Research Summary

Impacts of outdoor environmental education on teacher reports of attention, behavior, and learning outcomes for students with emotional, cognitive, and behavioral disabilities

Students with special needs demonstrated longer attention spans and fewer disruptive behaviors while participating in outdoor learning activities

Frontiers in Psychology

Many studies have investigated the potential benefits of outdoor environmental education for students. Few studies, however, have included students with emotional, cognitive, and behavioral disabilities (ECBD) and – as reported by the authors of this paper -- none included a control group (i.e., a group not exposed to the outdoor program). This study included both a control group and a treatment group in its investigation of the impacts of an outdoor-and science-based environmental education (EE) program on ECBD students over an academic year. Two areas of concern were assessed: challenges to learning (behavior and attention span) and learning outcomes (science efficacy, nature of science, and science academic achievement).

Forty-two teachers and 161 fifth-grade students with ECBD participated in this study. Four of the teachers (associated with 62 students) were in the control group; 28 teachers (associated with 99 students) in the treatment group. The treatment – an EE program taking place over the course of the academic year -- focused on experiential, outdoor science learning, environmental literacy, and connection to the natural world. Sessions were taught by an EE program instructor, were aligned with state and national science education standards, and were conducted in the schoolyard and nearby natural area.

Teachers and students in the control and treatment groups completed online surveys at two different times over the school year. The student survey measured science efficacy and the nature of science. The teacher survey collected information on student behavior, attention span, and academic achievement in science. Eight of the teachers in the treatment group participated in interviews during the summer after their students completed the program.  Additional information was collected by the researchers through interviews and observations of two students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

According to teacher reports, there were significant positive changes over time in the attention and behavior of students with ECBD while participating in the EE program. These results were not expected by some of the teachers, who at the beginning of the year suggested that the students with ECBD would demonstrate relatively short attention spans and frequent disruptive behaviors while outdoors. While science efficacy and science grades remained the same over the year for students in both the treatment and control groups, the nature of science significantly increased for students in the treatment group. Teachers also reported that students with ECBD become more engaged with learning activities while outside.

This study found that participation in the outdoor EE program significantly decreased challenges to learning experienced by students with ECBD. Results also suggested that students with ECBD were more engaged when learning outside. Teachers would thus do well to consider outdoor EE a viable instructional strategy for science teaching, as outdoor instruction “appears at least as effective in supporting science learning for students with ECBD than traditional science instruction.”


Szczytko, R., Carrier, S. J., & Stevenson, K. T.. (2018). Impacts of outdoor environmental education on teacher reports of attention, behavior, and learning outcomes for students with emotional, cognitive, and behavioral disabilities. Frontiers in Psychology, 3. doi: