The reason why Australia struggles to tackle its school behaviour crisis

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Every day, school staff across Australia experience the kind of working conditions that they should not have to tolerate. School Principals are assaulted by students and parents. Violent attacks on teachers have spiked over the last four years in New South Wales. You might think there would be a coordinated effort to address this crisis.

Unfortunately, this is structurally difficult. There are approaches to tackling poor behavior that are backed by evidence. These generally seek to deal with low-level issues before they escalate and lead to the kinds of major incidents highlighted in newspaper headlines. They emphasise positive reinforcement for good behaviour and retain the possibility of negative consequences for poor behaviour. Systematic programmes have been developed that tier the level of support available to individual students depending on their level of need.

However, these approaches are unfashionable. Two connected ideas dominate the landscape. Firstly, children are not responsible for their behaviour. In some instances, this is the right judgement to make. A small minority of children suffer from neurological disorders that causes them to behave in unusual ways and these children need teachers with specialist training – something that many regular schools can’t provide.

Yet many learning difficulties and disabilities are diagnosed on the basis of the behaviour itself. In other words, the logic is something like this:

  1. Child X behaves badly in class
  2. This is because Child X has a disability
  3. We know Child X had a disability because he behaves badly in class

There is no room within this circular logic for the idea that, like adults, children often have choices about how to behave. If we believe that bad behaviour is always the result of some kind of learning difficulty or disability then we might try to work around this rather than address it. We would not expect a child in a wheelchair to climb stairs so we should not expect a child with a behavioural disability to behave.

The solutions that are often presented are therefore workarounds. Children will behave – so the theory goes – if we provide them with engaging enough work targeted at their individual needs. Some would argue that we should use Universal Design for Learning and its spurious brain diagrams as a way of differentiating activities to meet this diversity.

For instance, if a student struggles with writing then she probably won’t enjoy writing and so we might ask her to draw a picture instead. This might initially work to engage her in an activity. However, her writing difficulty will not be addressed by avoiding writing and so, as she falls further behind her peers in academic work, she will become increasing disengaged with the whole project of school. It is at this stage, typically in secondary school, when we start to look for alternatives such as vocational programs.

This is a form of systematic pessimism where students are defined by arbitrary labels that cannot be changed. All we can do is exhort teachers to differentiate more and tolerate more so that students don’t get excluded from school.

People go into teaching for a number of reasons. Often, they want to make a positive difference to the world. We are not going to attract and retain the best of these teachers if they learn that they are powerless to make a difference and that violence is an occupational hazard.

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19 Comments on “The reason why Australia struggles to tackle its school behaviour crisis”

  1. howardat58 says:

    The kids are bored stupid.

    • teachwell says:

      Boredom justifies poor behaviour, rudeness and violence? I’m bored by your answer.

    • Roger Curtis says:

      My father spanked the boredom out of me.

    • Chester Draws says:

      Invariably in my rooms the only students actually bored for any length of time are those with nothing to do — pretty much the definition of boredom — because they are not doing the work the rest of the class is set. They make themselves bored by refusing to work. It’s their behaviour driving their boredom, not the other way round.

      The students who do what they are asked to do generally don’t have time to be bored.

      Sometimes good kids finish early and experience short periods of boredom while the rest catch up (although I usually try to have work for them). Those kids don’t cause the trouble though. Because boredom, as such, isn’t what drives poor behaviour.

  2. There is a rather simple answer to this, in most settings, one that is like the proverbial elephant: everyone knows it’s there but no one will talk about it.

    School is compulsory. It is fundamentally not an educational project, but a form of incarceration. The teaching is the proffered reason for the incarceration, but it can’t cover up the reality that, when people don’t want to be somewhere, they’re not going to be co-operative.

    There is one very simple solution to every single woe in compulsory school systems, and that is to repeal the laws that require school attendance. Allowing children to attend voluntarily would also give the gift to teachers of having cohorts of willing students.

    There is of course a small demographic for which there need to be more creative solutions; in Australia this would be the demographic that is the focus of Noel Pearson’s work. There are other reasons why governments like to have this leash that school laws provide on which they can control all children and families. But the need to exercise oversight and even control can be achieved through other, more respectful ways than by actually robbing families of their children for 6 hours per day.

    I’ve called compulsory schooling “Residential School 2.0” (referencing Canada’s disastrous policies for the schooling of Aboriginal children) and it is that bad for a lot of children and increasingly, for a lot of teachers. Everyone deserves better, and as a step toward getting better, one first has to open the doors and let everyone out to see what else they might create.

    • Mike says:

      …School is compulsory. It is fundamentally not an educational project, but a form of incarceration…

      For heaven’s sake, we’re talking about Australia (or Canada) in 2017, not Prussia in 1880.

      …There is of course a small demographic for which there need to be more creative solutions; in Australia this would be the demographic that is the focus of Noel Pearson’s work…

      In Australia, and even more so in other parts of the world, that demographic is far from small. Assuming that literacy, numeracy and acceptable levels of general knowledge will take care of themselves for the majority of the population is a one-way ticket to a huge underclass which will continually need to live on the teat of the taxpayer.

      The problem with the sort of John Holt/Ivan Illich approach that you seem to be advocating is twofold. First, you have the problem mentioned in the previous paragraph, and secondly you have the not unconnected problem of a thorough entrenching of the existing socioeconomic status.of both individuals and families. The whole point of a free, compulsory, secular education system such as that which exists in Australia (and Canada) is both to ensure that young people are equipped with the knowledge to become productive members of society, AND to lay the groundwork for social mobility, in that academically talented students from less privileged backgrounds are given the opportunity to excel (an opportunity which would probably be denied to them otherwise).

      Briefly perusing your blog, I have to say that I’m in agreement with you about the slew of educational fads that bedevil the system as it currently functions. But the answer (in my opinion) is not simply to throw up one’s hands and dismiss the school system as essentially unreformable.

      • Mike says:

        Sorry, “the existing socioeconomic status of…”.

      • Janita says:

        Spot on! Schools were made compulsory in part to put an end to the evil of child labour, as well as to give everyone, regardless of social class, the priceless advantage of an education.

  3. Jennifer says:

    I’m not sure UDL is the kind of thing you can research it’s more of a generic approach – but you can research what happens in terms of problem behaviour when a child records their responses to comprehension questions rather than writing them (or types on a computer rather than handwriting) – and there are many studies showing these kinds of changes impact behaviour. That is, you provide students with work at a level they can actually do – escape from difficult taska is one common motivation for problem behaviour. And yes, you still have to put interventions in place to teach skills (like constructing a paragraph) but should you prevent a child demonstrating thier level of understanding because they have writing difficulties???

    • Mitch says:

      Jennifer
      I feel you are making the exact excuses Greg is talking about
      “but should you prevent a child demonstrating thier level of understanding because they have writing difficulties??”
      With the caveat of medical issues such as dyslexia or a physical inability to write I would be saying yes. The most important things are literacy and numeracy full stop and developing writing skills in all their subject areas will definitely help with that. The context of an assessment is chosen for a reason and is going to be the most equitable way of assessing students to a common standard. Many alternative assessment methods, for example making a video clip or a picture are unfortunately not the same. Often other factors cloud their actual understanding such as the quality of the video or their artistic ability etc.

      • dukeyjk62 says:

        Interesting that the Aus curriculum even in English does not sue the word write as frequently as you’d think. Words such as construct, produce, create instead of “write”. Handwriting is defined as “A production of legible, correctly formed letters by hand or with the assistance of writing tools, for example, pencil grip or assistive technology”.

  4. dukeyjk62 says:

    Disability is not diagnosed by teachers in classrooms. It is a rigorous medical approach based on diagnostic criteria that do sometimes include behaviour. Disability is diagnosed by medical practitioners, not educators. Sometimes the teaching is “disabling”. If a child has a verified diagnosis it is against the law not to make adjustments for them.

  5. dukeyjk62 says:

    Interesting that the Aus curriculum even in English does not use the word write as frequently as you’d think. Words such as construct, produce, create instead of “write”. Handwriting is defined as “A production of legible, correctly formed letters by hand or with the assistance of writing tools, for example, pencil grip or assistive technology”.

  6. Stan says:

    Interesting twitter response to this. A couple of tweets took issue with the reference to disabilities as if the message here is that this post was mainly a complaint about inclusion policies. I read it as claiming that real disability related behavior issues are small compared to the – making it interesting solution – to general behavior issues. As the tweeters apparently just wanted to dismiss this whole post rather than engage Greg on what he actually meant I’ll ask the question. I think Greg is saying that other than “A small minority of children suffer from neurological disorders” no child should be treated differently. That is a response to the majority of children’s bad behavior should follow that prescribed in the links he gave and this is not an issue of inclusion policies but how to handle discipline in general. Greg do I have it right?


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