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Professional Learning

How Can Leaders Build Supportive Environments?

6 Min Read
WF1833875 Shaped 2023 Blog Post What Is School Culture and How Can Leaders Build Supportive Environments hero

When you walk into a school building, how many of you have sensed that the school has a positive, supportive environment based on how you’re greeted by the school secretary or how students are behaving in the hallways? If you have, you’re not alone. But, there’s more to a supportive school environment than having warm and fuzzy feelings.

What Are School Culture, School Climate, and a Supportive Environment?

Like most industries, education has a number of phrases and ideas that are routinely talked about and used somewhat interchangeably, but they may not always be well-defined. School climate and culture is one example where two ideas are used together so frequently that they are often used interchangeably, but it is important to understand the distinction between these, as well as the relationship of these ideas in practice. School culture is commonly defined as the way a school engages in its work: the norms, beliefs, and values that guide the way a school operates day-to-day. School climate is commonly understood to address how a school feels to all the individuals in it (students, teachers, staff, and family members and caregivers) and the relationship they share. The two are related and can serve to help build and reinforce one another such that individuals in the school experience positivity among teachers and students, orderly hallways and classrooms, and caring relationships with students, all of which are critical. Going beyond that, we believe a better framing for the day-to-day life of a school is around the creation of supportive school environments. These are the strong set of organizational conditions that help a school excel in improving student outcomes. The key piece often missed in identifying a supportive environment is that students must be learning and growing academically in the building. Academic behaviors, rigor, and expectations are part of a supportive environment, not separate or exclusive from it.

The Research of School Environment on Student Outcomes

Decades of research from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research (“UChicago Consortium”) identified the five essential factors of schools that improve student outcomes—including test scores (state summative assessments and MAP® Growth from NWEA), GPA, freshman on-track rates, attendance rates, graduation rates, and college enrollment rates. These 5Essentials® are 1) Effective Leaders, 2) Collaborative Teachers, 3) Involved Families, 4) Supportive Environment, and 5) Ambitious Instruction.

A well-organized school is a school that is strong on three or more of these essential factors. This is a key distinction as the UChicago Consortium’s research showed that schools strong on three or more of the 5Essentials were ten times more likely to improve student outcomes than schools weak on three or more of the 5Essentials.

While positivity and order can be beneficial and may indicate a well-organized school, there is much more to it than that. Take the concept of a supportive environment, for example. This means that a school is both safe and demanding. In such schools, students feel safe in and around the school, they find teachers trustworthy and responsive to their academic needs, they value hard work, and teachers push them toward high academic performance.

Notice how research identified elements beyond positivity and order and asserts the importance of relational dynamics and concepts directly connected to academics as key to a truly supportive environment. Teaching and learning are the heart of a school and our north star in education, so the environments we create for our students must prioritize what research says enables and impacts learning.

Creating an Environment That Enables Student Learning

As you work to strengthen your school environment, put students’ experience at the center, just as you would with your instructional improvement efforts. The 5Essentials equips us with language and concepts that help us articulate what is necessary for the creation of an environment that enables students to effectively learn:

  • Safe. Students need to feel safe in an environment and its surroundings.
  • Trusting. Students trust those they are learning from and feel trusted and respected in return.
  • Responsive. Students need to feel seen as people, with their unique strengths cultivated and unique needs met.
  • Communal. Students need to be part of an academic community of engaged students who are supportive of one another’s learning.
  • Demanding. Students need to be challenged to achieve their best while being supported to do so.
  • Relevant. Students need to know work they are engaged in is relevant to their lives and is oriented toward their future.

In a supportive environment, students should be challenged, which likely means they will encounter struggles. Importantly, these struggles are met with support and encouragement where teachers and peers alike help students overcome barriers and failures. “Growth and comfort do not coexist,” as stated by former IBM Chair and CEO Ginny Rometty. Schools with low expectations cannot have strong, supportive environments capable of unlocking students’ fullest potential.

Another element that leaders sometimes overlook is that a strong, positive environment involves student-to-student relationships. Biologically, kids care deeply about how their peers respond to and interact with them; it is wired into their brains, especially during adolescence as identity development continues to evolve. It is a natural extension then that students learn more effectively when their classmates are encouraging of their learning and there is mutual respect and support among peers.

Measuring the Supportiveness of an Environment

We all use data on student academic outcomes to improve our schools. The same practice and attention to quality data should be systematically put in place to assess the environments students experience in our schools. Consider these qualitative and quantitative measures or indicators and build these into your progress monitoring routines as school leaders, just as you would with examinations of student learning.

Quantitative Measures

Track different indicators of relationships and levels of engagement.

  • Attendance rates
  • Assignment completion rates (homework and classwork)
  • Behavioral/disciplinary data

Survey students, teachers, and families with a research-based, reliable, valid instrument.

Use reliable, valid surveys built on a robust evidence base of impact. The 5Essentials Survey from UChicago Impact measures student, teacher, and, optionally, family responses about the most critical aspects of school organizational conditions, including having ambitious instruction and a supportive environment. Consider if your school has a reliable, valid way to measure the following elements that are included in the 5Essentials Survey:

  • Peer Support for Academic Work (elementary school): Students demonstrate behaviors that lead to academic achievement.
  • School-Wide Future Orientation (high school): The school engages all students in planning for life after graduation.
  • Expectations for Post-Secondary Education (high school): The school expects all students to attend college and promotes college-readiness.
  • Academic Personalism (elementary school): Teachers connect with students in the classroom and support them in achieving academic goals.
  • Student-Teacher Trust: Students and teachers share a high level of mutual trust and respect.
  • Safety: Students feel safe both in and around the school building, and while they travel to and from school.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


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