a student’s success both in and beyond formal education (Thapa et al., 2013; Diaz Varela et al., 2013)  

I was pleased to read the recent RAND Report, “School and Classroom Climate Measures: Considerations for Use by State and Local Education Leaders” by Jonathan Schweig, Laura Hamilton, and Garrett Baker (2019). Their findings resonated with what my RTI colleagues and I are learning about the determinants of positive school and classroom climates and the intersection of school culture and climate and social and emotional learning – in rural, low-resourced school communities in sub-Saharan Africa.

Understanding school culture, climate and SEL

But what exactly is a school climate?  School climate refers to the “feel” of being in a school or the characterization of school life, based on individual perceptions (Kane et al., 2016). Classroom climate is similarly defined yet specific to the perceived “feel” of the instructional environment cultivated by teachers, and the interactions between and among students and teachers in the classroom (Schweig, J. et al., 2019). Welcoming and safe learning environments, positive inter-personal relationships, and inclusion based on understanding and responsiveness to diverse student backgrounds, are some of the attributes that characterize positive school and classroom climates. Encouraging and engaging classroom interactions, coupled with teacher confidence and wellbeing, also have a direct impact in fostering positive school and classroom climates.

It is not difficult to imagine how such a positive learning environment could nurture students’ sense of connection to their school and their continuous social and emotional learning (SEL). SEL refers to the processes by which individuals learn the social and emotional competencies they need to succeed in school and the workplace, develop positive relationships and be a socially responsible citizen. SEL competencies include, for example, the ability to recognize and manage emotions, to feel and express empathy and care for others, to understand the perspectives of others and make responsible decisions (Jones and Bouffard, 2012; Weissberg, R. et al., 2016). 

School climate refers to the ‘feel’ of being in the school or the characterization of school life, based on individual perceptions.
Classroom climate is about the perceived “feel” of the classroom, the instructional environment cultivated by teachers and the interactions between and among students and teachers in the classroom.
Social and emotional learning refers to the processes by which individuals learn the social and emotional competencies they need to succeed in school and the workplace, develop positive relationships and be a socially responsible citizen.

School and classroom climate and SEL are interconnected and interdependent (Berg et al., 2017). The importance of this bi-directional relationship cannot be overstated. SEL is naturally fostered in a school where staff and students interact positively with each other and their peers, where they help struggling students, and peacefully resolve conflicts. Enacting positive social and emotional behaviors creates the necessary learning conditions that translate into perceived positive school climates and where continuous SEL can take place. On the other hand, when teachers and students lack SEL competencies—which can be observed when relationships in a school are tense and explosive, teachers are unresponsive to the needs of students or even respond punitively, or when bullying, harsh punishment and sexual harassment go unchecked—then school and classroom climates are negatively affected. Consequently, it may be of little benefit to introduce an SEL curriculum or co-curricular programming unless there is equal emphasis on helping schools to build the important climate attributes that reinforce these SEL competencies. This dual approach to SEL programming is referred to as a blended approach. The Journeys program, implemented by RTI under the USAID/Uganda Literacy Achievement and Retention Activity, is one such example of a blended approach (Randolph, E. et al., 2019b).

What have we learned about the intersection of school culture and climate and SEL?

Understanding and leveraging the promise of positive school and classroom climates is a critical entry point for SEL programming in any education setting. At RTI, we are developing a deeper understanding about the specific conditions of schools and classrooms that foster SEL, and about how schools gradually shift toward a more positive and supportive school because of targeted SEL programs.

For example, RTI conducted a series of positive deviant school case studies in Malawi and Uganda to learn about the relationship between school culture and climate and SEL particular to these contexts. (See Randolph, E. et al., 2019a). We selected three schools in Malawi and three in Uganda based on their exceptionally high performance (above the 95th percentile) on measures of safety, school and classroom climate, and gender responsiveness. One hypothesis that emerged from our school observations and discussions with teachers, students, parents, and school managers, was, “when the organizational culture of the school emphasizes staff and student wellbeing, the positive qualities of the school and classroom and teacher SEL competencies become established as  school norm”. As a result, SEL becomes an integral part of school life, in and outside of the classroom – a ‘hidden SEL curriculum.’ School and community members interviewed in this study demonstrated the influence that specific climate attributes had on students’ development of SEL competencies. 

Teachers love us ‘just like family’. Encouragement is love, friendliness is love, no beating is love.

Students trusted their teachers to not use harsh punishment. They felt cared about by their teachers who were ‘so friendly’, and who encouraged them to study hard, to not be late, to remain in school, and to have hope. For students, these teacher behaviors meant that their teachers loved them. This sense of safety and feeling cared for allAn illustration of a school in Uganda with positive community and school activities. (c) 2019 Isaac Kabuye for RTI Internationalows students the freedom to express themselves openly and to practice emerging SEL competencies. This in turn builds the agency students need to stay on target, remain in school and perform their best. Students learn empathy and pro-social behavior by teacher example. What was particularly exciting to our team was the value that students placed on instructional quality. When asked about what made them happy in school, the students’ first and most frequent response was that they were happy when they are ‘taught well and they understand.’  Students in these schools took pride in having a ‘hardworking teacher.’ We learned that the quality of instruction and students’ feeling that they are learning is just as important to how students perceive life at school as are the more affective attributes such as being cared for, encouraged, and protected. Teachers explained more explicitly how they foster SEL in the classroom. For example, teachers described how they use encouragement to nudge and prompt children to solve problems together, form peer groups, express themselves, and make good choices in what they say and do. Teachers explained that being approachable and appreciative helps children to listen, concentrate, and understand what is being taught. Engaging all students in classroom interaction, they said, helps even the shyest student to express their ideas – which, they noted, was important for building a sense of self and for making friendships. In addition to valuing good relationships, teachers in these schools also mentioned the importance of knowing their children individually by ‘studying the child.

“By studying the child, you develop an understanding about the child’s talents in order to nurture these talents and give children hope.”  (Teacher)

This sample of student and teacher comments from Malawi and Uganda help us better understand specific elements of school life that directly and predictably affect SEL, which are aligned with the following described by Schweig and his colleagues in the Rand Report:  physical and emotional safety; positive interpersonal interactions and relationships; and effective, supportive instructional environments.

After one year of the Journeys School Climate and SEL intervention in Uganda primary schools, we are observing a gradual and positive shift in these same learning conditions. Students report that bullying and fighting among students has decreased and the use of harsh punishment has declined. Students express themselves more in the classroom and are more easily engaged because of improved relationships.  Some teachers have suggested that students ‘learn better’ as a result. Teachers also have more respect for each other, and some have reported that parent communication is improved. And, there are new levels of teacher cooperation at the school where it was lacking before.  We posit that what is happening in these schools as a result of the Journeys inputs is a gradual ‘coming together of students, teachers and parents’ toward this shared ethos, which reflects a shift in the school culture itself.  Teachers and students say, “This is the way it is now in this school.” These changes may appear subtle at first yet their importance in making a positive shift in school norms – school cultures – should not be discounted

How is the school culture different from climate?

School culture has to do with the underpinning values and norms of the school, spoken or unspoken, which drive the ways that staff, students, parents, and school managers approach their responsibilities and the ways that they interact with each other. (Kane et al., 2016). The school culture is a powerful determinant of the school and classroom climate. For example, when the school expressly emphasizes staff and student wellbeing alongside quality teaching and learning as a school value and goal, all members of the school community - school staff, students, parents, and community managers – expect and share responsibility for ensuring the school environment is safe, positive, and supportive for staff and all students, regardless of their ability levels, ethnic, or socio-economic backgrounds. Positive relationships between and among teachers, students, and parents are the norm, and the perceived “feel” of the school – the climate – is positively impacted. The graphic below shows the interconnected nature of the ‘pieces’ or attributes of a school that our discussants linked to SEL.  We have learned that these attributes can be shaped by school culture as well as direct inputs. The result is a positive school climate (as perceived by all stakeholders—teachers, parents, students) that continues to improve and influence retention, SEL, and achievement.

A circular puzzle with three pieces in the center: Social and emotional learning, Retention and Improved Learning. Outer ring of puzzle pieces shows attributes: Freedom of expression, Positive relationships, Protection, Inclusion and Belonging, Effective and encouraging classrooms, Engaged communities, Teacher wellbeing, Safety. A hand holding the puzzle is labeled "School Climate". A hand placing the pieces in the puzzle is labeled "School Culture"

In the Malawi and Uganda studies, school and community wide cooperation and sense of connection to and pride in the school, were the most frequently mentioned attributes of the school culture that participants associated with SEL. Though student wellbeing and a positive learning environment and cooperation were a constant, the goals of cooperation and what unified members of the school and community were not the same across the six schools. Context made a difference. For example, child protection and the leveraging of social capital to mitigate extreme resource gaps were the basis for cooperation in a remote and low-resourced school in Malawi. While in one of the Ugandan schools, we saw cooperation that centered around active engagement and student empowerment. In this school, there was enormous teacher, student, and community pride in the competitive sports program, the debate club, and student-led entertainment (the two illustrated images in this article represent the positive school climates in these schools). 

What can we do?

We have seen that the set of values and norms that define the school culture serve to shape the individual behaviors and interpersonal relationships in the school. This in turn influences individual perceptions of school and classroom climates. Though the current literature recognizes this, the value of the school culture is understated. Steve Gruenert (2008) and others (Schweig, et al., 2019) suggest a different pathway to establish a more caring and positive learning environment. They call for focusing on specific and malleable attributes that determine school and classroom climate rather than trying to change the school culture. In this situation inputs might be provided to support educators in eliminating bullying, for example, or to improve relationships and responses to diversity or promote more engaging and encouraging instructional practices.  Justifications for the approach include the belief that it is just too difficult to change norms and the assumption that improving certain behaviors of staff and students will bring about a natural shift in school culture.  I find this assumption untenable.

Instead, I propose that it is possible and even imperative to shift the school culture alongside efforts to change individual behaviors. We saw the powerful dynamic that occurs when all members of the school and community feel connected to the school and come together and cooperate to achieve the goals of ensuring student wellbeing and positive social and emotional development as well as academic success. This whole school connection and cooperation helps to establish the required social expectations to shift or establish a new norm (Cristina Biccieri, 2017).

To be sure, working with schools to develop strategies that will promote the individual behaviors and relationships that translate into a school climate perceived to be positive, caring and supportive is crucial. Yet this alone may not guarantee the norm shift required to sustain individual behavior change.  Leveraging the power of school culture to shape and reinforce targeted behaviors is equally important. A dual approach is necessary. One that also serves to inspire school communities to reflect on school values and norms related to wellbeing and a positive climate, and to develop together and try out strategies to establish a school culture that reflects the values of safety, positive interactions and relationships and an engaging and encouraging classroom. I don’t think we can afford to not address school culture to ensure longstanding and systemic change; change that ensures students’ sense of being cared about, freedom of self-expression, agency to successfully engage in their own learning, and sense of belonging – all of which are necessary for students to stay in school and to thrive, socially, emotionally and academically.



Note 1. In Malawi, the schools were selected based on their performance on the Malawi National Assessment of Safety and Inclusion from the USAID/Malawi MERIT project. In Uganda, the selection was based on performance on a baseline assessment of school-related gender-based violence (SRGBV) and a survey of student perceptions of school climate.


Berg, J., Osher, D., Moroney, D., & Yoder, N. (2017, February). The intersection of school climate and social and emotional development. Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research.

Bicchieri, C. (2017). Norms in the Wild: How to Diagnose, Measure and Change Social Norms. New York, NY. Oxford University Press.

Gruenert, S. (2008) School Culture, School Climate:  They are not the same. USA. Principle March/ April 2008. National Association of School Principles.  

Jones, S. and Bouffard, S. Social and Emotional Learning: From Programs to Strategies. Society for Research on Child Development. Social Policy Report. Sharing Child and Youth Development Knowledge, Vol 26, 4.

Kane, L., Hoff, N., Cathcart, A., Heifner, A., Palmon, S., & Peterson, R. L. (2016, February). School climate and culture. Strategy brief. Lincoln, NE: Student Engagement Project, University of Nebraska–Lincoln and the Nebraska Department of Education.

Randolph, E., Edwards, L., & Norman, J. 2019. “The central role of school culture and climate in fostering social and emotional learning: Evidence from Malawi and Uganda.” In Smart, A. et al., (2019) NISSEM Global Briefs: Educating for the social, the emotional and the sustainable, page 198-213.

Randolph, E., Burkholder, G., & Sempa, H. 2019. “The Journeys approach to building a safe, inclusive and positive school and fostering social and emotional learning culture and climate in fostering social and emotional learning: Evidence from Malawi and Uganda.” In Smart, A. et al., (2019) NISSEM Global Briefs: Educating for the social, the emotional and the sustainable, page 250-263.,

Schweig, J., Hamilton, L. Baker, G. (2019) School and classroom climate measures: Considerations for use by state and local leaders. RAND Corporation.

About the Expert

Elizabeth Randolph's picture
Elizabeth Randolph has over 30 years of experience in applied research, quantitative and qualitative methods, program management and institutional strengthening in the broad field of human development and learning. From 2006-2011 she served as the South Africa Regional Director for RTI International. Currently Liz is working with RTI on research and program development to support systems change related to school culture and climate, social and emotional learning and prevention of violence against children in schools. Dr. Randolph views education and other social institutions as complex adaptive systems and through this lens is interested in research and methodologies that build an understanding about the role of individual interactions and relationships in supporting institutional change for improved and more equitable social, emotional, and academic learning outcomes.