Student Happiness, School Climate, and School Improvement Plans: Implications for School Counseling Practice

Added April 20, 2018

Aligned with a more holistic perspective of wellness, the authors advocate for the inclusion of student subjective well-being (SWB) as part of school climate assessment within school improvement plans (SIPs). Relevant theory and research are presented demonstrating the relationship between student perceptions of school climate and students’ SWB. Within the context of school improvement planning/assessment and counselor program accountability, school counselor recommendations for evidence-based practice are provided.

More specifically, this article initially addresses NCLB (2001) legislation and its requirement that so-called “failing” schools develop School Improvement Plans (SIPs). Despite subsequent legislation, most states continue to provide guidance and support to school leadership in executing school improvement processes via SIPs. One feature of school-life addressed through SIPs involves school climate or environment. In other words, school climate evaluations consider these issues: Is it warm, friendly, conducive for learning, well-maintained, provide good teaching, and safe? Another important area not commonly included in school climate evaluation is student perspectives (What is student life like? Does the environment promote student well-being?). We asked ourselves why this dimension is left out. The rest of the article attempts to answer this question and provide a workable solution.

Numerous studies evidence the positive relationships between healthy school climates and student self-concept, self-esteem, attachment to school, and flourishing across multiple domains (e.g., social, emotional, and academic). Components of school climate include both nonacademic and more student-centered factors. However, school climate’s representation within SIPs remains largely deficits-based. Many researchers argue that assessments of the learning environment should include positive student attributes rather than only negative behaviors (e.g., student suspensions, behavior infractions, etc.). Aligned with this call for a more strengths-based approach, research suggests students’ individual, subjective perceptions are major constituents of school climate.

Currently, SIP evaluators rely on locally-constructed school climate measures rather than psychometrically sound instruments. For school counselors interested in assessing student perceptions for their school climate evaluation, we recommend attending to the National School Climate Council (2007) standards for implementation and assessment. These standards call for the use for valid and reliable measurements. Moreover, research suggests that a vital component of school climate is student subjective well-being. Regrettably, this dimension of school climate is rarely included in SIP evaluations.Emerging from positive psychology and studies on human flourishing, subjective well-being (SWB) has been shown important to one’s overall feeling of life satisfaction. Unlike other aspects of well-being, SWB is generally associated with happiness, and the terms are often used interchangeably. In relation to school climate, when students experience positive emotions, they tend to be happier and more engaged learners. Thus, happy learners find school more enjoyable and rewarding. Similarly, healthy and warm learning environments contribute to students’ sense of well-being. Two rigorously developed inventories and one visual scale are reviewed here, measuring students’ subjective well-being.

The first inventory, Hills and Argyle’s 8-item Oxford Happiness Questionnaire-Short Form (OHQ-SF; 2002), is ideal for administration to students in grades 3 to 12. Instrument statements are relatively easy for children to understand and the scoring process is very quick with administration time less than 10 minutes. The second instrument, the four item Subjective Happiness Scale (Lyubomirsky & Lepper, 1999a, b), is a well-studied and utilized inventory measuring global subjective happiness. The SHS has been administered to respondents differing in age and culture and can be distributed to diverse groups of children ages 9 and above. Scoring and administration time are minimal. Finally, Andrew and Withey’s (1976) single item visual Faces Scale can be used to measure momentary state happiness. In response to the question, “How happy are you most of the time?” respondents choose from seven different faces. Because this scale’s psychometric properties are yet to be firmly established in representative samples of children and adolescents, it is recommended the instrument be used with other happiness instruments.

Within the context of the ASCA National Model (ASCA, 2012) and SIPs, professional school counselors are critical system agents assisting with school climate and comprehensive school improvement processes. Using instruments such as those highlighted here, school counselors already familiar with utilizing data from multiple student domains (e.g., academic, social/emotional, and career/vocational) can infuse subjective well-being into school improvement processes. This provides a richer description of the school climate and provides administrators and other site leadership with information about the overall health of the school learning environment.

Richard E. Cleveland, PhD, Georgia Southern University, Statesboro, GA; Christopher A. Sink, PhD, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA.


Richard E. Cleveland, PhD, Christopher A. Sink, PhD