The first step in tackling a problem is to acknowledge that it exists

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Yesterday, The Conversation published a fairly vanilla article about supporting new teachers to stay in the profession. Apparently, we need more and better mentoring and meta-mentoring, and better collaboration between schools and universities. The authors also suggest giving advance access to information about individual students so that new teachers can get onto the manic differentiation hamster-wheel before they even set foot in the joint.

I don’t think this would work. New teachers need help with workload. They need to be handed fully developed lesson plans that they may adapt accordingly. Most importantly of all, they need support with behaviour management, an issue that The Conversation piece does not address at all, unless perhaps this is supposed to happen through mentoring.

And this is an odd omission. The second paragraph reads:

“High workloads, perceived lack of support, work-life balance and the absence of recognition appear to impact new teachers’ decisions to stay. Some new teachers also report a lack of job security.”

No mention of student behaviour here. And yet the link that is intended to support these claims has a whole section on behaviour. For instance:

“Student engagement and the related concept of behaviour management are a cause of considerable concern to ECTs, particularly in their first year of teaching. A consistent complaint is that ECTs were unprepared by both their theoretical studies at University and their Professional Experiences (practicums) for the problems of managing unruly classrooms. Participants in interviews also complained that within schools there are often inconsistent processes for managing the behaviour of children. Less experienced teachers can sometimes feel that they are ‘fair game’ for students, when the Principal and teachers at a school exercise inconsistent disciplinary procedures, or when the school executive does not support the teacher’s behaviour management decisions. Policies on student discipline were seen by some teachers as an impediment to their capacity to manage inappropriate behaviour. Charles, a high school teacher, indicated that he had heard ‘on the grapevine’ that the education authorities had, ‘tied the hands of schools in regard to expulsion of students with bad behaviour records and these students know that they can get away with murder.…’.”

It is the problem that dare not speak its name. In the ideology of Australian education, any discussion of poor student behaviour is to be dismissed because it is seen as a threat to the ideal of inclusion – every child, whatever their needs, learning in a regular classroom together. Indeed, many researchers would give a standing ovation to those ‘education authorities’ who have ‘tied the hands of schools in regard to expulsion’ because this is precisely what they desire – top-down diktats that prevent schools from excluding students.

This lack of attention is a shame for a number of reasons. Clearly, many teachers enter the profession unprepared to deal with behaviour issues and feel unsupported by their schools. This inevitably leads to recruits with plenty of potential leaving the profession early.

It is also a shame because this is not an intractable problem. There are plenty of promising approaches to dealing with classroom behaviour. And we all want the same thing. Nobody wants to see students excluded from school.

Simply dictating to schools that they must not exclude while taking a laissez-faire approach to what happens in the classroom is a recipe for failure. If anything, we need structure, and plenty of it. Fortunately, some clinical approaches to dealing with troublesome behaviour are mirrored in school behaviour policies that emphasise clear boundaries and routines. This is the opposite to romantic notions of setting the kids free, but let’s get real. A serious issue needs a serious, evidence-informed response.

No, one size does not fit all and the best systems tend to offer tiered levels of intervention to reflect this. However, you can’t have it all ways. You cannot have a tiered approach to meeting a child’s specific and acute needs while also insisting that they must always sit in a classroom with 29 of their peers. Withdrawal will sometimes be appropriate. In extreme circumstances, it may still be necessary to exclude a student from school to protect the learning environment and the safety of other students, but at least in these cases, we will be able to point to a sequenced and logical series of interventions that have sought to prevent this outcome.

Without structure, schools tolerate and turn a blind eye until something extreme happens and a student is excluded. This helps nobody, least of all the student who has been given little opportunity to learn. If you simply bear down on exclusions from the top, you are not addressing the root cause of the problem and you are not helping to prepare at risk students for a stable adult life.

Often, this kind of top-down policy is justified by pointing to the fact that convicted offenders have higher rates of school exclusion than the wider population, as if school exclusion caused the offending behaviour. But it is just as likely that both school exclusion and offending are caused by some underlying issue such as a psychological disorder or perhaps a failure to learn to read. It is these underlying issues that schools should attempt to address.

Australian education’s behaviour blind spot prevents the dissemination of evidence-informed approaches by pretending there is no problem to worry about. The outrage that is directed by some Australian educators towards structured, behaviourist school policies prevents us taking these approaches as a starting point and dispassionately looking at ways to improve them.

This serves nobody’s needs. It does not serve the needs of early career teachers who are battling behaviour problems in the classroom and it does not serve the needs of students at risk of exclusion. Instead, we need an outbreak of reasonableness and a good start would be to admit the obvious – there is a problem.

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2 thoughts on “The first step in tackling a problem is to acknowledge that it exists

  1. Has any study been done to determine why kids misbehave? Why do these kids misbehave? When do they start misbehaving? Do they misbehave in all classes or only during certain class? Does the misbehaviour stop subsequently? When does such misbehaviour actually stop?The answers to these questions can help solve the cause rather than just taking care of the symptoms.

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