Classroom climate (or culture) is essentially the way your child’s class feels. From the moment you walk through the door, your child’s classroom should feel inviting and welcoming. “A great classroom is one that you want to be in,” says Becky Kasper, PhD, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence in Plattsburgh, NY, “and as a visitor, you’re envious.”

The Character Education Partnership (CEP) defines class climate as “shared expectations, values, and patterns of behavior that define who we are.” That includes classroom expectations, the teacher’s attitude, how parents and students are treated, and the work that students do. Recent research has highlighted the importance of positive school climate. In general, when a classroom has a positive climate, students feel safe and supported in learning, and academic achievement increases.

According to the Center for Social and Emotional Education, the commitment to education that schools build and the positive feedback that teachers provide affect students’ self-esteem. Class climate also affects connectedness, or how connected students feel in their relationships at school, a factor that has been shown to improve health and academics in adolescents.

At the most basic level, schools and classrooms should be safe. In addition to that, look for these “gold star” and “red flag” qualities when determining the climate in your child’s classroom.

Gold Stars

Classroom climate is about more than sunny posters, clean desks, and cozy furniture. Teachers who create positive classroom climate are in control, confident, and competent from the first day. Here’s what you’ll experience in a classroom with positive climate.

  • A Smile and a Handshake. You receive a smile and handshake at the door. The greeting is very important, says George Risberg, project coordinator for the Social Emotional Learning programs with the Rhinelander Public Schools in Wisconsin, it sets the tone for what you’ll experience.
  • Positive Relationships. Students feel valued and believe that their teacher thinks they can learn. “Teaching and learning takes place in relationships,” says Kasper, “”students need to know that their teacher cares about them.”
  • A Focus on Respect. There are clear expectations that build on respect, and when there is a problem, students are taught how to solve it respectfully.
  • Room to be Wrong. Teachers are able to admit when they’re wrong, and allow students to explore different options and answers. Teaching, says Kasper, “is not about power or control, it’s about modeling.”
  • Movement and Noise. It’s not chaos, but students have the opportunity to explore and create, which often involves talking and moving around the room. Kids are interacting with the teacher and each other, working on projects and discussing what they’re learning.
  • Intellectual Rigor. Students are challenged and supported to do their best work as part of an interesting curriculum that’s based on strong pedagogy.
  • Collaboration. Students and parents have a way to share ideas about teaching, testing, and more. Teachers and the school administration use those ideas to move the class forward.
  • Joy. The teacher loves teaching and passes their joy to their students. “Look for [a teacher] who is impassioned,” says Kasper, “someone who gets a kick out of kids.”
  • Discipline that Teaches. Students who are disruptive are dealt with effectively and rules are used to teach students how to behave, rather than to punish.

Red Flags

As much as you want positive class climate for your children, there are classrooms that aren’t positive. If you notice these classroom climate warning signs, talk to your child about how to handle each.

  • Pessimism. Teachers and administrators have the idea that some kids aren’t willing to learn or are lazy. Teachers and the administration are competitive with everything from materials to control over what they do in the classroom.
  • Stagnation. Are the same bulletin boards up each year? Is your youngest, now in 3rd grade, doing the same work that your oldest did when they were in the same grade? A negative climate emerges when teachers refuse to change and insist on doing what they’ve always done, regardless of whether or not it’s best for the kids.
  • Silence. Students are silent all the time, listening to a teacher lecture, or working independently.
  • Strong Discipline. Rules and behavior management are too strong, or punitive, or rules aren’t clear and students don’t know how to behave.
  • Negative Reviews. Your child brings home negative reports or complaints. If your child says negative things about their teacher, talk with them about how to address it. Ask if they’re getting what they need in class—if they love to talk but are never given a chance, that’s a problem. Or, if they’ve loved school until this year, that’s another problem.

If these red flags persist in your child's classroom, set up an meeting to talk to your child's teacher. Make sure the dialogue is open and friendly, rather than accusatory. Make sure you model the positive relationship you want your child to have with his teacher.