Let’s stop the ‘teachers as therapists’ business and get back to basics
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Let’s stop the ‘teachers as therapists’ business and get back to basics

New OECD data suggests Australia’s long-declining performance in education has extended beyond academic results to students’ lives.

Of course, we are now accustomed to disappointing international report cards when it comes to students’ academic achievement levels. The OECD-run Programme for International Student Assessment has shown that the achievement of Australian 15-year-olds has suffered among the steepest and most consistent declines over the past two decades.

However, these woes are now extending to other aspects of the school environment, with the latest report now pointing to troubling results in student behaviour and wellbeing in Australian schools.

The report not only shows that academic achievement has been generally disappointing, but that we also have relatively disruptive, unsafe, and unpleasant schools by world standards.

On many yardsticks of students’ wellbeing, Australia’s school systems have been marked down — pointing to increasingly stressed, anxious, and vulnerable teens.

These twin crises in both behaviour and wellbeing issues have been mounting over recent years.

Successive reports have shown the escalating scale of disruptive and disorderly classrooms in Australia. In the 2018 OECD Disciplinary Climate indicator, Australia ranked 69 out of 76 school systems; and in 2022, this was 33 out of 37 — deteriorating from a respectable ranking around the middle of the pack around a decade earlier.

There are some estimates that up to 20% of possible learning time is lost to avoidable disruption. The distractibility and lack of focus in class is, at least partly, coming from excessive use of digital devices in the classroom — of which Australian schools are among the world’s most digitally-dependent.

Thankfully, on behaviour, policymakers have been responding appropriately — even if belatedly.

The Senate’s education committee handed down a landmark report late last year recommending that teaching degrees better prepare graduates with practical skills to manage classes, and  proposing an annual national survey to monitor what is happening inside classrooms.

Recently, education ministers agreed to work toward a framework for a national behaviour curriculum, which would result in clearer and more consistent expectations for how children should behave and what educators should prepare students to be able to do.

In NSW, a chief behavioural advisor — modelled from a similar appointment in the UK — has been tasked with measuring, monitoring, and raising behaviour practice in classrooms across the state.

While we should expect these initiatives to bear fruit in coming years, there are broader concerns over physical and mental wellbeing that have been growing for some time now.

Australian students report being among the most bullied, around one in 10 don’t feel physically safe at school, and one in five feel intimidated by their teachers. At the same time, increasing numbers of teachers also report being the subject of violence and abuse from troublesome students.

Mental health too has been a particular concern for teenage girls, and especially in the years since covid-19, the so-called ‘shadow pandemic’. Overwhelmingly, Australia’s teenage girls report struggling to cope with many school and life pressures; including regularly suffering anxiety and feeling nervous.

Rising rates of so-called ‘school refusal’ — students who limit their engagement and attendance at school, largely because of mental health or related concerns — are symptoms of this problem.

We must get back to basics in how we confront these additional crises of behaviour and wellbeing.

Unfortunately, although there is substantial evidence of the positive impact schools can make when it comes to both behaviour and wellbeing, misguided approaches from within the education establishment often make the problems worse.

Much of the advice in the sector is overly academic or impractical, and emphasises reactivity rather than proactivity. Too often, the advice muddies rather than clarifies educators’ roles on the issue.

Teachers end up being encouraged to be ‘relationship managers’ of students, dabbling as part-time therapists and psychoanalysts, often under the banner of so-called ‘social and emotional learning’.

Many of these efforts to promote ‘social and emotional skills’ are generally ineffective at best; and at worse, often backfire. Some programmes aimed at improving students’ wellbeing can sadly make them worse.

There remains a critical need to ensure all students are welcomed into safe, supportive, and caring classrooms. But this should not extend to expecting teachers to tolerate bad behaviour in the name of ‘inclusivity’.

Effective behaviour management, unlike the punitive discipline of old, is an essential part of the teaching toolkit and crucial to improve student wellbeing as well.

Although the major incidents of poor behaviour — like violence and exclusion —attract most attention, it’s actually the everyday low-level disruption and distractibility that is most pervasive and telling of systemic issues.

Policymakers need to do better. While we have started down a better path on behaviour, there are important decisions ahead of the broader issue of wellbeing.

Education ministers concluded late last year that there should be a wellbeing performance measure for school systems. But policymakers must resist the use of generic indicators — which often ask children about out-of-school issues like their general life satisfaction and circumstances — and instead should target in-school and manageable areas.

This can help schools to take a measured and practical approach toward wellbeing matters and to focus on what teachers can do well: making constructive use of lesson time; having students enjoy opportunities for success; and promoting a generally supportive school community.

As a nation, we are rightly concerned about declining achievement outcomes and persistent inequities in the school system. But getting the classroom climate right in behaviour and wellbeing will go a long way to securing better learning outcomes.

Australia can be both a clever country and a ‘well’ country when it comes to our students. But only if we ensure we take a practical and evidence-based approach to solving the challenges in our education system.

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