Managing challenging classroom behaviour 

  • 4 minute read
  • 24 April 2024

It was bubbling under the surface, until recent reports confirmed what many teachers have long been experiencing; an increase in poor student behaviour in the classroom. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Australia ranks among the world’s worst in terms of “disciplinary climate,” plagued by high incidences of disruptive and disorderly behaviour that detracts from valuable teaching time. It has become a major source of stress for educators, who are regularly confronted with behavioural challenges even the most experienced teachers haven’t seen in their decades of teaching. With disruptive behaviour on the rise, it begs the question: just how widespread is this phenomenon, and what measures can be taken to ensure educators receive the support they need to effectively manage it?

How significant is the problem?

The OECD report includes a disciplinary climate index which is an indicator of student experience in class. Australia ranked 69 out of 76 on the index and is one of four countries, which include New Zealand, Finland and Canada, that do not have a favourable disciplinary climate. 

According to the report, one in three teachers report losing teaching time to disruptive student behaviour, with two in five students saying that their classmates don’t listen to their teacher. Almost half of surveyed students say that most or all of their lessons include noise and disorder. 

The rise in disruptive behaviour appears to be linked to covid, with behaviour worsening post-pandemic. Teachers report that students are far less engaged and more distracted than they were before the pandemic.

These statistics back up what we’ve been hearing more and more from educators, student behaviour is getting worse and something needs to be done about it.

What is causing the increase in disruptive student behaviour?

There are many possible causes for disruptive behaviour which makes determining the reasons behind the rise complex. It could be as simple as tiredness or poor motivation, or rooted in more complicated factors like bullying or the pressure students and teachers experience from the overcrowded curriculum. 

If we look at the studies into challenging student behaviour there is research that suggests that it is often exhibited by students who are delayed academically. This then creates a negative cycle where the disruptive behaviour of the academically delayed students further hinders their learning, pushing them even further behind. 

Disruptive behaviour is also more likely to occur in secondary classrooms (the survey focused on 15 year-old students), where students are undergoing major personal development that involves pushing boundaries and trying to impress peers.

What is the impact of disruptive student behaviour?

Loss of teaching time, distractions to classmates and an impact on student outcomes are all consequences of disruptive student behaviour. But more concerning is the toll it’s having on teachers. In fact, it’s gotten so bad that some teachers no longer feel safe in their classrooms. 

A 2022 survey conducted by Monash University’s faculty of education found that 24.5% of teachers felt unsafe at work, an increase on the 19% reported in 2019. These teachers outline concerns about aggressive behaviour from students and the wider school community. A Senate inquiry into the rise of disruptive behaviour listed death threats, staff being struck, staff having furniture thrown at them and cars being keyed as just some of the behaviours educators are experiencing. 

It comes as no surprise that challenging student behaviour is one of the reasons teachers are leaving the profession, with the Senate inquiry linking the two. New teachers are finding it particularly difficult to manage, with inquiry suggesting further training is required to support new teachers. 

The Senate also found that behavioural issues are contributing to poor literacy and numeracy results of Australian students, confirming the challenging behaviour is disrupting learning. 

How can educators manage disruptive student behaviour?

Disruptive student behaviour requires more than just a band aid solution. The Senate inquiry has made recommendations, including the introduction of a “behaviour curriculum” and training, particularly for new teachers. There are also calls to move back to more traditional teaching practices, including the removal of open-plan classes. 

For teachers concerned about challenging behaviour, there are some strategies that can be implemented now while system-level changes are yet to be rolled out. 

According to Evidence for Learning, education research shows that challenging behaviour can be effectively managed by:

  • Prioritising relationships with students, to better understand them
  • Equipping teachers to teach their students about learning behaviours
  • Using targeted approaches that meet the individual needs of each student
  • Adopting a school-wide and consistent approach

Let’s take a look at these a little closer.

Prioritise relationships: Building strong relationships between teachers and students is paramount. When teachers know and understand their students on a personal level, they can address behavioural issues with empathy and support, and even prevent them from taking place.

Teach learning behaviours: Research suggests that when students have strong learning behaviours they are less likely to be disruptive in the classroom. These students have a greater awareness of their own behaviour and are better able to regulate themselves. Evidence for Learning has a great model for teaching these behaviours in their report

Targeted approach: Addressing the diverse needs of students requires targeted approaches tailored to individual circumstances. This may involve personalised support plans, counselling services, and collaboration with parents and community stakeholders to address underlying issues contributing to poor behaviour.

School-wide approaches: Implementing consistent behaviour expectations and disciplinary procedures across all levels of the school environment fosters a positive disciplinary climate. Professional development opportunities, ongoing evaluation, and refinement of practices based on data and feedback are crucial for sustaining effective behaviour support systems.

What support do teachers need?

Aside from system-level changes that many believe will make some difference to the problem, schools need to support teachers through these challenges now. Although school leadership is often also experiencing challenging behaviour from students or the school community, they do play an important role in supporting teachers. Implement a school-wide behaviour policy and lead it from the top down; give teachers strategies they can adopt in their classrooms and outline steps they can take as behaviour escalates; make sure teachers feel like they’re not alone in dealing with the behaviour when it arises, have their back and step in if needed. Sometimes bringing staff together to talk about or problem solve issues they’re experiencing can make a huge difference. Teachers shouldn’t feel like disruptive behaviour is their fault, or something they need to address alone, so make sure your approach to student behaviour supports teachers as much as possible.

Addressing the rise of disruptive student behaviour in Australian classrooms requires a comprehensive approach that looks to make changes at the system, school and classroom level. But time is of the essence, this isn’t something we can move slowly on. Teachers need immediate support to deal with these escalating behavioural challenges. It’s time for schools and governments to take decisive action and prioritise the well-being of educators.

Author: Maths Pathway

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