Schooling in Australia today seems to be increasingly focused on content and assessment. We have an obsession with testing and rankings. But school life is much more than that for a child.
Like all other parts of a child’s life, school time is full of socio-emotional experiences. Our research interests lie in these experiences of children at school – especially how these experiences intersect and the patterns and links that arise in what is called school climate.
School climate has been studied for about one hundred years, so we know it influences many outcomes for students both while they are at school and later in life. School climate can have an impact on a student’s self-esteem and self-concept, mental and physical health, academic achievement, attitudes toward schooling and behaviour.
Much of the past research in this field has looked at school climate in general, without drilling down to examine the impact of specific aspects of the school climate. So we decided to look for the detail.
In this blog post, we share some of our recent findings from our large-scale research project; specifically, we want to tell you about the links we found between aspects of the school climate and other outcomes. Educators and policy-makers alike will be able to make use of our research.
We identified 6 key aspects of the socio-emotional school climate
To us, ‘school climate’ is the attitudes, norms, beliefs, values, and expectations that underpin school life and affect the extent to which members of the school community feel safe.
We identified six important aspects of the school climate:
- Teacher support – the quality of student-teacher relationships and students’ perceptions of whether their teachers value and support them
- Peer connectedness – the quality of inter-student relationships, including relationships across different groups of students
- School connectedness – the degree to which students feel a sense of attachment, belonging and connectedness to the school
- Affirming diversity – the degree of acknowledgement, acceptance, inclusion and value perceived by students of differing backgrounds and experiences
- Rule clarity – the extent to which students feel that the school rules are clear and appropriate
- Reporting and seeking help – students’ awareness of school procedures for reporting issues and their willingness to make use of these.
We collected students’ perceptions of these key aspects
We used a questionnaire to collect students’ perceptions of our six key aspects. We gathered responses from over 6,000 students at 17 Australian high schools. Using these responses, we investigated how the students’ perceptions of the above six aspects of the school climate related to their experiences of bullying and their involvement in delinquent behaviours – that is, undesirable behaviours that could have serious negative consequences for either themselves or others. For the purpose of this study, delinquent behaviours were considered to be legal or moral misdeeds and offences, such as smoking, underage drinking, vandalism, stealing and taking drugs.
Some of the links we found in the student data were to be expected, such as:
- When students had positive experiences of teacher support, school connectedness and rule clarity, students experienced less bullying.
- When students had positive experiences of school connectedness and rule clarity, students were less likely to be involved in delinquent behaviour.
- When students had been bullied, this increased their likelihood of engaging in delinquent behaviours.
These results show the importance of schools investing in their socio-emotional school climates and suggest that these efforts will be rewarded with improvements in bullying and student behaviour.
However, other links we found are of much concern:
- When students had positive perceptions of the attitudes towards diversity within their schools they were more likely to be bullied.
- When students had positive perceptions of the mechanisms for reporting and seeking help in their schools they were more likely to be bullied.
Proceed with caution
We have some thoughts about our two unexpected findings:
- We wonder whether some school efforts to promote positive attitudes to diversity might have been ‘superficial’ and ended up simply drawing attention to differences without changing students’ underlying attitudes towards, or acceptance and valuing of, diversity. It is important for schools to engage deeply with the complex issues related to diversity and inclusivity. This is an effort that must begin with the teachers themselves, as role models in the school environment.
- We wonder whether some schools might have focused on raising awareness of the mechanisms for reporting and seeking help but failed to address school-wide norms and beliefs about whether bullying was ‘okay’. Past research shows that these school-wide norms and beliefs can ‘overrule’ other aspects of the socio-emotional school climate in terms of controlling bullying behaviour, so it is important for schools to tackle these attitudes directly.
- Another possible explanation for the link we observed between stronger mechanisms for reporting and seeking help and increased bullying is that teachers may have responded to bullying but in ways that were not effective in changing the behaviour. Past research in Australia and internationally indicates that there is an ongoing need for further investment in professional development to enhance teachers’ understanding of bullying and to equip them to respond in effective ways when bullying occurs.
The importance of structure and support in healthy school climates
Overall, our research confirms the importance of the socio-emotional school climate and shows that there are relationships between the nature of this climate and students’ involvement in bullying and delinquent behaviour. Our research also highlights the importance of both support and structure in healthy school climates.
It can be tempting for schools to focus on structural aspects such as reporting mechanisms, consequences, or zero-tolerance approaches to bullying. However, our findings align with past research that has shown that these structural aspects alone do not provide an effective fit with adolescents’ developmental needs. They need to be balanced with strong socio-emotional support including positive peer relationships, supportive relationships with teachers, and a sense of belonging and connectedness at school.
Most importantly, our research shows that schools need to look carefully at current practices and question their effectiveness. Some children at your school may well be being bullied, and this bullying may be occurring as a direct result of well-intentioned attempts to improve the school climate.
Jill Aldridge is an associate professor at Curtin University. Her central research interests focus on the development of effective, inclusive learning environments at the school- and classroom-level. Her work in school improvement has led to the emergence of the National School Improvement (NSI) Partnerships initiative, which is currently working with over 50 schools across five Australian states. Her research has examined the effects, determinants and outcomes of the school and classroom climate in national, international and cross-cultural settings involving a range of research methods.
Katrina McChesney has recently completed her PhD under the supervision of Dr Aldridge, focusing on teachers’ experiences of professional development. She has also contributed to a number of Dr Aldridge’s research and professional development projects related to school climate and its impact on student outcomes. Katrina is currently on the NZARE National Council.
Ernest Afari obtained a PhD in Mathematics Education from Curtin University, Western Australia, under the supervision of Dr Aldridge. He is an adjunct senior research fellow at Curtin University. His research interests are as follows: Teaching and learning with a focus on students’ perception of their learning environment; Application of structural equation modeling and other multivariate techniques to examine substantive issues.
Relationships between school climate, bullying and delinquent behaviours Jill M. Aldridge, Katrina McChesney, Ernest Afari