What will this week’s senate inquiry into disruptive classrooms reveal?

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

Recent OECD data ranks Australian classrooms amongst the world’s most disruptive.

With negative consequences of classroom disruption that span everything from students’ learning to teacher morale and teacher turnover, the senate inquiry into the impact of those disruptions launched in November 2022. Now, although the report was originally slated for release in July 2023, it will finally be delivered on Wednesday 6 December.

The question parents, school administrators, and already overworked teachers want answered is clear: will it outline a response adequate to this chronic problem in Australian education?

Dr Erin Leif is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Monash University and a Board-Certified Behaviour Analyst. Her research finds ways to help educators, behaviour support practitioners, and other professionals to better support those with additional needs – especially children and young people who are most at risk for exclusion and social isolation.

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She says teachers should not have to manage the growing problem of disruptive students on their own.

“Schools must have systems in place to support the sustained implementation of evidence-based practices to improve student behaviour,” Dr Leif says.

These systems include:

  • regular data collection and analysis of behavioural data, so individuals or groups of students who may be at-risk can be identified early and provided with early intervention
  • the use of a problem-solving model to guide the analysis of both formative and summative data
  • an emphasis on establishing collaborative problem-solving teams in schools, which serve as a forum for reviewing data and engaging in data-based problem-solving
  • regular in-service professional learning opportunities matched to teacher need
  • an emphasis on improving the quality of implementation (of specific practices and of the collection and analysis of data) over time, through professional learning and in-classroom coaching
  • the provision of adequate time for teachers and school leaders to collaborate (with colleagues, allied health professionals, instructional/behaviour coaches, and parents) and for improved student behaviour at the whole class or individual student level
  • a direct and explicit link of initiatives to improve student behaviour to school improvement plans.

“There is currently little data showing how often disruptive behaviour occurs in Australian classrooms, what these behaviours look like, and how teachers currently work to prevent and respond to these behaviours,” Dr Leif told EducationDaily. “It is possible that behaviour issues are happening more in some areas or in some schools, rather than across the board.”

Some factors that might contribute to the problem include:

Students find the schoolwork too difficult

Students with delayed academic skills are more likely to exhibit disruptive and challenging behaviour, and students who display disruptive behaviour may be more likely to fall behind academically. This connection has been shown to be strongest between a student’s reading skills and disruptive behaviour. This makes sense, because as students’ progress through primary school, they need to demonstrate increasingly advanced language and literacy skills to participate and succeed academically in all subjects. Therefore, to address challenging behaviour, there is a critical need to support the academic skill development of students, always and in all ways, using evidence-based teaching practices and pedagogies.

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Students are trying to impress their peers

Students are more likely to display disruptive behaviour in schools and classrooms where this is accepted. Researchers talk about the ‘classroom climate’. These are the values, beliefs and norms that set the behaviour within a classroom setting. At school (particularly in high school), peer approval is one of the most important variables that can influence student behaviour. Being disruptive may seem “cool” in some peer groups, and researchers have found that this can promote a culture of student disruption. It is important to give students a voice in establishing the values and expected behaviours of the classroom and school, to give them ownership of the creation of a classroom climate that expects, promotes, and celebrates these values and expected behaviours.

Students copy what they see

Students will not learn positive behaviour from adults who are dysregulated. Students model and learn the behaviours they see. Telling students how to behave well won’t work when the adults in the room are overwhelmed, stressed, and not in control of their emotions. Recent research suggests teachers and school leaders are facing increasing threats and hostility from parents. Students may witness these parent-teacher conflicts and behave in similar ways when managing conflict at school. It is important for adults to model problem solving, emotional regulation, and healthy conflict resolution, if we are to strengthen these behaviours in students.

Strategies to support improved student behaviour

To support improved student behaviour at school, Dr Leif says all ITE programs should prepare teachers in the following areas:

  • Knowledge of and skill in the application of rules and routines in establishing a structured, safe and positive classroom environment (i.e., entry and exit routines, explicit teaching and reinforcement of rules, protocols for common activities
  • Knowledge of and skill in implementation of proactive practices in preventing misbehaviour and/or disengagement, including the role of high-quality instruction as a proactive and protective practice
  • An ability to practice and apply proactive practices, including setting high expectations, building positive relationships, providing structure and setting ambitious, achievable and personalised goals
  • An ability to practice and apply techniques that positively and effectively manage behaviour in classroom contexts, including the use of calm, consistent and proportional responses, behaviour modelling and feedback that gives attention to the desired behaviour rather than the undesired behaviour.

School suspensions and social isolation don’t help

With numbers of suspensions from school rising across the country, Dr Leif says looking at what can be done to support positive student behaviour, rather than focusing on what you can do to reduce challenging behaviour is an approach educators should consider.

“That means approaches for supporting improved student behaviour are educative, not punitive,” she told EducationDaily. “They also promote a sense of predictability and safety in classrooms. The successful implementation of prevention-focused behaviour supports may allow for the creation of predictable, safe, and supportive academic learning environments. Effective strategies for improving student behaviour should be underpinned by the notion that preventing problems is more effective, for more students, than addressing them as they arise.”

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Early identification and intervention for behavioural challenges is critical, she says.

“In early childhood settings, a prevention-focused approach may involve providing parent education about healthy child development and ways to teach social-emotional skills to young children, teaching children to use language to express their big emotions, teaching children to communicate their wants and needs, and establishing and maintaining firm boundaries. In primary and secondary school settings, prevention-focused interventions are designed for all students, regardless of risk, and a continuum of support is provided for those who need more assistance to be successful. The goal for both academic and behaviour systems is to enhance valued outcomes for students both in school and beyond by providing them with the skills needed to access reinforcement for their actions, be it being able to read content in their interest area, deal with setbacks, or establish and maintain friendships.”

Integrated approaches make a positive difference

Taking an integrated approach to supporting improved student behaviour is also needed, she believes.

By integrating academic and behavioural skills into a unified framework, she says helps teachers see that behaviours of concern are often directly related to a skill deficit (‘can’t do’), rather than being attributable to a diagnosis, a personality trait, or a lack of motivation (‘won’t do’).

“This approach will help teachers see that behavioural skills are teachable skills,” Dr Leif told EducationDaily. “Teachers can then identify a range of suitable teaching strategies, such as modelling, explicit instruction, scaffolding, visual supports, and self-management to teach skills in the behavioural domain. Integrating academic, behaviour, and wellbeing efforts may lead to more efficient use of resources and protection against multiple competing initiatives, enhancing the sustainability of both approaches.”

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Teachers need sustainable support

In an educational system where Dr Leif says teachers are continually being asked to do more with less, bringing in new initiatives, she believes, may be more expensive than helping schools identify what they are already doing well in the areas of academics, behaviour, and wellbeing, and supporting schools to do more of what is working well.

“In addition, the use of an integrated approach may help schools identify practices and interventions that are ineffective and to de-implement these practices to make more room for effective practices and interventions,” she says.

No matter what this weeks’ report findings reveal, Dr Leif says that no Australian teacher should have to manage disruptive and challenging student behaviour on their own.

“Mental health groups, advocates and practitioners have long suggested that there is a critical need to grow the mental health workforce in schools, including through increasing funding for postgraduate training, placements and supervision, and psychologists in schools,” she told EducationDaily.

“Addressing disruptive behaviour in Australian classrooms requires a collective effort from various stakeholders, including teacher educators, school leaders, education managers, allied health professionals, behaviour specialists, parents, and policymakers,”

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]brandx.live