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:
- Child X behaves badly in class
- This is because Child X has a disability
- 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.