The issue of toxic school environments has recently come to light. A 2022 headline in The Washington Post addresses this concern, and discusses the worsening youth mental health crisis that grew more serious during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic wanes and life returns to normal, schools continue to grapple with violence, bullying, and poor mental health among students. Unfortunately, school cultures can be toxic and create levels of distress that lead to these problems. Learn what can be done below.
Signs of a toxic school culture
The first step in addressing a toxic school culture is identifying when one exists. So, what are the signs to look out for if you’re worried your child’s school environment is toxic? The indicators below are suggestive of a problem:
- Exclusive focus on achievement, with no focus on social/emotional learning
- Frequent reports of school fights
- School violence
- Problems with bullying
- High levels of school-related stress in your child
- Increases in serious mental health problems, including suicides, among students in the school population
- Poor relationships between students and teachers
- Hostile relationships between parents and school staff
While not all of the problems above are always indicative of a toxic school environment, the reality is that patterns of poor mental health, violence, and bullying are often suggestive of a problem within the school culture. A 2021 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that nurturing school environments, in which students have supportive relationships with teachers and peers, as well as a sense of belonging, are linked to lower levels of depression, bullying, and violence perpetration. Such findings suggest that school culture plays an important role in the mental, emotional, and behavioral functioning of students.
Given the link between school culture and bullying, it’s important to draw attention to the latest bullying statistics, to show just how important it is to create a positive school culture. According to data from stopbullying.gov, a website managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the following facts about bullying have come to light in recent years:
- Across the United States, 20% of students aged 12 to 18 experience bullying as victims.
- 46% of those aged 12 to 18 who are victims of bullying indicate that they have reported the bullying to a school staff member.
- 43.4% of bullying occurs in the hallway or stairwell at school, and 42.1% occurs in the classroom, compared to just 15.3% via text.
- 13.4% of students have been bullied via being the subject of rumors or lies, and 13.0% have been made fun of or called names.
- 5.3% of students have experienced physical bullying, which can include being tripped, pushed, shoved, or spit on.
- In wealthy countries such as the United States, students of lower socioeconomic status are more likely to be bullied.
Solving the problem
Bullying and violence in schools can create a toxic climate, in which students are at a greater risk of negative mental health outcomes. Bullying and violence can also be a direct result of toxic school environments. Given the risks associated with a toxic school climate, it’s critical to develop solutions to this problem.
Unfortunately, many anti-bullying interventions produce weak results, but some interventions have been found to be beneficial. Programs that result in the best outcomes emphasize a positive school climate and healthy social and emotional development in children. They also demonstrate a long-term commitment to reducing bullying, as well as clear strategies for addressing bullying in the school. Finally, the most impactful programs administer prevention messages to the entire school population and infuse anti-bullying into the schoolwide curriculum.
What you can do
While you may not be able to alter the policies of your local school district, you can play a role in improving the school climate. For example, research has shown that quality relationships between parents and teachers, as well as having a strong sense of community, can foster a positive school climate. This means that the following actions can make a difference in the climate at your child’s school:
- Keep an open line of communication with your child’s teacher(s).
- Attend school conferences.
- Stay involved with school activities, such as community events, sporting matches, and board meetings.
- If you have concerns about bullying or violence in the school setting, address them. This may require reporting a concern to a principal or other school administrator if the teacher is unable to address the concern.
Ultimately, your child has a right to feel safe and welcomed at school. If a toxic school culture is making them fearful of going to school, it’s important to have conversations with the school’s administration team. You might even consider researching publicly posted board policies for reporting harassment and intimidation, so you can make a report, if this is playing a role in your child’s school experience.
When a negative school climate becomes an ongoing concern, you may benefit from attending school board meetings and advocating for changes that promote a healthier school environment, such as a focus on social/emotional learning, policies that show appreciation for diversity, and clearly articulated procedures for responding to complaints of bullying or harassment.
Where to seek help
If your teen is living with symptoms of depression or anxiety, or other signs of distress arising from bullying or factors related to a negative school environment, they may benefit from professional mental health services. At Mission Harbor Behavioral Health, we have outpatient programming just for teens, and we involve parents in the treatment process. We have office locations in both Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. Contact us today to learn more or to begin the admissions process.