How to turn around Australian kids’ appalling classroom behaviour - The Centre for Independent Studies
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How to turn around Australian kids’ appalling classroom behaviour

The dismal state of student behaviour has long been the elephant in the classroom. To improve this, we must now put behaviour and classroom management at the centre of education reform.

Few statistics in Australia’s education scorecard are more glaring than the poor performance in the OECD’s ‘disciplinary climate index’ — an indicator of students’ experience in class. Against this marker, the classrooms of Australian 15-year-olds are among the most disruptive and disorderly in the world, ranking at 69 out of 76 school systems.

The same data shows that two in five students say their classmates don’t listen to what their teacher says, and almost half say there is noise and disorder in most or all lessons. The toll on staff is also clear. Around one in four teachers find maintaining classroom discipline is difficult and that intimidation and bullying is common in around one in three schools.

Yet, like much in education, concern about behaviour has been all-too-often dismissed by many in the sector. Some simply believe that handwringing about behaviour is based on overly rigid expectations of uniformity, instead preferring to label any behaviour of students — however disruptive and unconstructive as it may be — as “authentic” displays of individuality.

Others blame poor households, family structures, and technology. Yet others fear a behaviour emphasis implies a ‘neo-conservative disciplinarian ploy to return corporal punishment’ to schools. But these objections are misplaced and fail to properly appreciate the role that facilitative class and school environments play in ensuring all students feel safe, secure, and ready to learn.

In most cases, it is possible and appropriate to define objectively good and bad behaviour in school contexts. These common expectations help provide children with predictability and confidence in how they conduct themselves, what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

It’s also unconvincing that out-of-school factors are solely responsible for worsening behaviour. Australia’s classrooms have trended worse both against our own past results and those of other countries. It’s hardly the case that better-performing countries don’t experience similar out-of-school challenges to Australian students.

And while the need to directly address behaviour is often downplayed by educational progressives, this misses the point that addressing behaviour in school is, at its core, a politically-progressive move to boost educational equity.

The greatest beneficiaries of clearer behavioural expectations — and classroom management to support it — are students who have been disengaged in schooling and those who don’t have the benefit of consistently stable and supportive households. Moreover, orderly and calm classrooms benefit all students, no matter their ability or background.

To fix the crisis in school behaviour, policymakers must set a corrective path across three areas: promoting better practice, better information, and better supports.

Better practice requires providing clear guidance to educators about the systematic use of evidence-based classroom management strategies.

The best evidence suggests there’s a ‘big 5’ for classroom management: maximising learning time; minimising off-task behaviour; establishing rules and routines; reinforcing positive behaviour; and addressing serious misbehaviour.

Federal education minister Jason Clare has engaged the Australian Education Research Organisation to develop resources to help teachers improve practice. However, this will only be effective if there is alignment with the — often contradictory — guidance given to schools from state bureaucrats.

Better information requires opening the black box of classroom disruption and student behaviour.

While we report academic results in NAPLAN for each school, we don’t transparently report on the experience inside classrooms. Recently-appointed NSW Behavioural Advisor, Donna Cross, has rightly made the case that decision-making on behaviour needs to be informed by data rather than anecdotes. In the UK, that has been addressed with a national behaviour survey of students and staff. And in the United States, several school systems publicly report on indicators of schools’ learning climate.

Better support can ensure teachers have the tools they need to successfully deliver.

As highlighted in recent CIS research, behaviour can — and should — be taught directly to students. A ‘behaviour curriculum’ clearly sets out year-level expectations for student behaviour; leaving little room for fuzzy interpretation. Teaching behaviour can be treated with the same emphasis as school subjects.

The training provided to teachers has often been insufficient to prepare them for managing challenging classrooms and students. A landmark teacher training review in July identified classroom management as one of four core areas in which all teachers will need to be trained in the future.

However, the professional standards that teachers are rated against aren’t currently explicit in how teachers should manage behaviour — leaving too much up to teachers to interpret for themselves. Instead, new teachers in England are provided with a clear framework that values managing behaviour as one of the key pillars of being successful.

Australia’s education system has consistently been marked down when it comes to the behaviour of students and the capacity of teachers to manage classrooms. But policymakers can change course.

In November, the Senate’s Education and Employment Committee is due to hand down a report from its inquiry into the disruption and disorder of Australian classrooms. If done well, this could provide the much-needed blueprint to make behaviour the priority it must be.

Glenn Fahey is program director in education policy at the Centre for Independent Studies.

Photo by Mikhail Nilov.