Appendix A: What Does the EDSCLS Measure?

Three domains—Engagement, Safety, and Environment, and their associated topical areas—form the EDSCLS model of school climate (figure 1). Each of these domains and topical areas is measured in each of the four survey instruments. Some of these domains and topical areas are closely related to one another and include similar concepts—EDSCLS takes a panoramic approach in order to fully map the composition and influences of a school’s climate. The remainder of this section provides a brief description of each domain and topical area and demonstrates its connection to the broader construct of school climate.

A figure showing 3 domains that form the EDSCLS model of school climate
Figure 1. EDSCLS model of school climate


Engagement includes several components of “school connectedness,” such as the amount of effort students expend in the work of learning, their sense of belonging, and their emotional involvement with the school (Marks 2000). The amount of effort students devote to schoolwork is critical to their academic success because grades encapsulate not just mastery of content, but also labor invested (e.g., homework assignments, class participation, and extra-credit assignments) (Willingham, Pollock, and Lewis 2002). The rapport built between students and the important people in their lives at school establishes an important foundation for students’ perceptions of academia. As Blum (2005b, p. 4) observed, “people connect with people before they connect with institutions”—thus, positive relationships with instructors can contribute significantly to how much students value instruction. Data from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 (NELS:88) also lend significant credence to the power of teacher-student relationships: they show that positive student beliefs about how much their teachers support their efforts to succeed in school are related to a reduction in the probability of students dropping out (Croninger and Lee 2001).

In the EDSCLS, engagement constitutes three topical areas: cultural and linguistic competence, relationships, and participation.

Cultural and Linguistic Competence

Cultural and linguistic competence involves the degree to which students and families from diverse backgrounds feel welcome and connected to their school. When teachers seek to engage in unbiased instruction and to learn about their students, they can better respond to their students’ needs (Gay 2010; Richards, Brown, and Forde 2004; Villegas and Lucas 2002). Ruus et al. (2007) found that the school value system and students’ perceptions of teacher attitudes were significantly associated with students’ optimistic acceptance of life, psychological and physical well-being, and academic success.


Positive relationships between students, adults, and peers are characterized by affirmative social interactions, leading to a nurturing environment of trust and support. When coupled with a consistent emphasis on academic performance, a strong sense of support and school community has been positively associated with improved academic achievement (Lee et al. 1990). The quality of relationships is also important to faculty job satisfaction. A qualitative study by Hargreaves (2000) found that teachers cite their relationships with their students as one of the most important aspects of their work. In addition, teachers say that their job satisfaction is also contingent on their relationships with parents (Shann 1998).

School Participation

Participation encompasses all of students’ efforts in the school context, ranging from class participation to extracurricular activities. Parents and staff also participate in school in various ways, such as through collective decision making and student instruction. Strong interconnectedness between staff, students, families, and school—as demonstrated by student participation in self-directed or cooperative activities— can contribute to a positive climate (Cohen 2006; Cohen et al. 2009). Meaningful participation at school cultivates students’ self-efficacy, decision-making and leadership skills, and personal talents and strengths (Jennings 2003; Holland and Andre 1987).


Emotional and physical safety are fundamental characteristics of high-quality schools; in these schools, students feel a sense of belonging and are free to focus on learning (Dwyer and Osher 2000). Conversely, unsafe schools are associated with student and teacher victimization, increased truancy, lower levels of school attachment, decreased graduation rates, and increased disciplinary problems (Arseneault et al. 2006; Astor, Guerra, and Van Acker 2010; Bowen and Bowen 1999; Chen 2007; Henrich et al. 2004; Juvonen, Nishina, and Graham 2000; Neild, Furstenberg, and Stoner-Eby 2002; Mayer and Furlong 2010). Current research also suggests that the perception of physical and emotional safety is directly related to academic achievement (Glew et al. 2005; Osher and Kendziora 2010; Ripski and Gregory 2009). The positive effects of safe schools influence school staff as well. Gregory and colleagues found that cumulative daily stress—forged by disrespectful behavior and obscene remarks from students—has serious implications on teachers’ mental health (Gregory, Cornell, and Fan 2012); such abuse is directly linked to, and may be an important cause of, their premature retirement (Bauer et al. 2006).

In the EDSCLS, the safety domain includes five topics: emotional safety, physical safety, bullying, substance abuse, and emergency readiness and management.

Emotional Safety

Emotional safety is the actual and perceived experience of feeling safe to express emotions and the confidence to take appropriate academic risks (Blum 2005a; Osher and Kendziora 2010). This aspect of safety contributes to a school’s climate of mutual respect, trust, and equitable treatment among all members of the school community. Perceptions of respect, trust, and fairness are linked with school interconnectedness (i.e., a sense of community) (Blum 2005a; Resnick et al. 1997; Chapman et al. 2011). The experience of interconnectedness bonds students to schools, enhances well-being, and reduces risky and antisocial behavior (Battistich and Hom 1997; Frey et al. 2009; Libbey, Ireland, and Resnick 2002; McGraw et al. 2008).

Physical Safety

Physical safety is predicated on protecting students from being victims of or witnesses to violence. There is a long history of research on the importance of safety to individuals’ social and emotional growth, including Abraham Maslow’s (1954) hierarchy of needs, wherein safety and security are ranked second only to basic physiological needs. In order for students to focus on and learn about abstract concepts, they must be free from worry about their physical safety. In schools where students reported higher levels of safety, a higher percentage of students passed standardized tests, even after controlling for free or reduced-price lunch status (Milam, Furr-Holden, and Leaf 2010).


Bullying constitutes unwanted and aggressive actions directed from one person to another; the definition of bullying also involves a real or perceived power imbalance between the two parties, with the actions being repeated or having the potential to be repeated (Olweus 1997). Cyber-bullying is a recent permutation, wherein electronic devices—such as cell phones, computers, and tablets—are used to target the victim. Bullying undermines perceptions of safety (Sampson 2009, p. 1), and student-student and student-teacher relationships (Swearer et al. 2010), making bullying prevention important for fostering a positive school climate (Cohen and Freiberg 2013; Thapa et al. 2013).

Substance Abuse

Substance abuse is a harmful pattern of using substances such as alcohol, tobacco, illicit drugs, or prescription drugs. This behavior carries the risk of directly causing or aggravating physical and mental health issues, impeding the cognitive growth necessary for academic success, and fomenting substance dependence. According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (2001), “it is estimated that each year substance abuse costs schools at least $41 billion in truancy, special education, and disciplinary problems; disruption; teacher turnover; and property damage.”[1]

Emergency Readiness and Management

Emergency readiness entails a school’s preparedness to respond to a crisis or to an emergency such as a natural disaster, a violent incident, or an act of terrorism (National Child Traumatic Stress Network 2013).

According to the U.S. Department of Education (2013), emergency readiness includes prevention, protection, mitigation, response, and recovery. Fostering a positive school climate can help prevent emergencies—because it can reduce the incidence of behaviors that contribute to crises (e.g., violence, bullying, harassment, substance abuse)—and help students respond to and recover from emergencies (U.S. Department of Education 2013). Additionally, Cornell and colleagues found that having a threat assessment program was associated with having a more positive and supportive school climate (Cornell et al. 2009).


Positive school environments are characterized by appropriate and well-maintained facilities; well- managed classrooms with high levels of engagement, rigor, productivity, and inclusion; a range of available school-based health supports; clear, fair disciplinary policies; and explicit policies and procedures governing various school practices (Hamre and Pianta 2005; Welsh 2001). In addition to the resources and beneficial normative experiences provided to students through support staff, positive school environments also afford faculty varied and diverse opportunities to meet students’ physical and mental health needs during the regular and extended school day (Hoagwood and Erwin 1997; Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee 2008; Stevens et al. 2008; Telford et al. 2012). A significant body of research suggests that different characteristics of the school environment (including elements of order, facilities, school rules, and discipline) influence student, adult, and school outcomes, both directly and indirectly (Buckley, Schneider, and Shang 2005; Gottfredson et al. 2005; LeBlanc et al. 2007; Lo et al. 2011; Payne 2008; Payne, Gottfredson, and Gottfredson 2003; Planty and DeVoe 2005; Roque and Paternoster 2011; Tillyer, Wilcox, and Gialopsos 2010; Wang and Dishion 2011).

In the EDSCLS, the environment domain consists of five topical areas: physical environment, instructional environment, physical health, mental health, and discipline.

Physical Environment

A school’s physical environment encompasses the physical appearance and functioning of the building, including lighting (artificial and natural), thermal comfort, air quality and ventilation, acoustics and noise control, size and configuration of rooms, permanent versus portable rooms, safety measures (cameras, signage, metal detectors, etc.), location, and neighborhood surrounding it (Earthman 2004; National School Boards Association 1996; O’Sullivan 2006; Planty and DeVoe 2005; Schneider 2002). The condition of school facilities is highly correlated with teacher retention (Buckley, Schneider, and Shang 2005), as well as student health and academic achievement (Earthman and Lemasters 2011; Uline and Tschannen-Moran 2008). Studies show that children are more susceptible to environmental disease than are adults, increasing the importance of maintaining clean facilities (Jasper, Thanh-Tam, and Bartram 2012).

Instructional Environment

The instructional environment refers to the interconnectedness of the academic, social, and emotional aspects of learning as they relate to student achievement (Bronfenbrenner 1979; Ma et al. 2009), including such things as the quality of instruction, the quality and availability of materials and resources, the level of expectations for academic achievement, a shared sense of responsibility, student engagement and connection with the curriculum, positive classroom management strategies, and a focus on building strong teacher-student relationships (Ladson-Billings 1995; Cohen 2006). Extensive research by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and others has linked positive instructional environments to higher student test scores and graduation rates, higher reading scores, and lower dropout rates (Haahr et al. 2005; Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development 2009).

Physical Health

In the EDSCLS, physical health refers to the physical well-being of a school community and its members. Poor health obstructs children’s education by driving excessive absenteeism, impeding completion of homework, and inhibiting teacher-student relationship growth (Needham, Crosnoe, and Muller 2004). Given the amount of time that students spend on school grounds, school health programs have the potential to be one of the most efficient means to prevent or reduce health risk behaviors and serious health problems among students (Centers for Disease Control 2011).

Mental Health

Mental health is more than just being psychologically well; it includes emotional and social well-being and is affected by many different factors ( Mentally healthy students attend school ready to learn, are actively engaged in school activities, form supportive and caring relationships with adults and peers, apply problem-solving skills in a nonaggressive manner, and contribute to positive school culture (Freeman 2011; National Research Council and Institute of Medicine 2009).


School discipline is defined as the rules and strategies applied in school to manage student behavior and the practices used to encourage self-discipline (Osher et al. 2010). Approaches to school discipline range from positive (e.g., improvements in school climate and the use of restorative justice practices) to punitive(e.g., suspension, expulsion, and corporal punishment) (Gottfredson et al. 2005; Mayer 1995; Skiba et al. 2011). Emerging research supports focusing on the former more than the latter, because punitive school discipline has not been shown to improve student behavior or academic achievement (Fabelo et al. 2011; Rebora 2013; Shah 2011). Schoolwide positive approaches have been associated with reduced disciplinary referrals and improvements in student academic achievement (Lassen, Steele, and Sailor 2006). Using positive approaches when discipline issues arise is hypothesized to reconnect students to their peers and teachers, improving the school experience for the community.

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[1]   This is equivalent to $54.2 billion in 2014 dollars.

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