June 7, 2011 Features

Schools as Complex Host Environments: Understanding Aspects of Schools that May Influence Clinical Practice and Research

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Schools are complex host environments in which to embed both clinical practice and clinical practice research. The students with whom speech-language pathologists work are nested in classrooms; these classrooms, in turn, are nested in school buildings and districts. At each level of nesting, students have experiences that deeply influence their development. As professionals who are invested in changing students' developmental trajectories, we must be aware of features of the school environment that exert influence on students' development and thus may serve to reinforce or, alternatively, circumvent our efforts to serve students' needs.

There is a serious gap in our knowledge base regarding how features of schools affect the development of students with communication disorders specifically and how these features might moderate the impacts of the interventions that we provide. If, for example, a student is enrolled in a classroom with very poor instructional quality for extended hours each day—a circumstance characterizing the schooling of more than 50% of pre-kindergarten programs and 20% of elementary-grade classrooms (see Locasale-Crouch et al., 2007; Pianta, Belsky, Houts, Morrison, & NICHD ECCRN, 2007, respectively)—is it reasonable to expect that any speech-language intervention will have appreciable impact on students' performance on proximal goals (e.g., specific language skills) or also on the broader constellation of distal goals with which our interventions must align (e.g., general academic achievement)? To date, research in the field of speech-language pathology has not fully acknowledged that students' experiences within their classrooms have large effects on their learning (e.g., Nye, Konstantopolous, & Hedges, 2004). This issue should, in fact, receive significant attention as we build the research literature on how to improve intervention outcomes for students receiving school-based services.

Researchers and practitioners concerned with school-based communication intervention must more fully examine and study those features of schools that affect students' development and likely affect intervention outcomes. Strong evidence is available, however, demonstrating that the following three features have significant effects on students' development across a range of areas, including language and reading: classroom quality and composition, teacher characteristics, and school climate. A variety of quantitative measures are available to the clinical-practice and research communities for examining these three features of schools (see Table 1 [PDF]).

Classroom Quality and Composition  

The classrooms in which students spend time are a prominent factor in students' growth. Although policy-makers tend to focus on static features of classrooms, such as the teacher-student ratio, more influential to students' learning are dynamic features of classrooms—the moment-by-moment interactions that take place as students learn from their teachers and their peers. As one might imagine, a classroom that is chaotic, offers few instructional opportunities, or contains pupils who repeatedly disrupt instruction presents real risks to students' development and learning (e.g., Pianta et al., 2007). Regrettably, many classrooms in the United States are characterized by such circumstances (e.g., Locasale-Crouch et al., 2007). Spending considerable amounts of time in such a classroom can affect students negatively (Pianta et al., 2007). Classroom quality and classroom composition are two specific features that have been well-documented for their effects on students.


Classrooms can be characterized by their overall quality, which is a multi-dimensional construct. Classroom quality comprises classroom management (e.g., how time is organized, how problem behaviors are addressed), emotional support (e.g., the teacher's sensitivity to students' needs, whether interactions among students are positive), and instructional support (e.g., how much academic instruction takes place, how students' learning is scaffolded; see Pianta, La Paro, Payne, Cox, & Bradley, 2002). A classroom can be high on one dimension and low on another (see LoCasale-Crouch et al., 2007). Importantly, these dimensions repeatedly have been tied to students' growth in language and related skills (e.g., Mashburn et al., 2008; Pianta et al., 2002). SLPs who work in schools serving a large number of students from families with low socioeconomic status (SES) may find a preponderance of classrooms characterized as mediocre across each of these dimensions (Pianta et al., 2002), a situation expected to affect the relative benefit of SLPs' services. As such, SLPs and researchers should consider how classroom management, emotional support, and instructional support interact with intervention programs to affect students' language and academic outcomes.


Classroom composition is quite heterogeneous with respect to student demographic (e.g., SES, home language), social-emotional (e.g., behavior problems), and achievement factors (e.g., reading ability). Classroom composition matters for a variety of reasons: it appears predictive of overall classroom quality (e.g., classrooms serving a higher proportion of students from low-SES backgrounds tend to be lower in quality; LoCasale-Crouch et al., 2007), and students receiving speech-language services interact with their classmates and are influenced by those interactions. The effect of students' classmates on their learning—termed "peer effects"—significantly influences students' language development. For instance, 4-year-old students' language growth over an academic year is influenced by the average level of language skill exhibited by their classmates (Mashburn, Justice, Downer, & Pianta, 2009). Researchers have expressed concern about circumstances in which students who have poor language skills are nested in classrooms in which the students around them also have poor language skills, given that exposure to more highly skilled peers might be an important mechanism for growth (Justice, Petscher, Mashburn, & Schatschneider, in press). Such findings imply that SLPs should be mindful of peer effects and the effects of classmates' language skills on the language growth of students receiving intervention. At the same time, such findings also suggest that researchers studying the effects of language-intervention programs within schools should examine how peer effects might moderate any observed outcomes.

Teacher Characteristics 

Teachers significantly influence students' growth in ways that extend beyond the basics of the curriculum and provision of instructional content. The manner in which teachers execute curricula, interact with and relate to students, and establish classroom expectations all contribute to classroom quality and are instrumental in determining student outcomes. Why is it that some teachers provide a better classroom quality than others? Recent studies have investigated specific teacher characteristics that may explain variance in classroom quality, including teacher credentials (certification and education) and self-efficacy.


According to No Child Left Behind (2001), public school teachers must have earned a minimum of a bachelor's degree and maintain state certification. This mandate was established to place highly qualified educators in the classroom and assumes that static variables such as degree and certification are predictors of students' learning and achievement. Interestingly, it is unclear whether these teaching credentials are meaningful indicators of classroom quality, as results are quite inconsistent. Palardy and Rumberger (2008), for instance, showed a positive association between teacher credentials and reading achievement for first-grade students, but not so for math. Studies of preschool teachers have shown no relationship between teacher credentials and student learning over an academic year (see Early et al., 2006). Most concerning, Justice et al. (2008) demonstrated an inverse relationship between teachers' level of education and the quality of language instruction in preschool classrooms: teachers with higher degrees provided lower-quality instruction, a finding observed in other fields as well (e.g., medicine).

The implication of this finding is that teacher credentials may have little association with quality of instruction or with student learning. Consequently, SLPs should not make assumptions about students' classroom experiences as a function of teacher credentials (i.e., that a highly degreed teacher is providing a higher quality of instruction) and researchers should not assume that credentials are the most important covariates to consider when studying students' gains in school-based programs. Rather, SLPs and researchers should document more directly the teacher and classroom features that closely align with child outcomes.


Although findings related to the relationship between teacher credentials and student outcomes are mixed, the impact of teacher efficacy is more conclusive. Teacher efficacy refers to the teacher's belief that he or she can bring about change in a child's learning and development (Ross, Cousins, & Gadalla, 1996). It is the individual's belief that his or her abilities as a teacher are effective and instrumental in the classroom and that he or she is responsible for whether or not students make progress (Guskey, 1982). Teachers with high levels of efficacy tend to attempt new instructional approaches, persist with complex teaching strategies and content, and remain positive about their overall effectiveness even in negative situations (Allinder, 1994; Riggs & Enochs, 1990).

In contrast, teachers with low levels of efficacy believe they have no power to affect student achievement. They tend to place the locus of control on extenuating circumstances (e.g., unfamiliar curriculum, low-achieving students, lack of parental involvement) rather than assuming responsibility for teaching and learning (Bruce, Esmonde, Ross, Dookie, & Beatty, 2010).

Empirical research demonstrates significant, positive impacts between high levels of teacher self-efficacy and student achievement (Bruce et al., 2010; Palardy & Rumberger, 2008). These studies suggest that high levels of efficacy contribute to teachers' increased expectations of themselves as well as of students. Teachers with high self-efficacy tend to have classrooms that are more focused on mastery of concepts than on performance alone and that encourage individual student responsibility for learning. Students in such classrooms demonstrate increased learning behaviors—including persistence, motivation, and risk taking—that positively affect achievement (Pintrich & De Groot, 1990). Such findings show that it is important for SLPs to attend to the influence of teachers' self-efficacy on the classroom environment and on students' learning, and to help improve teachers' efficacy in promoting the achievement of students with communication disorders. Additionally, researchers should further investigate the role of self-efficacy, both of teachers and SLPs, on facilitating student achievement and how they may moderate the effects of speech-language interventions.

School Climate 

School climate—the final factor of the school environment that is significant for both student achievement and teacher performance—refers to the overall style of school leadership, the shared goals for the school, and the interaction among school members, all of which contribute to what is referred to as school community.

In an era in which demands on teachers are continually expanding, from increased performance expectations to meeting the needs of a wider diversity of student populations, the school community has significant influence on the effectiveness of teachers and, by extension, students' learning and achievement. Even more specifically, the sense of community established in a given building dictates much about the students' learning environment.

Community-oriented schools value effort; emphasis is placed on the energy and enthusiasm in which teaching and learning occurs rather than on test scores. With this focus, teachers report higher feelings of value and worthiness and decreased frustration toward teaching in general (McLaughlin & Talbert, 2001). Schools with a strong sense of community experience less teacher turnover and absenteeism as well as increased incidence of teacher support and coaching.

Importantly, in schools in which teachers report a greater sense of collegiality (a feature of the school community), teachers provide a higher level of classroom quality (McGinty et al., 2008). Teachers in positive school communities are more likely to adopt individualized instruction and learning activities for their students. At the same time, research has shown a significant relationship between teachers' sense of community within their schools and overall student achievement scores (Johnson & Stevens, 2006; Stewart, 2008). The significance of school climate for SLPs is multidimensional: a sense of community affects not only the classroom teachers' quality of instruction—and thereby the students with communication disorders within these classrooms—but also SLPs as members of that community. Interestingly, no research has investigated the impact of school climate on SLPs, including how school community might affect the quality of intervention provided by SLPs as well as the extent to which school community might moderate intervention impacts.


Schools are complex environments in which classroom quality and composition, teacher characteristics, and school climate function in unique and interdependent ways to create a context for student achievement. Research suggests that these factors have significant impacts on students' language specifically and academic achievement generally, as documented in a range of studies for typical and at-risk students (e.g., Pianta et al., 2007). It is perplexing that little research has examined how specific features of schools might affect the developmental trajectory of students with communication disorders and, as importantly, how features of the schools might influence—negatively and positively—the effectiveness of speech-language interventions. Clinicians and researchers have long been accustomed to identifying child-level factors that contribute to risk and resilience in speech and language growth (e.g., cognitive ability, severity of the disorder). However, the broader context of the learning environment also must be considered to understand fully students' communication functioning and to identify how to intervene in effective and meaningful ways (see Table 2 [PDF]). School-based SLPs do not operate in a vacuum, nor do the students with whom they are concerned.

There are many ways SLPs and researchers can attend to the complex host environments in which students receive instruction (see Tables 2 [PDF] and 3 [PDF]). For instance, SLPs can be powerful agents for ensuring that students receiving intervention participate in classrooms of the highest quality. If as a profession we are truly committed to improving—and potentially changing—the developmental trajectory for students with communication disorders, researchers and clinicians have a distinct and vital role to play in understanding and intervening within such complex environments.  

Mary Beth Schmitt, MS, CCC-SLP, is a doctoral student in the Department of Speech and Hearing Science at The Ohio State University. She has been a clinician in the Texas public schools and a clinical instructor at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center and the University of Texas at Dallas-Callier Center. Contact her at schmitt.143@osu.edu.

Laura Justice, PhD, CCC-SLP, is a professor in the School of Teaching and Learning and in the Department of Speech and Hearing Science at The Ohio State University. She is an applied researcher in early childhood language and literacy development, communication disorders, and educational interventions, and directs the university's Children's Learning Research Collaborative. Contact her at ljustice@ehe.osu.edu.

cite as: Schmitt, M. B.  & Justice, L. (2011, June 07). Schools as Complex Host Environments: Understanding Aspects of Schools that May Influence Clinical Practice and Research. The ASHA Leader.


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