I see no behaviour crisis

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In a recent paper, Linda Graham, an academic at the Queensland University of Technology, speculated on what motivates commentators to declare a behaviour ‘crisis’ in Australian schools. Apparently, talk of a crisis is part of an attempt by ‘neo-traditional’ teachers to gain control of the agenda. This should be resisted because:

“Despite claims of a crisis in student behaviour – particularly in disadvantaged communities – my research team saw little evidence of student-driven disruption. Much more common were lower-level issues… where teachers themselves derailed the teaching and learning process; often by micro-managing their students or by being unprepared.”

Perhaps Graham has been looking in the wrong places because there is plenty of evidence of student-driven disruption in Australian schools. I have already written about data collected by PISA and TIMSS on disruption and bullying and how this compares poorly with international norms. This data has been dismissed in some quarters as relying on self-reports, i.e. students reporting their own experiences in surveys. I’m not sure why we should discount such evidence.

We can now add the powerful voice of principals to the powerful voice of students. A new report by researchers at the Australian Catholic University finds that principals in government schools are operating under extremely challenging conditions. A significant factor is the level of violence and threats of violence that they face. Over a third of principals report being the victims of violence, primarily at the hands of students. When analysed by sector, more than 40% of principals in government schools experienced physical violence in their workplace and roughly 53% experienced threats of violence from parents and students. These strike me as extraordinary figures.

Principals in other sectors, such as independent schools, fare better. And this signals the growing stratification of our education system; a stratification that is exacerbated by calls to make schools more inclusive. I will explain.

A class of thirty

When it comes to classroom disruption, it is essential to gain the perspectives of active classroom teachers. This is because teachers understand the problem of teaching classrooms full of thirty students at a time in a way that academics and other education professionals often do not. When you work one-on-one with a student, you can adapt to their specific needs, in real time. You can try a variety of ways of engaging them and you can spend time listening to them. Dealing with a challenging student in a one-on-one situation is poles apart from dealing with that same student in a classroom of thirty.

In a classroom of thirty students, you simply cannot spend large amounts of time with an individual. If you want to talk to a student privately, you may ask them to stay behind at the end of the lesson, but even that is fraught because it is often going to be seen as a punishment, whether intended or not.

Most of the children in a large classroom will have developed the biologically primary skills of negotiating relationships and following routines and norms without significant amounts of explicit instruction. They will have picked up these skills through the normal processes of socialisation. However, a minority will not possess these skills, either because of a cognitive impairment, because of the environment they have been exposed to, or perhaps both. This is not to blame these students, but to recognise, as everyone in education does, that different students have different needs.

A regular classroom teacher is therefore presented with a large class, with some students who are ready and able to learn maths or history or whatever academic objectives the teacher has planned, and some who should be working on social and behavioural objectives, either primarily, or in parallel to learning academic content. The trite response – that a teacher should ‘differentiate’ in order to paper over these chasms – is not sufficient because there is very little evidence that this kind of differentiation works.

An alternative may be to separate out students who need to work on social and behavioural objectives, for some of the available class time. There are costs and resources associated with doing this. And yet even if a school can overcome these obstacles, it risks being accused of not being inclusive because it is not including all of its students in all of its lessons. This is because, for some, ‘inclusion’ is a dogmatic position based on perceived rights, rather than a pragmatic stance.

Finally, by making behaviour expectations explicit, developing routines and seating plans, and by reinforcing these through positive and negative contingencies – by essentially removing a lot of student choice over behaviour – it may be possible to help many students to overcome challenging behaviour, remain in class with their peers and focus on academic content.

Are inclusive schools actually inclusive?

One of the reasons that Graham objects to talk of a behaviour ‘crisis’ is that she sees it as part of the argument for adopting ‘no excuses’ approaches to behaviour management. I don’t like the term ‘no excuses’. The original meaning of the phrase was to describe schools serving students in deprived communities: schools that would not accept those circumstances as an ‘excuse’ for academic failure. More recently, it has become conflated with the notion of ‘zero tolerance’ behaviour management and, roughly speaking, stands for schools with strong and explicit behaviour expectations. The reason I object to the terms is because I don’t think such schools allow literally ‘no’ excuses or have literally ‘zero’ tolerance.

From our current understanding of cognitive science, it does seem clear that students who exhibit challenging behaviours are more likely than their peers to benefit from strong and explicit approaches to behaviour management. These are the students who, due to background, did not learn pro-social behaviours implicitly. Moreover, middle class teachers, who learnt such rules implicitly themselves, are likely to assume that everyone knows these rules and judge a lack of adherence to them as a sign of defiance or perhaps a behavioural disorder. By making the rules absolutely clear, we level the playing field. Of course, in some circumstances, a cognitive impairment may mean a student is incapable of understanding or following agreed norms, but I suspect this applies to far fewer students than the number who currently exhibit challenging behaviours.

We have a lot of evidence that rules and routines, supported by positive reinforcement and less frequent negative consequences, have a positive impact on classroom climate. Depending on exactly how the schools involved manage their approach, it may be that the so-called ‘no excuses’ model provides the greatest chance of success for students who exhibit challenging behaviours. These schools may therefore be more inclusive than their counterparts.

Yet some argue that ‘no excuses’ schools are inherently selective. They may not create explicit barriers to entry, the thinking goes, but their uncompromising position may discourage parents who have challenging children from sending them to a ‘no excuses’ school in the first place.

Such a notion of covert selection is an interesting one which, if accepted, could be widely applied. For instance, those schools that allow poor behaviour to persist are covertly selecting against students whose parents prefer an orderly classroom climate. What are we going to do about that? What should we do about that? This effect probably explains the increasing stratification of our education system.

If I am right, one of the best ways of making schools more representative of society at large would be to support them in developing strong and clear approaches to managing behaviour.

Common sense

It may seem like common sense but it is important to understand the vastness of the forces arrayed against any such development. Education is still largely informed by a progressivist philosophy in which children are viewed as inherently good and therefore all challenging behaviour communicates an unmet need. If only teachers met these needs, the behaviour would stop. This makes the mistake of assuming that such behaviour does not need to be taught.

Educationalists are also inclined to map ideas about power and oppression onto classrooms. In this view, telling students the rules and making them follow these rules is oppressive and is analogous to a country ruled by an authoritarian government. Often, such sentiments will be accompanied by a vignette about how rebellious the (middle-class and with plenty of resources to draw upon) educationalist was at school. Instead, we should let the kids run free. No more bricks in the wall, man.

I am up for this discussion. I think we should take it out to wider society and see who wins the debate. Which better serves the ends of social justice? Is it to teach challenging students how to relate to each other and what the commonly accepted norms of society are so that they can hold down jobs, maintain positive and healthy relationships and stay on the right side of the law? Or is it to allow them to do as they choose; as a matter of principle; as a matter of their human rights?

Our education system would benefit from such a public discussion. We might even open a few eyes.


16 thoughts on “I see no behaviour crisis

  1. David Roy says:

    An interesting discussion however the classing of environment or cognitive impairment as only two implied reasons for challenging behaviour needs evidence to be provided.

    ‘Most of the children in a large classroom will have developed the biologically primary skills of negotiating relationships and following routines and norms without significant amounts of explicit instruction. They will have picked up these skills through the normal processes of socialisation. However, a minority will not possess these skills, either because of a cognitive impairment, because of the environment they have been exposed to, or perhaps both.’

    In addition there may need to be further discussion in regards to students who deliberately choose to undertake challenging behaviour ‘, and what actually defines ‘challenging behaviour’.

    • I actually agree. I stayed away from the notion of children deliberately choosing to misbehave because, when I have tackled this in the past, I tend to provoke a lot of comment about disability and that behaviour is not always a choice. I didn’t want to divert from the main issues in this post by igniting that particular discussion. One reason children choose to misbehave is likely to be that it is better to think of themselves as choosing not to complete a task than to think that they cannot complete the task. This is why I believe early literacy is so crucial. I find it entirely unsurprising that literacy rates among people in youth detention are low.

      • Tom Burkard says:

        Before I had anything to do with education, I worked part-time for a youth project run jointly by Suffolk Probation and Social Services teaching young offenders rudimentary building skills. One of our cardinal rules was to make sure that nothing we did would remind them of school. As the director of the project pointed out, the most common crime our charges had been convicted of was vandalism or arson of school premises. We never had the slightest problem with our lads, and I even employed a couple of them privately as labourers.

        Not long after this I discovered the devastating consequences of reading failure when my own son went to school. The problem went undetected simply because we assumed that our much-sought-after suburban RC primary would teach him to read–after all, he was articulate, sociable and interacted easily with adults. However, we soon got hints from other mums that he was becoming a bit of a bully. The penny only dropped when his teacher discovered that he wasn’t taking reading books home. Being mature parents, both my wife and myself grew up in the days when kids learned to read in school.

        Among the more interesting pieces of research I subsequently encountered was an American study of young men arrested for violent crime:

        “…The present study was unsuccessful in attempting to correlate aggression with age, family size, or number of parents present in the home, rural versus urban environment, socio-economic status, minority group membership, religious preference, etc. Only reading failure was found to correlate with aggression in both groups of delinquent boys. It is possible that reading failure is the single most significant factor in those forms of delinquency which can be described as anti-socially aggressive. I am speaking of assault, arson, sadistic acts directed against peers and siblings, major vandalism, etc.”

        By this time my son was fully literate (no thanks to his school) and his behaviour had reverted to normal. I had also met Sue Lloyd, whose Lowestoft primary school–Woods Loke– had all but eliminated illiteracy with her synthetic phonics programme. I contacted my previous employers in the Suffolk Probation service, and they were only too happy to cooperate in a study to find out how often former Woods Loke pupils had come to their attention. I had recently obtained an English History degree at UEA in Norwich, so I approached Prof Nigel Norris of UEA’s Centre for Applied Research in Education. He laughed in my face–I couldn’t believe how rude he was. Meanwhile, the Probation Service had passed my proposal up the food chain, where it was vetoed by the Suffolk Education Authority.

        More recently, a close friend who teaches science in a chaotic Lancashire comprehensive has introduced a knowledge-based curriculum with weekly tests. Behaviour in his classes and in the other science classes that are following his lead is exemplary. As he wrote recently, the behaviour of his lowest set in every respect resembles that of much higher higher sets.

  2. …I don’t like the term ‘no excuses’…

    Neither do I. Likewise “zero tolerance”. They’ve become simply political soundbites, and worse still, they offer a free kick to anyone who wants to caricature the “neo-trads”.

  3. Bron Reguson says:

    Wow I don’t see that as Dr Graham’s perspective at all. What I read is that a belief that children are inherently good or bad is not seeing the function of behaviour within the context of classroom interactions, which of course are complex and varied. There are other evidence-based, whole school approaches such as positive behaviour for learning. Implementation with fidelity is key and positive social, emotional, academic outcomes are the result. My concern is when we don’t understand the difference between behaviour triggered by external factors and internal factors. Many students demonstrate disability related behaviour as opposed to behaviour caused by complex trauma or even behaviour as a result of life circumstance. Our understanding of management versus support really tells alot about our mindset in relation to students. Safe, supportive, disciplined (ie focused on teaching) and inclusive schooling should be our collective goal not arguing over the right/wrong dicotomies in education.

    • I think you risk setting up some dichotomies yourself. For instance, if a child has Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and we accept this as a disability then we can argue that his or her behaviour is both disability related and possibly caused by a complex trauma or life circumstance. This is possible because all a diagnosis of ODD really gives us is a description of the behaviour.

  4. David says:

    Reading is going away. Our State Dept. of Ed. has adopted a program for English learners that allows students to click on a story and have it read to them. Comprehension questions? Click on one and it will be read. Then a cursor highlights the answer in the text, and it will be read. Just match the symbols (letters or words) in the highlighted passage to one of the options given in the list of answers.

    On to behavior: A call for “observe me” behaviors from those who supervise us teachers. They need to show us how to address bad behavior with “trauma informed teaching strategies” that they taut, while simultaneously delivering a good lesson.

  5. Danielle Lawless says:

    Mr Ashman, please note the following response is from a parent advocate of a young autistic person. I have found such discord with your current blog as well as some of your recent ones. Respectfully this is based on our experience within the education system and having a completely different perspective as a result.

    In our experience both individually and systematic our child has not be positioned well or with equity. In our advocacy role as parents I certainly would describe our experience as one battle after another to ensure our child is receiving an education on the same basis as their peers and their rights as an individual. Let me reassure you I have not entered such circumstances with mere perception of what those rights are and attempt to be as informed as I can possibly be.

    I tend to rely on what the UN has to say both in regards to the rights of people with disabilities and children and young people, Anti-discrimination law here in this country, credible academic research and when I can governance from the education system itself (this I always cannot rely upon either because it does not exist or it does not provide equal provision)

    I am happy to live with any label of dogmatic or progressiveness if it means I am contributing to better outcomes for my child and systematically the same for others. Segregation may be pragmatic in your thinking but it is not in ours. The same applies to zero tolerance to behaviour management which we have experienced in terms of suspensions and other imposed conditions such as partial attendance.

    It is unlikely I will find any common ground with your thinking which sometimes I also find confusing. For example you seem to give an impression that you find merit in positive behaviour support but then you equate PBS with reactive consequences such as suspensions, you have implied that you are not in favour of zero tolerance practice but raise concern on behalf of schools that do and what you consider to be truly operating as perceived identified models of zero tolerance as having merit.

    I appreciate that your thinking would be shaped from your own experiences as a teacher as with mine from being a parent and advocate. I hope you can appreciate why my thinking would be so different to your own not only because of our experience in itself comes from a different perspective but how that experience may put us in a different position to yourself. That is one invariably with less equity. I do in this context find a lot in what you have to say about disability and your viewpoints on associated rights and how they should be valued as hurtful

    • Thank you for taking the time to respond and sorry that you find my thinking confusing. I think this may be, in part, due to the confusing nature of what we are discussing. For instance, I do not advocate for ‘zero tolerance’ or ‘no excuses’. However, I don’t think these terms are accurate descriptions of schools for the reasons given in the post.

      In reality, such ‘no excuses’ schools are rare. I am unaware of any in Australia. However, we still suspend and exclude lots of students. What I suspect happens in many schools, based upon my experience, is that expected behaviours are not made explicit, expectations and routines are not consistent and students are not explicitly taught the required behaviours. This prevents patterns of negative behaviour from being addressed because there are few mechanisms for doing this. Behaviour then escalates to a point where suspensions and exclusions come into play. I believe that if behaviour was dealt with more effectively at a low level then we would actually have *fewer* exclusions. Unfortunately, there are ideological positions that stand in the way of this and that’s why I suggested this is dogmatic.

      I do not believe that we should try to reduce exclusions with a top-down mandate. This will not help schools develop the systems they need. Such mandates have been tried in the U.S. and evidence suggests that they are associated with a decline in overall classroom climate.

      I think negative consequences have a role in behaviour management although I think that positive reinforcement, routines and teaching of positive behaviours should be the greatest driver. I do not think anyone should be punished for a behaviour that they cannot control. However, if this behaviour then presents harm to others, such as students and staff, we may then need to compromise on the inclusion principal.

      I am not an expert in autism. Instead, I am commenting on the wide range of behaviours that we see in schools.

      • Danielle Lawless says:

        My intention in saying the following is not to be rude and again respectively coming from a different position of experience but from whose reality.

        The last time my child was suspended for 20 days, an immediate automatic suspension even though there was agreement that the trigger for the behaviour essentially was staff had not followed my child’s behaviour support plan. My child still had to spend 20 days away from school apparently based on the behaviour itself no consideration of the context was made in terms of the decision. Its experiences like this that for me personally I certainly connect to constructs of zero tolerance.

        When the behaviour itself is focused on without any consideration to context either in connection to the circumstances of my child’s behaviour, their disability and the possible behaviour of staff I don’t know how a label of zero tolerance can be avoided.

        From our experience base I have had to scratch the surface of health and safety narratives and justifications and on numerous occasions have been concerned how much is appeared just to be rhetoric. I get told continually disciplinary measures and conditions have had to be made on the basis of health and safety but when I ask for this to be reasonably qualified and quantified, the response typically from our experience is a simple reiteration of the statement we have just been given.

        As parents (please note a NSW frame of reference) we can’t source much of the how health and safety obligation are chosen by NSW ed to be met. For example I cannot find any specific information about how they go about doing risk assessments. It seems all internal. In the case of restrictive practices we only have a legal bulletin to rely on when it comes to physical restraint

        Our child does have behaviour of concern associated with their disability. This typically occurs when there is something in their learning environment which is challenging to them on the basis of their disability and critically I have to say in association this has occurred at times when they have not been ‘reasonably’ supported for those needs in the first place.
        Our battle for reasonable adjustment does not come from any basis or expectation that our child’s behaviour of concern should be ignored or not addressed because of their disability. We are very keen on ensuring health and safety is addressed because our child is continually at risk of exclusion and being harmed through the use of restrictive practices.

        I found it extremely difficult to negotiate reasonable alternatives over the years including more reasonable proactive measures to reduce and eliminate such risks.

        I welcome any research or consideration which questions and is critical of zero tolerance approaches. In my reading of some of the literature you have referred to and raised concerns about don’t for me say we should get rid of rules and discipline but what they do seem to question is the efficacy of the current practice particularly when there are implications for rights violations, discrimination and learning. I also am glad that it just does not just look at students with disabilities but all students.

        In trying understanding your position a little better perhaps you could elaborate more specifically and in detail your position and thinking on positive behaviour support. What I think and feel about PBS is largely informed by the specific profession and associated academic community not so much how this approach has been adapted and applied in education settings and systems. For what I have particularly at my child’s school level I am very concerned and uncomfortable as it seems to be in discord and different to what I more broadly can appreciate and understand about PBS

      • I am uncomfortable being drawn into the specifics of an individual set of circumstances when I do not know the details. However, given that your child is in NSW, am I right in assuming that they do not attend a school described as ‘zero tolerance’ or ‘no excuses’? If so, it is unlikely that it is the approach of such schools that is at the root of your problem.

        I take your point on ‘health and safety’ – sometimes it can be used as a bureaucratic excuse for inaction and schools are definitely not immune to this. However, I have had experiences involving students throwing chairs, stabbing other students with the point of a set of compasses, setting fire to bins, bringing knives and drugs into school and so on. I have also had experiences where the behaviours of a student have prevented other students from learning and I consider this to be another form of harm. None of these experiences mean that reasonable adjustments should not be made for disabled students or that we must necessarily blame or punish a particular individual. As I said earlier, it is wrong to punish somebody for a behaviour they cannot control.

        It is not just the rights of a child who presents challenging behaviour that we need to consider. Other students also have rights and we have a duty to consider these too. Teachers and support staff have a right to work safely, just as other frontline staff such as nurses have a right to work without fear of being attacked. I am sure you would recognise this and I am sure we are on the same side here. The disagreement, if there is one, is about the best ways of ensuring the most positive outcomes for all concerned. It might be better if we can set hurt aside and engage on these issues because that may be the best route to building a system that is more effective than the one we have now.

        Again, I am very grateful for you finding the time to contribute because this discussion has benefited as a result.

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