Research Summary

Influence of educator’s emotional support behaviors on environmental education student outcomes

Educators’ positive emotional behaviors positively influence EE learning outcomes

Environmental Education Research

With the increasing intensity and frequency of environmental crises, environmental education (EE) is an essential tool for building the knowledge and capacity of students to foster a more sustainable relationship between humanity and the natural world. EE field trips outside of the classroom can engage students in novel ways to help them develop their environmental identity, skillset, and motivation to create pro-environmental change. Past studies have shown that it is important for educators in formal learning settings to engage in emotionally supportive behavior towards their students to foster positive learning outcomes, but the way in which educators’ emotional behaviors impact students in an informal EE context, such as field trips, has not been evaluated. This study analyzed the emotional behaviors of environmental educators during EE field trips in the US to understand how their students’ learning outcomes were impacted.

This study was conducted between January and June of 2018. The researchers gathered a list of EE field trips occurring within their research window in the United States, contacted the programs to see if they were willing to participate, and then selected 345 field trips designed for fifth through eighth graders (age 9-12 years) from different regions within the country for the study. The field trips included visits to parks, farms, museums, and environmental organizations, and lasted for an average of 190.8 minutes. The programs served a diverse group of students, with some field trips having no clear racial majority (14%) while the remaining field trips had racial majorities of White students (46%), LatinX students (32%), or Black students (8%).

To evaluate the practitioners, researchers collected background information about the programs, took qualitative notes, and gathered quantitative observational data on educators’ emotional support behaviors throughout the field trip. Observational data on the emotional support behaviors was evaluated using an adapted version of the emotional support section of the Classroom Learning Assessment Scoring System (CLASS). This adapted observational tool was divided into four sections with associated indicators: 1) positive climate (passion, sincerity, personal sharing, affinity-seeking, positive communication); 2) sensitivity (awareness, responsiveness), 3) regard for student perspective (flexibility, openness to student expression), and 4) negative climate (disrespect, inattentiveness, inequity, impatience). The three positive divisions (positive climate, sensitivity, and regard for student perspective) were scored on a four-point Likert scale (1 = total absence, 2 = minor presence, 3 = moderate presence, 4 = dominant presence), while the negative climate division was scored on a three-point Likert scale (0 = total absence, 1 = minor occurrence, 2 = major incident). The study provided a rubric to further describe what each score would look like. For example, a negative climate major incident (2) was characterized by frequent negative behavior by an educator that had a “major impact” on students.

All students who attended a field trip were evaluated with a post-program survey with the Environmental Education Outcomes for the 21st Century (EE21) scales. The EE21 included 10 questions to assess important EE learning outcomes that were measured with a 11-point Likert scale (0 = not at all, 10 = a huge amount/strongly agree). Over the 345 field trips, 5,317 post-program surveys were completed. After screening the survey responses for data validity, the final data sample included 4,376 surveys over 334 field trips. Data analysis was conducted in Microsoft Excel to illuminate which behavioral variables had the strongest impact on student outcomes.

Most educators had either a moderate or dominant presence of positive climate indicators (passion, sincerity, affinity-seeking, and positive communication) during the field trips. Personal sharing was the only positive climate indicator that was less frequently observed in educators. Educators tended to have high scores for responsiveness and regard for student perspective, and rarely engaged in negative climate indicators. Sincerity, affinity-seeking, positive communication, and responsiveness positively correlated with higher EE21 scores, while inattention and inequity correlated to lower EE21 scores. Many of the positive climate indicators positively correlated to each other, meaning that when educators display one positive climate behavior, they are more likely to demonstrate others. This was also the case with negative climate indicators. In addition, when educators engaged in positive emotional climate behaviors, those same educators did not display negative climate behaviors.

This study has a few limitations. The researchers chose to use observational methods to record educator behaviors, which may not accurately represent how the students themselves perceived their educators, nor how the educators perceived their own behaviors. In addition, the presence of the researchers at the field trips may have caused educators to participate in more positive emotional behavior and less negative emotional behavior than they normally would otherwise. The authors also emphasized that emotionally-supportive behaviors by educators are helpful to support EE learning outcomes but are far less impactful than the EE programming itself.

Emotional support behaviors should be integrated into EE educator training and guidelines. Educators should practice the positive climate behaviors that show a strong correlation to positive EE learning outcomes, which include sincerity, affinity-seeking (smiling, head nodding, eye contact), positive communication, and responsiveness (addressing a student’s raised hand or signs of discomfort). Negative emotional support behaviors were rare, but still present, so educators should be aware of and aim to avoid disrespectful, inattentive, inequal, or impatient actions, as they have a negative impact on student outcomes.

The Bottom Line

Environmental education (EE) field trips can enhance environmental literacy gained in classroom settings. This paper analyzed how the emotional support behaviors of educators during EE field trips impacted student learning outcomes. Quantitative observational data measuring educator behavior and 4,376 student surveys measuring EE learning outcomes were analyzed during 334 EE field trips across the US. Data analysis showed a strong correlation between EE learning outcomes and positive emotional behaviors by educators such as sincerity, affinity-seeking (eye contact, nodding, and smiling), positive communication, and responsiveness (responding to a raised hand or student needs). The researchers recommended incorporating emotional behavior knowledge and practice into EE teacher trainings and guidelines, and for educators to implement positive emotional behaviors while avoiding negative emotional behaviors such as impatience, inattentiveness, inequal treatment, or disrespect.