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ASU study finds school environment can affect student behavior

Physical environment has effect on perceptions of rules and consequences, which links to bullying and misbehavior

desk and chalkboard in classroom

December 16, 2016

Researchers have known for some time that certain environmental factors in a neighborhood — adequate lighting, access to green space, safe crosswalks — can affect the happiness of its residents. There’s even a tool to measure it.

In a study funded by the U.S. Department of Education and the William T. Grant Foundation, Arizona State University assistant professor Sarah Lindstrom Johnson and colleagues found that some of the same metrics used to determine how to make neighborhoods better places to live in can be applied to schools, to make them better places to learn.

Their findings were recently published in the paper “Assessing the Association Between Observed School Disorganization and School Violence: Implications for School Climate Interventions” in the journal Psychology of Violence.

ASU professor  headshot

Sarah Lindstrom Johnson

“There’s a large body of research about how neighborhood environments influence behavior and perception,” said Lindstrom Johnson, part of the faculty in ASU’s T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics. “Those kind of sociological theories have influenced zoning laws, police intervention and have even been written about in books like 'The Tipping Point' ... but they’ve rarely been applied to school settings.”

A former Baltimore City high school teacher, Lindstrom Johnson has a background in adolescent development and a doctorate in public health. Her goal with this project was to figure out a “sustainable intervention” for schools to improve their climate, of which one important piece is the physical climate.

“A novel aspect of this project was to understand to what extent observations of the school environment aligned with students’ and teachers’ perceptions of the school,” Lindstrom Johnson wrote in an article for Atlas of Science. To do this, they created a new tool, the School Assessment for Environmental Typology, or SAfETy.

The researchers collected data from approximately 28,500 students from 58 high schools in Maryland and measured four key metrics: school ownership (i.e., murals and positive behavior expectations); disorder (i.e., litter, graffiti and alcohol paraphernalia); surveillance (i.e., school police officers and surveillance cameras); and interactions between students and school staff.

What they found was that although a school’s physical environment had no direct effect on students’ likelihood to engage in violence, there were significant indirect effects through students’ perceptions of rules and consequences and physical disorder. For example, in schools where observers reported bad lighting and student misbehavior, students perceived the school as having lower levels of order, which was in turn associated with involvement in violence including bullying, fighting and weapon carrying.

What this shows, Lindstrom Johnson said, is that “students’ perceptions of an environment are critically important.”

Associations have also been found between negative physical environmental factors and standardized test scores, truancy and school attendance.

She added that the study’s findings provide added emphasis to an abundance of research over the past decade that adult supervision and interaction with students supports academic outcomes and reduces the likelihood of involvement in violence and drugs, and such relationships are especially important in school environments where perceptions of order and rule following are low.

A new study is under way to explore whether these same trends are observed in middle schools. A modification of SAfETy has been created to allow school administrators to measure the environment of their own schools. The hope is to coach them on how to better understand key features of the physical environment that may be influencing student and staff behaviors and perceptions.

“If you can make changes in school environments, you’re making institutional changes,” Lindstrom Johnson said. “And that can sometimes be more feasible than trying to change every individual.”

Top photo courtesy The Sanford School is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

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