Teacher Perceptions of School Climate: A Mixed-Methods Analysis

In February, 2014, my lab reported findings from focus groups we conducted with teachers in eastern North Carolina regarding issues of school climate. The results are below:


Research shows that 33% of teachers leave the profession within their first three years of teaching, and 46% leave the profession within the first five years (Kopowski, 2008). Student behavior problems are commonly cited as reasons for the high turnover rate among early career teachers (e.g., Friedman, 1995) because of the negative impact these behaviors have on school climate. School climate is a key variable that is associated with both teacher burnout (Grayson & Alvarez, 2008) and student behavior problems (O’Brennan, Bradshaw, & Furlong, 2014), among other important facets. The National School Climate Counsel (2007) defines school climate as the patterns of individual experiences and relationships in the school, as well as the norms, values, goals, teaching practices, and structure of the school as a whole. Several questionnaires have been developed to assess school climate, often by assessing teacher, student, and parent perceptions of classroom order, fairness of rules, community engagement, expectations and support for learning, administrative leadership, respect for diversity, safety and bullying, teacher-student relationships, peer relationships, and students’ social and emotional competency (Voight & Hanson, 2012). However, school climate measures rarely assess the potential impact teacher experiences with behavior interventions have on these impressions. In the present study, we conducted focus groups exploring teacher experiences with behavior interventions in an attempt to assess how these experiences relate to impressions of school climate.


Participants were public school teachers from two middle schools in eastern North Carolina. All participants (N = 17) were identified as “key opinion leaders” by their principals and invited to participate in one-hour focus groups to discuss student behavior concerns. Two focus groups were conducted, with seven teachers in one group and ten in the other. Due to time constraints, demographic data were not collected. Focus groups were led by the authors and consisted of open-ended questions from five broad query domains: (a) challenging student behaviors (b) primary/secondary prevention efforts; (c) IEP/tertiary prevention efforts; (d) teacher support systems; and (e) home-school communication. Immediately following the focus groups, teachers completed an abbreviated version of the Inventory of School Climate-Teacher (ISC-T; Brand et al., 2008). Audio recordings of the focus groups were transcribed and systematically coded. Under each query domain, we independently identified positive and negative quotations (e.g., effective versus ineffective support systems), compared our results, and then came to consensus in all instances (disagreements were settled by a doctoral-level school psychologist [fourth author]). Next, we examined quotes in greater detail to look for underlying themes, and then defined and coded themes based on conceptual similarities. Finally, we applied a convergent data transformation, mixed-methods analysis to examine the relationships between quantified focus group data and results from the school climate survey. Data analyses were conducted using ATLAS.ti7 and SPSS v22.0.


In our qualitative analysis of the focus group transcripts we identified and defined 21 themes. Within the challenging behaviors domain, we identified four impairment themes attributed to externalizing behaviors (academic, peer relationships, adult relationships, and nonspecific), as well as one additional theme of internalizing disorders. Across primary/secondary and IEP/tertiary prevention domains, we identified three implementation themes, including implementation challenges, errors, and successes, plus an additional theme of nonspecific success (i.e., successes not directly tied to prevention efforts). We also noted four themes involving external support needs (parent cooperation, parent training, family resources, and medical), as well as two themes of internal support needs (primary/secondary and tertiary). Some teachers described existing resources and from those discussions we identified three support-related themes (internal support, external support, and teacher training). Within the home-school communication domain, we identified two themes relating to parent contact (personal and impersonal), as well as one theme of home-school success. Examples of failed home-school communication attempts were sorted into other themes, mainly parent cooperation needs.

Based on thematic co-occurrences (overlaps) and theoretical relationships (e.g., behavior disorders cause prevention efforts), we constructed a conceptual network of prevention efforts and related issues, comprising 16 of the 21 themes (see Figure 1). Specific quotes related to primary/secondary prevention efforts dominated the focus groups (n = 36), followed closely by quotes related to IEP/tertiary prevention efforts (n = 27). When discussing primary/secondary prevention, participants readily identified supports and successes (e.g., “…[we] really accentuate the positive, and I think that it’s something…”), but also implementation challenges (e.g., “We could not follow the exact structure of recommendations…”) and errors (e.g., “Sometimes [the intervention] kinda’ gets lost…”). When discussing IEP/tertiary prevention, participants commonly mentioned needed supports, especially the cooperation of parents (e.g., “It’s hard when you’re not really backed up in theory because they aren’t taking the initiative as the parent”), as well as communication successes, which were mostly associated with personal contacts (e.g., “…we…have a lot of contact with the parents before the IEP meeting even starts…”). The remaining five themes co-occurred less often and did not have clear relationships with other codes (see inset in Figure 1).

All codes attributed to individual focus group participants were cross-tabulated with the 21 identified themes and the relative proportion of quoted material was quantified for each cell. We then combined these results with responses to four subscales of the ISC-T, including Peer Sensitivity (α = .78), Disruptiveness (α = .87), Teacher-Pupil Interactions (α = .68), and Achievement Orientation (α = .86). Using a two-way mixed ANOVA, we compared responses to the four ISC-T subscales across the two schools. The main effect of school was nonsignificant, F(1, 15) = .085, p = .774, as well as the School X Subscale interaction, F(1.77, 26.50)1 = 1.70, p = .205, suggesting similar climates across the two sites. Next, we examined the correlations2 between the ISC-T subscales and the proportion of focus group quotations attributed to each theme. Themes relating to identified supports (internal, external, and training) and support needs (parent cooperation, parent training, and tertiary prevention) were not significantly associated with any of the ISC-T subscales (ps > .05). The remaining relationships are provided in Table 1. Among all themes explored, academic impairments associated with externalizing behavior problems were most consistently associated with the measure of school climate. Specifically, teachers who discussed academic impairments tended to rate school climate as desirable, in terms of student sensitivity (i.e., prosocial behavior), teacher-pupil interactions, and achievement orientation. For example, the teacher with the most favorable climate ratings consistently discussed behavior problems in terms of academic avoidance (e.g., “[At-risk students] don’t feel like they can do anything of value, so they try to avoid anything at school”). Significant correlations also emerged between the Disruptiveness subscale of the ISC-T and the theme of intervention success. Teachers who discussed successful interventions in broad terms (e.g., “…now they’re at school every day…”) tended to rate students as less disruptive, restless, inattentive, or quarrelsome than the other teachers. Similarly, teachers who discussed program implementation errors (e.g., “We need to do a better job as a staff announcing [reward days] ahead of time”) tended to rate student interactions more negatively than other teachers.


Although research suggests an association between student behavior problems and teacher perceptions of school climate, the nature of this relationship is unclear. In this study, we examined school climate using a mixed-methods analysis in the hopes of clarifying how teachers’ experiences with behavior interventions impact these impressions. Based on participant responses in focus groups, we constructed a conceptual network to summarize recurring and co-occurring themes. When discussing primary/ secondary prevention efforts, teachers most often mentioned implementation challenges, successes, and available supports. It is interesting to note that participants discussed these issues in equal proportions, suggesting that their experiences had been mixed. The schools were implementing new practices (e.g., Check In Check Out) at the time of the focus groups, so these findings are not necessarily surprising. When discussing IEP/tertiary prevention, teachers most often mentioned a desire for more parent cooperation, but also identified successes with home-school communication (mostly through personal contact) in roughly equal proportions. Impersonal contact attempts (e.g., open houses) were not mentioned in the context of prevention efforts, suggesting that our participants associated personal home-school communication mostly with tertiary prevention efforts (e.g., IEP meetings).

When compared to the quantitative survey results, the academic impairment theme appeared to be related to perceptions of school climate. Teachers who discussed problem behaviors in terms of academic impairments tended to have favorable impressions of climate, perhaps suggesting that teachers perceive academic impairments as less stressful than psychosocial impairments (e.g., peer conflict). Such an interpretation is consistent with survey data showing that teachers readily accept their role in addressing academic concerns, but defer social concerns to mental health professionals (Reinke et al., 2011). Our findings also suggest a potential relationship between intervention experiences and school climate. Specifically, successful intervention attempts appeared to be associated with positive impressions of climate, whereas failed attempts were not.

There are several limitations to the present study, including the small sample size and the subjectivity introduced by our coding strategy. Still, our findings suggest potential areas for additional research. For example, the strong relationship between academic impairment perceptions and favorable school climate ratings may have implications for how challenging behaviors are framed by school consultants, or how the relationship between behavior problems and school climate is conceptualized in surveys. Our findings also suggest that previous intervention attempts are associated with school climate, but given our small sample and correlational analysis we cannot determine if these relationships are causal.


Brand, S., Felner, R. D., Seitsinger, A., Burns, A., & Bolton, N. (2008). A large scale study of the assessment of the social environment of middle and secondary schools: The validity and utility of teachers’ rating of school climate, cultural pluralism, and safety problems for understanding school effects and school improvement. Journal of School Psychology, 46, 507-535.

Friedman, I. A. (1995). Student behavior patterns contributing to teacher burnout. The Journal of Educational Research, 88, 281-289.

Grayson, J. L., & Alvarez, H. K. (2008). School climate factors relating to teacher burnout: A mediator model. Teaching and Teacher Education, 24, 1349-1363.

Kopowski, C. (2008, April). Why they leave. National Education Association. Retrieved from: http://www.nea.org/home/12630.htm

National School Climate Council. (2007). The School Climate Challenge: Narrowing the gap between school climate research and school climate policy, practice guidelines and teacher education policy. Retrieved from: http://www.schoolclimate.org/climate/advocacy.php.

O’Brennan, L. M., Bradshaw, C. P., & Furlong, M. J. (2014). Influence of classroom and school climate on teacher perceptions of student problem behavior. School Mental Health, 6, 125-136.

Reinke, W. M., Stormont, M., Herman, K. C., Puri, R., & Goel, N. (2011). Supporting children’s mental health in schools: Teacher perceptions of needs, roles, and barriers. School Psychology Quarterly, 26, 1-13.

Voight, A., & Hanson, T. (2012). Summary of existing school climate instruments for middle school. San Francisco, CA: REL West atWestEd.

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