Improving relationships and learning environments

Research into positive relationships, restorative practices and effective learning environments in schools has benefitted not only teachers and pupils but also parents and families.

High school students are having a discussing. Multi-ethnic male and females are in classroom.

Research hubs

Children and Young People

Social Justice and Inclusion

Research experts

Professor Gillean McCluskey

Professor Pamela Munn

Dr Gale Macleod

Dr Elisabet Weedon

What was the problem? 

There is convincing evidence of the negative effects of school suspension and exclusion. This evidence comes from a large body of research, which indicates that exclusion is likely to have a detrimental effect on a child’s life chances by:

  • dislocating them from their peer group;
  • depriving them of access to the mainstream curriculum; and
  • exposing them to serious risks of wider social exclusion, poorer physical and mental health and wellbeing (including suicide, underachievement (DfE 2017)), victimisation and offending, and long-term unemployment and poverty.

Furthermore, Munn, Lloyd and Cullen (2000, 8) noted that exclusion often ‘punishes the parents’ as well as the child. Therefore, our research has focused on fostering restorative approaches to school culture and identifying effective alternatives to exclusion.

What did we do? 

Since the 1990s, University of Edinburgh researchers at Moray House have led globally-recognised research to generate new insights into relationships and behaviour in school, influencing policy development in the UK and internationally.

This body of research has identified common characteristics of young people with social, emotional and behavioural issues, investigated responses and sanctions of disruptive and challenging behaviour, examined the impact of school exclusion and evaluated the effectiveness of school-based interventions such as restorative practices. This work has shaped Scottish education policy, which shifted from a focus on discipline to building positive relationships and implementing restorative practices in school; in doing so, school exclusion rates have been reduced. Read more about this work and its impact on our related Making a Difference 'Improving relationships and behaviour in Scottish schools by influencing policy' page.

Improving relationships and behaviour in Scottish schools by influencing policy

Our research team has provided evidence that parents can often be seen as ‘problems’ themselves (MacLeod et al. 2013). Our findings also indicate that official exclusion associated with overtly challenging and disruptive behaviour is seen as a very serious issue by pupils. However, it has also found that most pupils, irrespective of direct involvement in the exclusion process, regarded official exclusion as entirely ineffective or only partially effective, and sometimes counter-productive (McCluskey et al. 2015).


A new approach was needed and our work therefore focused on identifying effective alternatives to exclusion and advancing ground-breaking research on restorative practices in education, as seen through our contributions to the publications shown above. Most recently, researchers have been exploring the mental health impact of school closures, exam cancellation and lockdown on young people associated with Covid-19 (McCluskey et al 2021).

What happened next?

In addition to how Scotland’s national curriculum was directly influenced by this research with Scottish Government now recommending the use of restorative practices for building good relationships in schools, this research influenced a change in school culture and practice as described below.

Influencing practice in schools to reduce exclusion

The body of research has benefitted teachers, pupils and parents and led to lower levels of poor behaviour and exclusions from school. It also led to higher levels of teacher confidence and skills in dealing with difficult behaviour.

Training was developed on the benefits of teachers working together. The research also looked at the time needed for change in schools and showed the value of building a positive ethos based on strong relationships rather than punishment.

Restorative Justice In Education webinar (on YouTube)

Affecting international practices in fostering effective learning environments

Our research has influenced the development of international initiatives to reduce school suspension, exclusion and drop-out. For example, it has contributed to initiatives in the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. For example, see the work below.

Furthermore, there are strong synergies with the work of other colleagues at the Moray House School of Education and Sport whose research in partnership with UN agencies and national partners has identified the common global drivers of violence against children, investigated its long-term effects and evaluated the effectiveness of school-based interventions for its prevention. This research has had significant impact in various countries including Italy, Viet Nam, Zimbabwe, Peru, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) and the Philippines by promoting safe environments for children both inside and outside of school. Read more about this work on our related Making a Difference 'Preventing violence against children and promoting safe environments' page.

Preventing violence against children and promoting safe environments

Understanding young people’s experiences of COVID-19 and its effects on mental health and education

Our team collected and analysed national data from pupils to assess impacts of COVID-19 on their mental health and education. The findings from this study indicated that young people in the senior phase of secondary education perceived that their mental health and wellbeing had been negatively impacted by COVID-19, and it highlighted the need for greater mental health and wellbeing support in schools.

Understanding ‘Excluded Lives’

Research contributing to this body of work is continuing, with a current ESRC-funded study, ‘Missing Out; Understanding School Exclusion (Political Economies of School Exclusion in the UK, 2019-2023). This ‘Excluded Lives’ research (in collaboration with researchers based at University of Oxford, London School of Economics, Cardiff and Queen’s Belfast) aims to improve outcomes for pupils, their families, and professionals across the UK.


Related study programmes

Education (MSc)