4. Social-emotional support

Courtney A. Bell
Eckhard Klieme
Katherine E. Castellano

Social-emotional support has an impact on student cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes (Pianta, Hamre and Allen, 2012[1]; Wang and Degol, 2016[2]). For example, classrooms that are socially and emotionally supportive have been associated with higher scores on standardised tests (Allen et al., 2013[3]), higher student grade point averages (Wang and Holcombe, 2010[4]) and higher motivation to achieve (Patrick, Ryan and Kaplan, 2007[5]).1

This chapter reports on findings from observations of lessons on the quality of social-emotional support practices, and how teachers and students perceive this support.

Observing social-emotional practices in an objective and comparable way is challenging. Classrooms function like small communities, with teachers supporting students and students supporting other students, as well as teachers (Mikami et al., 2011[6]). Behaviours showing warmth and positive effects in one classroom community may or may not have the same meaning in another. This is even more true at an international level because the meaning of ‘social-emotional’ can be culture-specific.2 For example, in one culture, it could be respectful for a student to look a teacher in the eye when being spoken to, while in another, directly gazing into a teacher’s eyes when being reprimanded could be considered disrespectful.

The Study breaks new ground by observing social-emotional support in international classrooms in a standardised way. To overcome the measurement challenge, observers looked for specific evidence of behaviours related to respect, encouragement and warmth, and support for struggling students in the participating countries/economies. For example, smiling and laughter are interpreted as evidence of shared warmth; using appropriate names and traditional markers of manners (please, thank you) is counted as evidence of respect.

Taking into consideration these behaviours, the overall quality of social-emotional support practices in the classroom is moderate: Kumagaya, Shizuoka and Toda (Japan) (hereafter "K-S-T [Japan]") (3.26), Madrid (Spain) (3.24), England (UK) (3.14), Germany* (3.13), Mexico (2.81), Colombia (2.80), B-M-V (Chile) (2.80) and Shanghai (China) (2.62). Annex 4.A, Tables 4.A.1 and 4.A.2 show descriptive statistics for each country/economy.

There are important differences in the levels of social-emotional support within each country/economy (Figure 4.1). For example, in Madrid (Spain) the quality of social-emotional practices ranges from 2 to 3.61. Ranges of a similar size were observed in every country/economy and suggest that in each country/economy, there were both classrooms with strong social-emotional practices in place, as well as classrooms with space for improving such practices.

It is worthwhile to note that no classrooms had very low scores on the overall quality of social-emotional support. Virtually no classroom had a score below 2 on a four-point scale. This indicates that there were very few or no students exposed to social-emotionally unsupportive environments across all participating countries/economies.

Building a safe environment in which students are treated, and treat one another, with respect and dignity is important to learning (Beghetto and Baxter, 2012[7]; Jansen, 2008[8]; Kapur, 2014[9]; Steuer, Rosentritt-Brunn and Dresel, 2013[10]). In the classroom, for example, students need to feel comfortable enough to be able to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes in front of their peers and teachers.

Observers holistically rated the level of respect in the lesson on a four-point scale through an evaluation of respectful and disrespectful behaviours. Respectful behaviours included instances in which teachers and students used respectful language, listened to one another, used appropriate names (e.g. Mr. or Mrs., Professor), used a respectful tone of voice and used traditional markers of manners (please, thank you, etc.). Examples of disrespectful behaviours include threats, mean or degrading comments and physical aggression (e.g. pushing someone or slamming a textbook against a desk). When respectful practices are low (score 1), the teacher and students rarely demonstrate respect for one another and there are negative interactions between them. When respectful practices are of high quality (score 4), the teachers and students consistently show the recognised respectful behaviours for one another and there are no negative interactions.

Classroom interactions were highly respectful. The observed level of respect in an average classroom in all countries/economies was above three on a four-point scale: Madrid (Spain) (3.75), K-S-T (Japan) (3.68), England (UK) (3.56), Colombia (3.44), Germany* (3.42), Mexico (3.30), B-M-V (Chile) (3.34) and Shanghai (China) (3.12).

There were virtually no classrooms in which teachers and students consistently demonstrated disrespect for one another and interacted in a negative way. The lowest classroom score ranges started from 2.03 in B-M-V (Chile) and 2.63 in Shanghai (China). Moreover, nine out of ten classrooms across participating countries/economies had a score between 3 and 4, indicating that the vast majority of students and teachers treated each other very respectfully (Figure 4.2).

Authentic learning is uncertain and can be emotionally uncomfortable. As students confront learning challenges, they may wonder if they are “smart enough” or “have what it takes” to do challenging work. Environments that are encouraging and warm support both the teacher and students in building the motivation, confidence and interest needed to learn in an authentic way. A recent literature review found that classrooms and schools in which teachers and students demonstrate encouragement and warmth are places in which students have higher academic achievement and motivation for learning (Wang and Degol, 2016[2]).

On a four-point scale, observers holistically rated the degree to which teachers and students provided encouragement (e.g. reassuring statements when errors are made, positive comments, compliments about students’ mathematical work) and the degree to which there were moments of shared warmth (i.e. smiling, laughter, joking and playfulness). Lessons varied from having no encouraging behaviours and/or shared warmth (score 1) to having frequent encouraging and shared warmth behaviours (score 4).

Classrooms were neither very cold and distant nor very warm and encouraging environments. On average, encouragement and warmth practices were sometimes observed in K-S-T (Japan) (2.84), Germany* (2.84), Madrid (Spain) (2.72), England (UK) (2.71), and less frequently in Mexico (2.31), B-M-V (Chile) (2.27), Colombia (2.15) and Shanghai (China) (2.13). Roughly 90% of all classrooms in countries/economies had mean levels of encouragement and warmth that fell between 2 and 3 on the scale, meaning the behaviours that showed encouragement and shared warmth occurred “infrequently” or “sometimes” during the lessons.

There is little variation on the levels of encouragement and warmth across classrooms within countries and economies. Only one of every ten classrooms had an extreme classroom environment. An extreme environment is one that was rated in the lowest or highest category (Figure 4.3). A very encouraging and warm environment was observed in a few classrooms in Germany* (10%), K-S-T (Japan) (9%), England (UK) (7%) and Madrid (Spain) (6%). At the other end of the spectrum, Colombia (11%) and Mexico (6%) had a few classrooms where encouragement and warmth are not present at all.

It is common for students to make mistakes when learning– they carry out incorrect computations, they skip steps, or their answers are incorrect and they do not understand why. These errors and confusion can be vulnerable moments for students as they try to understand the mathematics, perhaps leading them to question their abilities and feel incompetent in the subject. But, at the same time this may provide opportunities to develop what is increasingly recognised as an important social-emotional skill – persistence (Barnes, 2019[11]).

In order for there to be an opportunity to show persistence, students needed to be aware they made a mistake or were struggling mathematically. Observers looked for instances of teachers pointing out errors (e.g. “You do not have number five correct.” or “That one is not quite right.”) or students realising themselves (e.g. “Oh, I see what I did wrong.” “We didn’t get number four right.” “I don’t understand.”). These opportunities to show persistence are present in virtually all classrooms observed across countries/economies (see Annex 4.A, Table 4.A.7). In England (UK), Germany*, K-S-T (Japan) and Madrid (Spain), student or teacher realisations of mistakes or learning struggles occurred in about half or more of the lessons observed.

While it is unrealistic for teachers to spend considerable effort or time with every student error or misunderstanding, supporting students in their struggles provides opportunities to encourage the development of mathematical understanding and the social-emotional skill of persistence. There are different ways in which teachers can make use of opportunities for students to persist.

Observers rated on 1 to 4 scale. A rating of 1 indicated that there was no opportunity to show persistence. As there was no evidence that the students knew they had made an error or were struggling, those segments were disregarded and the scores were rescaled to range from 1 to 3. In Figure 4.4, a score 1 indicates that the teacher ignored or superficially addressed students' struggles, while a score 3 indicates the teacher supported students to address their struggle with depth.

Mistakes are rich learning opportunities – both for understanding mathematics more deeply and for developing persistence (Kapur and Bielaczyc, 2012[12]; Metcalfe, 2017[13]). There are however, many students in a classroom and therefore, teachers must decide how to handle any individual student’s error and struggle given the group context. Further, teachers may allow students to struggle with their own errors or allow an error to be uncorrected for some time deliberately to support students’ learning to think critically and independently. Teachers did not react to students’ errors and struggles in the same ways within and across countries/economies. The vast majority of teachers in Germany* (92%), Mexico (85%) and B-M-V (Chile) (76%) moderately or strongly supported students to continue to show effort through their mathematical struggle (Figure 4.4). In contrast, the majority of teachers in Madrid (Spain) (78%), Shanghai (China) (70%), K-S-T (Japan) (58%), Colombia (56%) and England (UK) (54%) either ignored the mistakes or superficially encouraged students to continue to show effort through the challenge (scores between 1.0 and 1.5 in the figure).

Students’ and teachers’ perceptions and feelings – both their individual experience and their shared collective experience as a class - matters. Social-emotional support is arguably the most personal aspect of teaching. Teachers need to understand the student’s perspective and respond in a supportive way -- being aware of students’ needs, acting responsibly, caring both for students’ learning and personal growth. These interactions depend on teachers’ own perceptions and feelings, and in turn shape their own experience in the classroom.

Students and teachers were asked about their level of agreement with comparable statements related to the level of social-emotional support in the classroom. Across all participating countries/economies, most students felt social-emotionally supported both in terms of receiving support for learning and having a positive relationship with their teacher (Table 4.1).

Most notably, eight out of ten students agreed that they got along with their teacher, felt treated fairly by them and reported that the teacher helped them with their learning in all countries/economies except for Germany* on the last statement. Most students also agreed that their teacher was interested about their well-being and cared about them.

Virtually every teacher believed that they provided students with support for learning and nurtured their relationship in all countries/economies except for K-S-T (Japan). For example, every single teacher reported treating students fairly and listening to what they had to say (see Annex 4.A, Table 4.A.10). The perceptions of the overwhelming majority of Japanese teachers were like those of their peers in other countries, although two out of ten considered that they could do more to improve the social-emotional environment in the classroom.

Teachers tended to have more positive views than students in terms of the social-emotional support they provided. These differences are in line with findings from other studies (OECD, 2016[14]). Students may want to receive more social-emotional support than teachers are aware of. The gap between teacher and student views may also reflect more critical attitudes among students or some bias due to positive self-reporting among teachers.

The smallest discrepancies between teacher and student views were regarding whether the teacher continued teaching until students understood the content. Teachers may be more cautious to claim that students understand the content taught than students themselves.

In contrast, student and teacher reports differed most strongly in social-emotional aspects related to their relationship such as “I showed interest in those students’ well-being” and “I made those students feel I really cared about them”. Teachers and students may experience emotional warmth differently, and they may hold different expectations of what a desirable and appropriate expression of caring looks like.

To further compare their responses, teachers’ and students’ views were aggregated in a respective index of teacher support for learning and teacher-student relationship (Figure 4.5). These are the result of averaging students’ and teachers’ four-point scale responses on the agreement with the abovementioned statements. The gap between teacher reports and student reports can be shown to be statistically significant for both indices in each country/economy – with the exception of Teacher Support for Learning in K-S-T (Japan) and Shanghai (China), where teacher perceptions and student perceptions were very close.

Do students’ views align to that of their teacher? At the classroom level, teachers’ and students’ indices of social-emotional support were significantly correlated in the majority of countries/economies. The teacher of students who reported better social-emotional support in their class also tended to report a better climate and vice versa. In the teacher support for learning index, correlations between teachers’ perceptions and students’ perceptions were significant in B-M-V (Chile) (0.22), Shanghai (China) (0.24), Mexico (0.26), K-S-T (Japan) (0.29) and Germany* (0.43), while in the teacher-student relationship index, correlations were significant in England (UK) (0.32), K-S-T (Japan) (0.35), Shanghai (China) (0.37), Mexico (0.42) and Germany* (0.56).

It is worth noting that teacher perceptions and student perceptions were quite well aligned when reporting on the quality of their relationship, but rather weakly when reporting on the quality of learning support.

Teachers’ and students’ subjective perception of the classroom environment might be different from that based on evidence from an independent observer. For example, observers noted that classrooms in Germany* and K-S-T (Japan) have similarly high levels of encouragement and warmth, while seven out of ten German students and only half of their Japanese peers considered that the teacher cared about their well-being. Thus, students and observers had similar views on German classrooms but they disagreed on Japanese ones. Combining different sources of evidence can provide a richer, more complete, and also more diverse understanding of teaching and learning. However, these differences need to be interpreted with great caution as, for example, Japanese students might respond differently than German ones due to cultural factors.

Interpreting social-emotional qualities of classroom interaction requires a good deal of sensitivity for different perspectives on what seems to be the same reality. Yet, manoeuvring the social-emotional dynamics is a major task teachers are facing on a daily basis. Against this background, the fact that teachers – with the exception of the Japanese - reported overly positively with regard to the support they provided or the relationship they had established with their students, raises questions.


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← 1. There has been recent increased attention to the development of students' social-emotional skills. While these are critical skills, students' social-emotional skills were not rated by observers. Instead, the teaching practices that support a wide range of academic as well as social-emotional outcomes (e.g. efficacy, interest) are discussed in this chapter.

← 2. All of the practices measured are, to varying degrees, culture-specific. By measuring practices in standardised ways that are anchored to specific behaviours, the scholarly and policy communities are more able to discuss the meaning of those practices and determine country-specific implications of the levels measured in the Study.

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