Prosocial education and school climate reform policy and practice trends:

Mobilizing the ‘whole village’ to support the ‘whole child’

09/01/2014  |  Jonathan Cohen
Social and Emotional Learning

There is growing policy; fiscal and practical support for prosocial educational and school climate improvement efforts from federal agencies, state departments of education and large and small districts across America. But there are meaningful challenges that undermine these research-based efforts being integrated into current policy and practice efforts.

Prosocial education is a term that more and more are using to refer to the array of overlapping instructional efforts that promote so-called “non-cognitive” aspects of learning: character education, social emotional learning, mental health promotion efforts and more. In fact, “cognitive” or intellectual learning is always, more or less, inter-connected with social, emotional and ethical aspects of learning and vice versa. There are important differences in these instructional traditions, but I have suggested that there are more similarities than differences. They are all focused on intentionally promoting the skills, knowledge and dispositions that provide the foundation for school — and life — success.

School climate refers to the quality and character of school life and has been an area of educational focus and research for over 100 years. An effective school climate improvement process is characterized by an intentional, strategic, collaborative, transparent, data-driven, coordinated, and democratically informed effort to actualize even safer, more supportive, engaging schools that promote school — and life —success.

Since the 2001 No Child Left Behind education act, American public educational policy has focused on student cognitive learning. Although the Common Core Standards begin to recognize more than linguistic, math and science learning, we are still largely, and narrowly, focused on cognitive learning alone. This is what is measured. And, this is what counts. However, this is beginning to change.

State learning standards are an important driver of curriculum and assessment. And, states are increasingly including social and emotional learning (SEL) in their standards.This is importantly due to growing empirical evidence that SEL/prosocially informed efforts increase academic achievement, reduce risky behavior and promote children’s healthy development. To learn more about SEL informed standards, visit:

Interestingly and not surprisingly, there is also a growing body of empirical research that suggests that instructional efforts are dramatically more helpful when they are paired with a school-wide effort that engages students, parents/guardians, school personnel and even community members to be co-learners and co-leaders. In this environment they are learning and working together to create safer, more supportive and engaging schools that intentionally foster social, emotional and civic, as well as intellectual competencies. As a result, the Character Education Partnership and CASEL’s theory of change are grounded in an understanding that prosocial instructional efforts need to be integrated with school wide/school climate improvement efforts.

And, a growing body of empirical research shows that positive school climate improvement efforts increase academic achievement, reduce bully-victim-bystander behavior as well as student dropout rates and increase teacher retention rates. In fact, a growing number of Federal agencies (U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, CDC, SAMHSA and IES), state departments of education (Connecticut, Georgia, Minnesota and Massachusetts) and large and small districts (from Chicago to Westbrook, Connecticut) are developing school climate policies and/or laws that support students, parents/guardians, school personnel and even community members learning and working together to create safer, more supportive, engaging and flourishing K-12 schools. And, a majority of the states that have applied for ESEA waivers to opt-out of the current No Child Left Behind (NCLB) accountability system include school climate and/or prosocial education as part of their desired alternative accountability system. To learn more about school climate as well as bully prevention standards and laws, visit:

But, there are several policy and practice challenges that complicate building, such as district and state leaders intentionally integrating prosocial instruction and school climate reform with current instructional and school wide improvement efforts.

School Improvement “Drivers”

As Fullan and others have noted, today most state departments of education and the federal government focus on the following four “drivers” of school reform:

  1. Accountability: using test results, and teacher appraisal, to reward or punish teachers and schools vs. capacity building
  2. Individual teacher and leadership quality: promoting individual vs. group solutions
  3. Technology: investing in and assuming that the wonders of the digital world will carry the day vs. instruction
  4. Fragmented strategies vs. integrated or systemic strategies


In fact, the more helpful drivers are effective because they directly affect the climate and culture of school life:

  1. Fostering intrinsic motivation of teachers and students
  2. Engaging educators and students in continuous improvement
    of instruction and learning
  3. Inspiring collective or team work
  4. Affecting all teachers and students – 100 per cent?

School climate reform policies and practices support all of these “drivers.” School climate reform intentionally supports all four of these drivers of school transformation.

Current Educational Policy

Perhaps the most important challenge to current prosocial and school climate improvement efforts is that federal and state educational policy today is focused on student cognitive learning alone. In addition, current educational policy and accountability systems are experienced by school leaders as punitive and discourage their adopting a continuous model of learning. Annual assessments of student learning, understandably, push school leaders to focus on “now” and this year. In fact, school improvement, like student learning, is a continuous process. Individuals, and schools,are never perfect. At best we are continually assessing and understanding current strengths and needs, setting realistic goals, working on them, then re-assessing our strengths and needs, and beginning anew in the continuous process of learning and improvement. But current educational policy undermines this kind of flexible problem solving cycle that provides an essential foundation for active learning and healthy development — individually and/or organizationally.

Understanding What to Do

The vast majority of school leaders conceptually appreciate the importance of school climate and feeling safe, supported and engaged. But a recent survey by the Character Education Partnership, the National Dropout Prevention Center and the National School Climate Center revealed that nine out of 10 educators reported a “strong” to a “very strong” need for detailed and practical school climate policy and practice guidelines.

For example:

  • What are independent evaluations of school climate surveys that can help us to select one?
  • What tasks/challenges should be addressed during the continuous process of school climate improvement planning, evaluation, action planning, and implementation and beginning anew?
  • Are there school climate standards?
  • Where can district and/or state leaders see sample school climate policies and/or work with school lawyers who are knowledgeable about effective bullying prevention and/or dropout prevention and/or school climate policies and laws?
  • What are the range of ways that school leaders can engage students as well as parents/guardians, school personnel and community members to be co-learners and co-leaders in the improvement process?
  • Where are there helpful leadership development programs that support adult learning in these areas?

In fact, these kinds of detailed and research-based school climate policy, practice and leadership development guidelines and resources exist! Our center and others, such as Character Education Partnership and CASEL, have developed detailed guidelines and tools that address these cortical questions.

Behaviorally Informed and Top Down Versus Comprehensive and “Bottom Up”

Many school leaders are not entirely sure how three-tiered behaviorally informed improvement models, like PBIS, is similar and/or different from school climate improvement. As I have detailed elsewhere, I think that school climate reform and PBIS — the largest, most well known and federally supported behaviorally informed effort — are potentially complimentary efforts. But, they are profoundly different in a number of ways: their goals are different, they use different data sets, and the very models of improvement — extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivational models and top down vs. bottom up or a truly collaborative process — are profoundly different.

American public education is still extremely focused on student cognitive learning in an imbalanced and unhelpful manner. However, the U.S. Education Department and a growing number of state DOE are increasingly supporting school improvement strategies that engage the “whole village” to support the whole child. This is an incredibly important and positive step.

Jonathan Cohen, Ph.D. is the president of the National School Climate Center (; and, Adjunct Professor in Psychology and Education, Teachers College, Columbia University. He consults with schools, districts, state departments of education, foreign educational ministries, the World Bank and UNICEF’s “Child Friendly Schools”programs and is the author of many books and papers. For more information, contact [email protected].
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