It is time to tackle Australia’s entrenched behaviour crisis

One suggested cause of Australia’s underwhelming performance in the recently released PISA 2018 results is a lack of suitably qualified teachers, particularly in the area of mathematics. Such an argument is highly plausible, but imagine if we did recruit a whole lot of excellent mathematicians to the teaching profession and then placed them in something akin to a vision of hell painted by a renaissance artist. I think we would still have a problem.

At the same time as assessing academic performance in reading, mathematics and science, the PISA researchers asked 15-year-old students a series of questions about their experience of school. One of these was about bullying. 13% of Australian students reported frequent bullying. Of the relatively wealthy group of countries that belong to the OECD, only New Zealand students reported a higher rate. Overall, Australia’s issues with bullying were worse than most other countries in the OECD (OECD countries are black in the table below):

That is worrying enough, but PISA researchers also asked questions about the disciplinary climate in class. In 2018, they asked students about the climate in their language-of-instruction lessons (i.e English lessons in English speaking countries). They asked students about the frequency of events such as noise and disorder, students not listening to the teacher, students not being able to work well or students having to wait a long time for the lesson to start. From this, researchers constructed an ‘index of disciplinary climate’. Again Australia fared badly:

Unsurprisingly, and consistent with previous findings, the researchers found that a worse classroom climate was correlated with worse academic results.

Anyone familiar with previous rounds of PISA would not be surprised that Australia fares badly on classroom climate. In 2015, researchers asked similar questions about the climate in science classrooms.

At that time, some commentators wondered whether this issue was isolated to science lessons. We now know the answer to that. When the results became known, a number of educationalists came out to claim there was no problem – nothing to see here. Why?

The first thing that anyone needs to appreciate if they seek to understand Australia’s behaviour crisis is that, for ideological reasons, most educationalists are deeply opposed to talking about it or tackling it. They would even object to me characterising it as a ‘behaviour crisis’ despite the evidence presented above. This is because they have adopted a romantic view of childhood in which children, rather than being complex individuals who sometimes do the wrong thing, are entirely innocent and blameless. This is understandable in the context of the early 20th Century when progressive educators were pushing back against the use of physical punishment in schools, but it makes little sense in today’s science or English classroom.

When you adopt this ideology, attempts to manage behaviour are seen as sinister and coercive. Poor behaviour is not taken as a signal that a child has made the wrong choice, but as an act of communication. ‘All behaviour is communication‘ is the mantra. The child is communicating to the teacher that his or her needs are not being met. This is usually translated as meaning that the lesson is not entertaining enough (educationalists would use the word ‘engaging’, but in practical terms they mean ‘entertaining’). This shifts the blame for behaviour to the teacher. Yet academic learning, just as with pretty much anything worth doing in life, will always contain an element of hard work and slog. Part of the role of school involves reconciling students to that reality.

Getting the teaching right

Entertaining lessons may keep students quiet for a while – “let’s make a poster!” – but they will not necessarily lead to much learning and they will not tackle the root cause of the issue. However, this does not absolve teachers and schools of their responsibilities. Many of the negative externalising behaviours that our notional new cohort of maths teachers might experience will be rooted in a long history of educational failure. I can only imagine what it is like to come to school every day as a 15-year-old, troop from lesson to lesson and constantly be confronted with the fact that I cannot read fluently. I would certainly become frustrated and I would look for an outlet and a different field in which to excel.

We should not be putting students in this situation. We need to use effective teaching methods to ensure all students learn to read and do basic mathematics. Explicit, structured teaching that is highly interactive and seeks a high success rate is the backbone of this approach.

Classroom management

Nevertheless, young people who can read and write will still choose to misbehave. This is because they are human. The good news is that there is plenty that teachers can do to prevent behaviour issues from arising in the first place and then to manage them when they do. This knowledge is not widely shared with teachers because the ideology of educationalists is the ideology of our schools of education and can be briefly summarised as: What kind of monster seeks to control a child?

That’s why the second chapter of my book for new teachers is devoted to classroom management techniques. These mostly stem from an approach known as ‘behaviourism’ that many educationalists are keen to deride. In decreasing order of frequency and emphasis, behaviourist techniques seek to manipulate conditions to prevent poor behaviour arising, positively reinforce desirable behaviour and provide a cost to poor behaviour. Teachers should set-up routines for how to start the lesson, create seating plans, reward good behaviour with a smile and a positive word, draw attention to the students who are doing the right thing rather than the ones who are not, walk towards an area of the room where misbehaviour is starting to occur, admonish privately rather than publicly, avoid sarcasm and use mild punishments such as short detentions for repeated infractions.

These strategies work at the ‘Tier 1’ level of a model known as ‘response to intervention‘. They will not always work for all children because some have very complex needs. These students may need small-group or individual support or they may require specific accommodations in the classroom (such as a pass that allows them to leave class if they are losing their temper). That’s why classroom management must be integrated into a wider, whole-school approach.

School culture

Unfortunately, many schools do not have a wider, whole-school approach and instead have a culture that undermines teachers. In too many schools, leaders do not take responsibility. In some schools, there is a behaviour policy in place but teachers are not supposed to use it. If a teacher goes through all the appropriate steps and ends up asking for help or setting a detention, a school leader is likely to see this as a sign that the teacher is not teaching ‘engaging’ enough lessons. It’s all the teacher’s fault.

You can get by in such schools, but you have to adopt some kind of coping mechanism. Making posters is one. Being charismatic, old, male and in a position of seniority helps. If you don’t want a confrontation with parents then a good strategy is to not chase missing homework and to give out high grades even if they are unearned. Essentially, in bad schools you need to tell jokes, lower your expectations and work your way up the pecking order.

Our notional new maths teachers may choose to do this, or they may choose to quit.

There is another way. School autonomy policies in England have led to a new breed of ‘free school’ that are state-funded but largely free to follow their own course without interference from educationalists and bureaucrats. Interesting, Andreas Schleicher of PISA recently visited one such school in London, Michaela Community School. It has a whole-school policy that is both warm and welcoming, while being firm. I don’t think we would want to exactly replicate Michaela in Australia, but at present it is hard to imagine creating a school that is anything close to it.

If behaviour is a form of communication, then the behaviour captured by PISA is communicating to Australia’s politicians and education officials that tackling this problem is long overdue. They need to stand-up, be strong, ready themselves for the onslaught from the ideologues and do the right thing.


13 thoughts on “It is time to tackle Australia’s entrenched behaviour crisis

  1. Tyrone says:

    Hi Greg,

    I am not sure if it was my reading of your article, but I don’t think you emphasized the importance of replacement skill teaching, that a behavioural framework focuses on. It is kind of touched on when you mention strengthening some behaviours whilst weakening others but it really goes beyond this.

    The whole point of understanding what the behaviour is communicating, is so that an agreed socially valid replacement behaviour can be taught in its place.
    As an example, when your infant screams and bangs the high chair wanting a drink, you gradually teach a replacement behaviour where the child says “drink”.
    Over time this is developmentally shaped to “drink please”, then “can I have a drink please mum” and finally, “when you’ve got a moment mum, could you get me a drink please”.

    In the classroom many prep teachers do an amazing job of teaching lots of routines and skills to help equip children with knowing what to do, when to do it and how to do it. It may be necessary to teach waiting, turn taking, tolerating unpleasant tasks or requesting help. It can also progress to learning how to change your context cognitively when you can’t change it physically so that you are able to make the most of a situation(see Acceptance Commitment Therapy for more on this).

    Behavioural approaches are more than just classroom management, they are an individualized approach to understanding the learners needs and wants, and then giving them the skills to achieve this, in socially valid ways.

    We are not looking to teach conformity, unless it is socially useful for the child, or teach control, unless it is going to improve the quality of life for the child. We are always looking for what skill deficit does this behaviour demonstrate, and then what can I teach to help this child achieve a more successful life. In many ways a behavioural approach is a problem solving approach, that uses a whole bunch of teaching to achieve its outcomes.

    I feel there are a lot of great points in your article, a response to intervention framework is a very effective way to support and manage student and staff behaviour in schools. Embedding this in a school wide approach increases the capacity of all community members to know what do, when to do it and how.


    • Thanks. There are some useful examples in your comment. I would add a few points. PISA asked these questions of 15-year-olds and I wonder how applicable your examples would be to common misbehaviour in this age group. Secondly, I worry about the idea of taking an individualised approach. Teachers typically teach 25+ students in a class and so it is simply not practical to take an individualised approach to behaviour management. I think this is the biggest source of misunderstanding between clinical practitioners who deal with students one-on-one and classroom teachers. Thirdly, your comments on conformity and control strike me as a good example of the kind of ideology I mention in the post. It is a good thing for adult drivers to conform to speed limits and for governments to seek to control driving speed. A great deal of conformity and control in society is like that and societies could not function without it. These principles don’t constantly need to be problematised, apologised for or qualified.

      • Tyrone says:

        Hi Greg,
        With regards to taking an individualized approach within a classroom context, I agree with you that it is not feasible to teach many skills in a classroom with 25 peers and 1 adult. What can be achieved in a clinical setting may be difficult, if not impossible to achieve in a classroom. The classroom may highlight the skill deficits, but the gap may need to be bridged outside the room. Some may view this as a form of exclusion, but it could be also viewed as skill building so individuals can be included in the classroom. If the focus is on maximizing the opportunities for each child and not on adherence to some poorly defined philosophical construct, then it is easier to plan for what is needed and how to do it.

        What is important is that the classroom then reinforces and rewards the use of those skills, for example teaching a child to wait and put their hand up before they share, but then they are never selected or the teacher allows others to share by calling out.

        In terms of common misbehaviour of 15 year olds, the RTI framework you talked about is probably the best way to conceptualize and deliver the right supports and responses, especially at Tier 1 & 2. Many of these interventions are still behaviourally function based, they just apply to groups as a whole and can be implemented with less resources than an individualized plan. Things like clear expectations, frequent opportunities to contribute to group discussion, frequent opportunities to experience small successes, natural consequences that occur when we don’t do what is expected. There is little value moving to individualized functional plans if these things are not in place. The is no point me teaching a teenager to cope with waiting and missing out, if back in the classroom his peers can simply push passed and get what they want whilst he is practicing waiting for attention to be delivered for example. No kid is going to cope with that for long, regardless of what skill building I help them develop.

        When it comes to tier 3 and to what some unofficially refer to as tier 4, a functional behavioural perspective has been the most effective so far.
        In teenagers, examples can include students whose social skills are extremely poor and find themselves consistently using inappropriate means to engage with peers. This can take the form of bullying, classroom disruption or lashing out physically at peers when they are rejected. It can also be students who find it the most successful way to attain peer recognition. For others the way they escape certain challenging contexts (work, embarrassment, confrontation or going without) can be extremely problematic and dysfunctional, even if effective in the short term for the student.

        Whilst some may excuse this as “the student is just trying to communicate through problem behaviour”, this still doesn’t help the class, the teacher or the student in question. The student will need to learn other successful strategies and behaviours for engaging with peers or attaining social recognition. They may find this difficult to learn in a setting surrounded these same peers as well, especially if their underlying physiology finds this context highly stimulating. Dr Vicki Batsika has done some interesting research on children and their cortisol levels in differing contexts, part of her recommendations are that some children will benefit from gradual exposure to peers to desensitize their response, whilst being taught how to respond. As you pointed out, this is not something easily done by a teacher with a class of 25.

        You also made the point that some principles should not need some apologizing or qualifying, and I agree completely. However I have faced aggressive and almost zealot like attacks when I do not qualify that it is not me who decides what is important for a child to learn; but society and the family. I try to find the best way to teach those skills and identify in what contexts their current skills are not working.


      • It sounds like you are doing excellent work. Thank you for sharing your thoughts because I think they add a great deal of value to what I have written and I think teachers will be interested.

    • Chester Draws says:

      In the classroom many prep teachers do an amazing job of teaching lots of routines and skills to help equip children with knowing what to do, when to do it and how to do it.

      Many do, but too many don’t.

      So children arrive at my high school, aged 12, unable to sit still for a hour, or without the ability to wait to take turns, or unable to express frustration in acceptable ways. Since everyone can learn to sit still (and they can do it to play video games, no problem), to wait, and to not punch when frustrated, they simply haven’t been taught these things.

      The students who fail in my Maths classes aren’t the ones with limited ability. It’s those who can’t sit still and listen. Solve that, and the PISA scores will take care of themselves.

  2. Jay Jam says:

    One quick point about this juicy truth bomb. Australia is so far down the track/gurgler the term “discipline” (as in PISA’s disciplinary climate) is taboo in Australia.
    If anyone argues with this blog post they actually haven’t got a clue and must be completely ignorant of the reality in majority Australian schools.

    • Yes – I am aware that educationalists wish to remove all of the words we can use to describe the problem. However, I am writing this for you and not for the educationalists. You and me and the other teachers just need to figure out how to get around these folks.

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  5. Chester Draws says:

    Meanwhile New Zealand only places slightly above Australia in the poor behaviour statistics, but the entire conversation has been about bullying.

    No-one cares that kids aren’t learning because the discipline is poor and students aren’t motivated to learn. The only point of interest regarding behaviours is bullying. No-one discusses that there would be less bullying if students were better behaved at school, and if schools had a better handle on discipline so that they could minimise poor behaviours.

    Regarding your previous interest in the new line that Andreas Schleicher is taking, there’s this:

    Note that the teachers and principals are for a revision to more teacher directed learning. But the educationalists quoted are against it, being far more worried about “equity” than actually teaching knowledge or skills.

    • Tyrone says:

      That’s interesting because a major concern for Finland has been the growing inequity as their PISA scores have declined, so too has the gap increased between high and low achievers.

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