Earlier this year, PISA findings showed that New Zealand 15-year-olds have the second-worst rates of bullying in the OECD. The NZ Human Rights Commission has raised serious concerns about this issue, and the United Nations has been challenging the NZ government on a range of issues related to youth wellbeing for a number of years, including highlighting NZ’s youth suicide rate, which is the highest in the OECD. A complex array of intersecting factors contribute to these statistics, but the impact of bullying on young people’s wellbeing, mental health, and even suicidal behaviour is well-documented.
Despite this broader social context and the critical moral imperatives it raises, schools and educators in Aotearoa NZ today are faced with strong forces that drive an almost one-dimensional focus on content and assessment: National Standards, NCEA, international testing and even initiatives such as Investing in Educational Success all centre on defining and measuring what children know, and how we know that they know it. Many teachers are struggling to keep their heads above water with the requisite paperwork and reporting associated with these initiatives (e.g. see these reports which address the impacts of National Standards and NCEA on teachers and teaching), and this overload and content/assessment-driven focus may affect teachers’ ability to attend to the more relational aspects of education.
Of course, teaching, learning and assessment are fundamental parts of schooling – but children’s wellbeing (and, in the worst cases, their lives) can be in danger if we get caught up in these performance measures and lose sight of the socio-emotional experiences of the students in our care. In this blog post, we share some of our recent research that demonstrates the importance of the socio-emotional school climate and the difference it can make to young people’s behaviour and life trajectories.
Key aspects of the socio-emotional school climate
To us, the ‘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 used a questionnaire to collect students’ perceptions of six important aspects of the school climate. Other aspects of our research involve teacher, parent, and school leader perspectives, but the research reported in this blog post centred on students’ perceptions of the school climate. The aspects we examined were:
- 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 were clear and appropriate
- Reporting and seeking help – students’ awareness of school procedures for reporting issues and their willingness to make use of these.
Previous research has indicated that the school climate influences many outcomes for students, both while they are at school and later in life – including their self-esteem and self-concept, mental and physical health, academic achievement, attitudes toward schooling, and behaviour (good reviews of the overall impact of school climate are available here, here, here, and here). At the same time, much past research has looked at school climate in general, without drilling down to examine the impact of specific aspects of the school climate. Our research is designed to help fill that gap.
What we investigated
Using responses from over 6,000 students at 17 Australian high schools, 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 (such as smoking, drinking, and vandalism).
The diagram below portrays the relationships the we found in the data. We found that:
- 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.
Proceed with caution
One aspect of our findings was of concern. We found that, when students had positive perceptions of the attitudes towards diversity and the mechanisms for reporting and seeking help in their schools, they were more likely to be bullied. Why might this be?
- 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. This suggests that it is important for schools to engage deeply with the complex issues related to diversity and inclusivity – an effort that must begin with the teachers themselves, as role models in the school environment. The Te Kotahitanga project in Aotearoa was a powerful illustration of both the depth of engagement needed to change teachers’ attitudes and practices related to cultural diversity and the powerful results that can be attained when this transformation in thinking and practice occurs.
- 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 NZ and internationally indicates that there is an ongoing need for further investment in professional development to equip teachers 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 findings also highlight 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; for example, 60% of the NZ teachers and school leaders who responded to a recent survey reported that their school had a zero-tolerance bullying policy. 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, a sense of belonging and connectedness at school, and a deep pro-active approach to creating a climate of inclusiveness and respect for cultural and other forms of diversity.
Given our findings, and the important issues we raised in the introduction about youth wellbeing in Aotearoa NZ, we wanted to close by highlighting some practical resources for schools.
- For NZ schools, the Wellbeing@School project (provided by NZCER on behalf of the Ministry of Education) is an invaluable resource. The Wellbeing@School site offers excellent and free online support (including self-review questionnaires, survey reports, and planning modules) to help schools build a safe and caring school climate.
- This guide from this US Centers for Disease Control is a free resource that provides additional information about the kinds of factors that contribute to the school climate and highlights six specific strategies schools can use to enhance their climates.
- Finally, this article provides a research overview before outlining a vast array of specific practices that affect the school climate, categorised into individual, peer, community, and whole-school levels.
Jill Aldridge is an associate professor at Curtin University, Western Australia. Her central research interests focus on the development of effective, inclusive learning environments at the school and classroom levels. 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 submitted her PhD thesis for examination, 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.