by Kristin Grayson, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • August 2016

Examining school climate is essential as the new academic year begins. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education states that school climate measurement is the first step toward school improvement, is a tool for school accountability, and is an evidenced-based method for documenting school needs (2016).

A positive school climate means having meaningful and collaborative relationships between teachers and students, teachers and administrators, and among students. It lays a strong foundation for learning in an environment of mutual respect and responsibility.

As public schools are becoming increasingly diverse, creating this inclusive environment can be seen by some as very challenging. In many ways, school climate reflects the larger societal conversations that are occurring among diverse communities. Bringing diverse communities together, whether in cities or schools, begins with conversations and a perspective of empathy.

Creating a positive school climate of empathy involves developing staff and students’ cultural competency (having beliefs and knowledge that are accepting about others) and intercultural proficiency (being able to effectively communicate messages that others receive as appropriate). Administrators and teachers must know about their diverse students and their cultures, and through the spirit of empathy, recognize that they are valuable learners. These aspects of knowledge and belief must be in place even before teachers and administrators begin to “do” their daily jobs of teaching in the classroom and directing the campus.

English learners are one of the diverse populations to consider when developing or shoring up a positive and empathetic school climate. The school needs to address their emotional, social and learning needs within an environment of collaboration and community. Like all students, English learners need to feel physically and emotionally safe. They must sense that the students and adults around them care about them. When this type of environment is in place, they have a greater attachment, engagement and commitment to school – all resulting in better academic performance with less disruptive behaviors.

Adults and students can all go through a process to develop intercultural proficiency necessary for collaborative interactions. This requires everyone to…

  • Examine their own attitudes toward others so that they have…
    • respect (value other cultures),
    • openness (withhold judgment), and
    • curiosity and discovery despite ambiguity.
  • Increase their knowledge and comprehension of…
    • cultural self-awareness,
    • deep cultural knowledge of others, and
    • sociolinguistic awareness (how languages are used within different contexts).
  • Develop skills that involve listening, observing and evaluating in order to be able to …
    • analyze,
    • interpret, and
    • relate with interactions that are effective and appropriate.

When interaction is both effective and appropriate, intercultural competence develops. The speaker, for example, is delivering his or her message, and it is being received by the other as appropriate (acceptable as opposed to offensive).

Through this process of building knowledge and awareness of self and others, an individual has a shift in his or her information and perceived frame of reference, and that person is now internally more adaptable, flexible and empathetic, with an expanded view (a perspective that is ethnorelative) that is inclusive of others’ backgrounds.

Listen to the podcast episode: The Teacher as a Culturally Proficient Coach 

Listen to the podcast episode: Leading a Diverse Campus to Success (principal interview)

Putting Theory into Practice

That is the research and theory about school climate and English learners. However, what does this mean in practice for administrators and teachers? What can schools do to create a school climate that is inclusive of linguistically diverse students and families?

  • Begin the year with a pre-service workshop with the objective of further developing staff’s cultural and intercultural competency. Staff can individually examine their own cultural backgrounds and potential biases. They also can share with other staff so that they can operate as a community of educators with respect and appreciation for each other.
    • Practice scenarios with different interpretations such as those in the book, Exploring Culture: Exercises, Stories and Synthetic Cultures, by Hofstede, et al. (2002).
    • Look at pictures and create stories for people in the pictures. Examine how these stories might reflect biases and stereotypes.
    • Use activities from the Teaching Tolerance online clearinghouse throughout the school year for staff and for students to help create and sustain positive school climate (see
  • Use students’ given names with correct pronunciations as used by their own families and peers.
  • Build trust with individual students by communicating with them, without judgment, about their influential past experiences both in and out of school. Assure students that sensitive information will remain confidential (and keep it confidential).
    • Assign all students to write or draw a list called: “Ten Things I Want You to Know About Me.”
  • Build your knowledge about students’ cultures both through discussions with them and through scholarly works, such as that by Gert Hostede (see website). Avoid limiting discussions to surface culture observations (food, holidays, arts, folklore, history and personalities). Compare your national culture with other national cultures represented, while realizing that culture is a group of social phenomena and does not stereotypically pertain to each individual.
  • Build your knowledge about the strengths of each English learner in your classroom. Instead of focusing on the fact that “they don’t know English,” find out what they do know. Keep in mind that school personnel are never permitted to inquire about a student’s legal status. All children of school-age who live in the United States are entitled to a free quality and equitable public education (see Page 7).
    • Find out about students’ prior schooling. How many grades did they complete? Can they read and write in their home language? Did they excel in specific subjects or do they have particular areas of individual interest? Use this knowledge of their previous education to help them make a smoother transition to English.
    • Some newcomer students may have arrived in the United States as unaccompanied minors. Remember that your role as an employee of a public school is to provide them with a quality equitable education and to not judge or give opinions about their documentation status. Instead, take a step back and be amazed at the skills and strengths of students that may have arrived as unaccompanied minors. They have traversed countries and crossed borders as a child probably with little money, food, or direction. This type of journey demonstrates positive qualities of the student such as determination, bravery, skill, and resiliency. Be the empathetic and supportive adult that these students need. For many children, this has probably been a traumatic life event, and they need support to resolve their inner anxieties and fears in order to avoid a more disabling post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Build knowledge about students’ language and how it is used in different group settings. Become aware of possible linguistic misunderstandings.
    • For newcomer students, allow them to complete assignments in their own language when possible. (For example, if the assignment is to write a five paragraph essay about a given topic, allow them to write it in their own language.) For grading, use pass/fail after having a school certified translator/interpreter read their writing and describe the contents to you.
    • Realize that English learners do not always have command of the nuances of the English language. This might include not knowing how to make statements of apologies, feedback and complaints. Instead of being offended by how they use language, help them rephrase language as needed. Be the language role model that they need and the trusted staff member that helps them understand that you do not take offense but offer support and help.
  • Be empathetic and imagine that you are the student. Attend a workshop or class given in their language.
  • Acknowledge the diversity of the school.
    • Get a flag from every country represented in the school (including American Indian nations) and display them in the school auditorium.
    • Have students give the welcome to school or parent assemblies in their different languages.
    • Have after-school clubs that all students can join to learn about the heritage of different groups (such as a mariachi band, a Native American dance group, a Spanish spelling bee).
    • Be sure to include English learners on special school committees, such as the yearbook team, cheer group, and student council.

Begin the school year with positive supports in place. Create a school environment that is inclusive and collaborative of the tapestry of the diversity of current U.S. society.


The IDRA EEOC Equitable Educational Opportunity Assessment Process and Model, Dr. Bradley Scott, 2009.

Deardorff, D.K. (2006). “Identification and Assessment of Intercultural Competence as a Student Outcome of Internationalization,” Journal of Studies in International Education (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Association for Studies in International Education).

Hofstede, G. (2016). Professor Geert Hofstede website (The Hague, The Netherlands).

Hofstede, G.J., & P.B. Pedersen, G.H. Hofstede. (2002). Exploring Culture: Exercises, Stories and Synthetic Cultures (Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing).

Montemayor, A. (2016, May). “Youths in Action – Intergenerational Leadership,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio: Intercultural Development Research Association).

Teaching Tolerance. Teaching Tolerance – A Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center website (Montgomery, Ala.: Southern Poverty Law Center).

Thapa,  A., & J. Cohen, S. Guffey, A. Higgins-D’Alessandro. (2013). “A Review of School Climate Research,” Review of Educational Research.

U.S. Department of Education. (2016). School Climate Measurement website (Washington, D.C.: American Institutes for Research).

Zins, J.E., & M.R. Bloodworth, R.P. Weissberg, H.J. Walberg. (2007). “The Scientific Base Linking Social and Emotional Learning to School Success,” Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation.

Kristin Grayson, Ph.D., is an IDRA education associate. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at

[©2016, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 2016 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]