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The winning combo of SEL + good school climate | SELConnections

Katie Brohawn

Katie Brohawn is Senior Director of Research for ExpandED Schools. This blog is part of our SELConnections blog series, where we explore social and emotional learning.


MS 223/The Laboratory School of Finance and Technology partners with Areté Education to expand learning. Above, the steel drum troupe gets encouragement from the director.


The literature is rife with studies finding associations between classroom management practices (both positive and negative) and students’ academic performance. However, to date, little research has directly examined the association between such practices and school climate.

A recent large-scale study published in Teaching and Teacher Education focuses on students’ perceptions of school practices. In it, researchers George Bear and colleagues hypothesized a positive association between both the use of praise/rewarding of good behavior and school climate, and the teaching of SEL skills and school climate. Likewise, they hypothesized a negative association between use of punitive consequences (such as classroom removals and verbal reprimands) and school climate.


The researchers tested their hypotheses by analyzing data from a sample of over 30,000 students in grades 3-12 across 118 public schools in Delaware. Student perceptions of school climate were captured via the 2015 Delaware School Climate Survey-Student Version. Classroom management practices, including positive reinforcement (praise and rewards), negative reinforcement (punitive consequences) and the teaching of social and emotional competencies, were assessed via the 2015 Delaware Positive, Punitive and SEL Techniques Scale.

As hypothesized, results revealed better school climate ratings in schools that used praise and rewards for good behavior with high frequency. Similarly, a more positive school climate was reported in schools that taught social and emotional competencies. Further, more positive school climate was founded in schools with a lower frequency of punitive consequences.  

However, more interesting was how the strength of this association differed among different age groups. For the use of praise and reward, the positive association with school climate was stronger in middle school than high school, suggesting that schools may want to focus on different classroom management techniques depending on the age group they serve. For the use of punitive consequences, the negative association was stronger in middle school than both elementary school and high school. The authors suggest this may be related to the increased desire for autonomy during this period in adolescence. Lastly, and most striking, the positive relationship between the teaching of social and emotional competencies and school climate existed across all grade levels, and the strength of that relationship was nearly double that of the relationship between praise/reward and school climate, thus driving home the importance of incorporating such skill development in the classroom (and beyond!)

The authors sum up their research in saying, “Overall, our findings indicate that if the aim of educators is to promote a positive school climate, especially as perceived by students, it is important that they recognize that students value a combination of techniques, both positive and punitive, to manage their behavior and develop their social and emotional competencies.” (To note, while punitive behavior negatively affected school climate, it did also decrease negative behaviors, which indicates there’s a balance to strike.)

While some may see the fact that this study relied solely on student reports as a limitation, it is actually especially timely given another report out just this month in the Journal of School Health, which found a much stronger association between student reports of school climate and student outcomes relative to staff or administrative measures of school climate.

The findings from this study have direct applicability to the expanded learning field. As expanded learning programs place a greater emphasis on aligning experiences across the longer school day, attention should be placed on ensuring that SEL skill development, as well as academics, is included in this alignment. Doing so could reap great benefits with respect to improving overall school climate and, in turn, student outcomes in the long run. 


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