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Students from diverse ethnic and language backgrounds are expected to become the majority in the United States school system within the next decade (US Census Bureau, 2012). Recent reforms in science education, including the Next Generation Science Standards, (NRC, 2012) raise expectations for all students to engage with language-intensive practices. This shift presents unique challenges given the growing number of students learning English (Lee, Quinn, & Valdes, 2013). The field needs exploration of policies and practices intended to improve outcomes for English learners (ELs) with the goal of eliminating academic disparities between them and their English-speaking peers. Prior research points to the importance of supportive learning environments for reducing academic disparities (Hamre & Pianta, 2005). Classroom supportiveness refers the degree to which students feel their classmates are helpful, caring, and collaborative (Developmental Studies Center, 2005) and may be critical for promoting engagement in learning.
We investigated the relation between students’ perception of classroom supportiveness and engagement in science learning in fourth graders. We examined how this relation varied depending on the classroom composition (high, medium, or low percentage of EL students). We had two hypotheses: (1) students who perceived their classroom as supportive would also report high levels of engagement, and (2) classroom supportiveness is more strongly related to engagement in classrooms with a high proportion of EL students.
Teachers (N = 36) and students (N = 847) in 39 4th grade classrooms in a large, urban district in the southeastern United States completed surveys as part of a science curriculum evaluation. Teachers were primarily white (87.18%) and female (94.87%), with an average of 10 years of experience. The student sample was 47.81% female and ethnically diverse (36% African American, 29.71% white, 21.21% Hispanic). On average, 23.02% of students in each classroom were EL (range 0-100%). Analysis included teacher-reported classroom demographic data and measures of classroom supportiveness and engagement in science as reported by students. Student surveys were adapted from existing measures (Developmental Studies Center, 2005; Ryan et al., 2007; Skinner et al., 2009). Descriptive, correlational, and regression analyses using these data were conducted.
As hypothesized, we found significant positive correlations between classroom supportiveness and behavioral (r = .64, p < .001) and social (r = .64, p < .001) engagement. Regression analyses revealed that classroom support contributed significantly to both behavioral (F(4, 34) = 9.07, R2 = .45, p < .001) and social engagement (F(4, 34) = 8.86, R2 = .45, p < .001). The relation between perceived supportiveness and both behavioral (β=.003, p=.02) and social (β=.008, p=.02) engagement was moderated by the percentage of EL students in a classroom such that the association between supportiveness and engagement was stronger in classes with more EL students.
Students’ own perceptions of the supportiveness of the classroom offers insight into their engagement in learning, which is a key correlate of academic learning. Given that this relation is even more noted in classrooms with more EL students, future work should explore explanatory mechanisms.