Why School Climate is a “Big Deal”

How can educators prevent bullying and cyberbullying? Creating or maintaining a healthy school climate is one of keys, according to Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center.

A slide from Sameer Hinduja’s “School Climate 2.0” presentation

School climate is a “big deal,” says Hinduja, the keynote speaker at the 2022 United in Kindness Symposium, “What to Do About Cyberbullying,” on January 27. He defined school climate as a constellation of elements, such as connectedness, belongingness, peer respect, school spirit, school safety, and morale—not just of students but also educators.

In a presentation aimed at youth-serving adults titled “School Climate 2.0: Preventing Cyberbullying and Unsafe Social Media Use One Classroom at a Time,” Hinduja pointed to research done by his center indicating that the best school cultures combined a strong disciplinary structure with emotional support and warmth.

When schools were perceived by students as having a healthier and safer school climate, he said, they experienced fewer problem behaviors, such as bullying and cyberbullying. “When you improve school climate, you also have higher academic achievement, lower truancy, lower absenteeism, and higher morale,” he added.

Hinduja shared numerous suggestions for building a healthy school climate. He noted that some of them were designed for schools experiencing Covid-19 virtual learning periods, but that they could be beneficial in normal times as well.

He pointed to a school in Chester, NJ that encouraged students to share social media posts with a school hashtag expressing their school spirit, such as a photo wearing school colors, or a video giving words of encouragement to a fellow student or teacher.

Hinduja said that the student council at Valley Vista High School in Surprise, AZ created a variation of the hashtag challenge during “Valley’s Gone Virtual Week.” Each day, classmates were invited to share a photo of their favorite Netflix show, or an Instagram image of themselves dressed in rainbow colors, or a Snapchat picture wearing as much yellow as possible.

At Bedford High School in Bedford, OH, Hinduja said, school administrators use Instagram as a platform for communicating school news as well as messages discouraging unkind behaviors such as bullying. Such posts, he explained, “can be used to plant seeds in the minds of our youth to make the appropriate decisions, the wise decisions, the best decisions, the mature decisions.”

Hinduja said that some schools, such as Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, the scene of a mass school shooting in 2018, have created Instagram accounts modeled after Humans of New York to share stories of resilience.

WATCH: “School Climate 2.0: Preventing Cyberbullying and Unsafe Social Media Use One Classroom at a Time”

Hinduja said another way to encourage youth involves projects allowing “purposeful pairing” of older and younger students, which gives the older one the chance to learn leadership skills and gives the younger one somebody to look up to and emulate.

Hinduja supports kindness campaigns, anti-bullying clubs, and the use of play acting skits to encourage positive behaviors among students. He cited a phenomenon of using flash mob dances in school to bring powerful messages to fellow students.

“In the cafeteria, music starts blaring through the speakers, and a critical mass of students rises to their feet and start dancing in synchronized fashion,” he explained. “Everyone is like, ‘What in the world is happening?’ But right then and there they have a platform to speak of what is near and dear to their hearts, whether it’s victimization, or how we’re treating minority populations, or misogynist comments heard in the locker room.”

Hinduja said that schools can foster and facilitate upstander behavior among students through presentations like the Starbucks “Upstanders” original series on YouTube; the videos celebrate ordinary young people doing extraordinary things to create positive change in their communities, he said.

“Many students are surveying the landscape looking to be inspired,” Hinduja said. “So let’s inspire them with stories of youth just like them who are doing epic and legendary things to make a difference.”

He cited many examples of projects initiated by young people that can serve to inspire, such as the Canadian teenager who came up with #PositivePostItDay by writing compliments on Post-It notes and putting them on lockers throughout her school.

Another is the nine-year-old in Arizona, who founded Hoops of Hope, a basketball free-throw marathon that has raised $2.5 million to support orphaned children in Africa who lost parents to AIDS. And another Hinduja cited is a 12-year-old in Wisconsin who started Angels at Bat, which collects gently used baseball equipment from around the country and sends it to needy youth teams in Africa.

Finally, Hinduja recommended that administrators and teachers find ways to connect with students on a meaningful level, such as by creating student advisory boards, and being not only a “trusted” adult but an “askable” adult—a person that young people really know they can turn to.

“They have so much to say, they have so much to tell you, but if you never really demonstrate to them that we care what you have to say, we want to validate your voice, then they’re just going to keep their mouth shut,” said Hinduja.

The 2022 United in Kindness Symposium was sponsored by the Tompkins County Bullying Prevention Task Force and made possible in part through grants from the Tompkins County Youth Services Department and The Sophie Fund.