The compounded scandal of classroom behaviour

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It’s not always good for your mental health, teaching. Most teachers who have taught in government schools will have experienced the anxiety of not knowing how to deal with a behaviour issue; the dread of a difficult class. I am sure that this is why many find a way out.

The tragedy is that it doesn’t have to be this way. We have proven methods for teaching children how to behave better; methods that work. And they’ve been around for ages. For instance, you might be interested in reading about ‘BATPACK‘ – a course of professional development pioneered by Kevin Wheldall and colleagues back in the 1980s that was shown to increase student time on task.

These methods emphasise a positive disposition towards behaviour management. Teachers should recognise and reinforce appropriate behaviour. For instance, I was once taught a technique based on a different program with similar principles: If there were students on the middle table that were chatting and not completing work then I would say ‘excellent to see everyone on the back table has opened their books and is getting on with their work.’ Then I would choose another table and so on. The students on the middle table would usually get the hint, nobody has to lose face, nobody felt nagged and I hadn’t highlighted to the rest of the class that there were two students who weren’t following my instructions.

Whilst emphasising the positive, these systems invariably acknowledge the need for negative consequences. 

I was once the head of science in a school at a time before it had developed a whole school behaviour policy. So we had a science one. Senior members of the team would be on-call in their non-teaching periods. 

I was called to the room of a newly qualified teacher. A boy was interrupting her and derailing her attempts to explain the activity. I entered the class, went up to the boy and quietly asked him to leave the room with me so that I could talk to him. He loudly refused, making our conversation public. I looked at the science timetable that I carried with me in these situations, found a free classroom and asked the teacher to take the rest of the class to that room. I called the boy’s parents who came in to school and decided to take him home for the rest of the day. 

You might criticise this for not being inclusive. Perhaps there were underlying reasons for the boy’s behaviour – there always are. But I am pretty sure that I did the right thing in that situation.

It’s easy to forget that it is newer teachers and substitute teachers who bear a disproportionate burden of behaviour problems. If you are a senior teacher with a light timetable then you can start to forget what it’s like. You may even begin to perpetuate the most dangerous piece of nonsense that exists about poor behaviour: that’s it’s the teacher’s fault for not planning a lesson that meets her students’ needs. Apparently, the most troubled child can be reached as long as you select the right card sort over the wrong poster work. I’m not buying this notion and I am not aware of any body of evidence to support it.

You might think that academics would be all over the issue of challenging behaviour and that their research would then feed into schools of education where new teachers are being trained and where there is considerable demand for practical advice. But this is largely not the case.

Without being confronted with the destructive reality of poor behaviour on a daily basis, it seems that academics are free to theorise. And this is where the problem becomes compounded. All effective approaches to classroom management seek to teach appropriate behaviours, positively reinforce these wherever possible and apply negative consequences where necessary. The use of carrots and sticks in this way is known in psychology as ‘behaviourism’.

When you think about it, what else can anyone really do to affect behaviour? We all use behaviourist approaches, it’s just that intuitive ones are not optimal – we tend to emphasise the negative a little too much. 

But in academia, behaviourism is bad. Really bad. Backing behaviourism in a university context would have a similar effect to coming out as a Donald Trump supporter. B. F. Skinner, the father of behaviourist psychology, used to do experiments on pigeons in boxes. ARE YOU SAYING YOU THINK CHILDREN ARE LIKE PIGEONS IN BOXES YOU MONSTER?

And so, instead, we have a deafening silence. Teachers enter the profession, make utterly predictable and avoidable errors and either muddle through somehow or leave. Students continue to have their learning damaged.

This is why hard-pressed teachers reach for options like Class Dojo. I doubt it is an optimal approach to behaviour management but it does use a few basic behaviourist principles. So it probably kind of works. And on the back of this, an empire is being built.

It would be better if those with a responsibility for nurturing new teachers took this issue on. Rather than grabbing for the pitchforks as soon as anyone on Twitter suggests that the inclusion of every child in everything at all costs is not always a helpful philosophy, they would do better to investigate and outline practical methods that teachers will find useful.

Teachers aren’t all that fussed about philosophical disputes. They’re not that bothered about the pigeons. They just want to be able to teach. And their students want to be able to learn.


3 thoughts on “The compounded scandal of classroom behaviour

  1. jennifer stephenson says:

    HI Greg
    See the research of Sue O’Neill who looked at this issue in pre-service teacher education and early career teachers for her doctoral thesis, and later looked at text books. ALso the huge amount of research on PBIS

    eg O’Neill, S., & Stephenson, J. (2012). Exploring Australian pre-service teachers sense of efficacy, its sources, and some possible influences. Teaching and Teacher Education, 28, 535-545. doi: 10.1016/j.tate.2012.01.008
    O’Neill, S., & Stephenson, J. (2012). Does classroom management coursework influence pre-service teachers’ perceived preparedness or confidence? Teaching and Teacher Education, 28, 1131-1143. doi: 10.1016.j.tate.2012.06.008
    O’Neill, S., & Stephenson, J. (2012). Classroom behavior management content in Australian undergraduate primary teaching programs. Teaching Education, 23, 287-308. doi: 10.1080/10476210.2012.699034
    O’Neill, S., & Stephenson, J. (2013). One year on: First-year primary teachers’ perceptions of preparedness to manage misbehaviour and their confidence in the strategies they use. Australasian Journal of Special Education, 37 (2), 125-146. doi: 10.1017/jse.2013.15
    O’Neill, S.C., & Stephenson, J. (2014). Evidence-based classroom and behaviour management content in Australian Pre-service primary teachers’ coursework: Wherefore art thou? Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 39(4). doi: 10.14221/ajte.2014v39n4.4

  2. Pingback: Behavior Management: Learnings from the blogosphere. – Leadout Education Consulting

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