Behaviour management in schools is fundamentally flawed, says Dr David Armstrong, a Flinders University expert in education psychology and learning difficulties.
In a recent paper, Dr David Armstrong from the College of Education, Psychology and Social Work, says there is little evidence behaviour management works as intended.
Not only is it harmful to students and stressful for teachers, it generally has the opposite of the desired effect, with the idea of “managing” children’s behaviour fundamentally flawed.
Dr Armstrong says the main problem is that the “manage and discipline” model is based on flawed but “deeply-rooted” assumptions about child psychology and development, such as the idea that children’s behaviour can be understood and controlled in isolation from its broader context. The model is especially ineffective for students with learning or mental health difficulties.
“Emphasis on discipline and behaviour is likely to be inappropriate at best for students with significant mental health difficulties; in many of these cases a punitive response to student behaviour often leads to a spiral of escalation, prompting suspension, exclusion or simply withdrawal from school,” he says.
Dr Armstrong says that teacher stress, challenging behaviours, and a “manage and discipline” approach can form a destructive feedback loop for teachers as well: as teachers become emotionally exhausted, they find it harder to respond to students’ needs, and resort to using more punitive approaches.
This, in turn, leads to worse student behaviour, creating further stress, emotional exhaustion, and, at worst, teacher burnout.
Dr Armstrong puts forward several steps towards a solution. Firstly, teachers need training in adopt evidence-based approaches that allow them to understand and respond to children’s motivation for difficult behaviours.
“Teachers need to abandon the old-fashioned classroom management model, and they need to adopt modern, research-based approaches from behavioural science,” he says, in a media release issued by the Media Centre for Education Research Australia (MCERA).
Secondly, he says it is helpful for teachers to recognise that children are not acting in isolation, but as part of a dynamic: teachers’ own stress and emotional responses also affect those of their students. In contrast, by bringing calm to the classroom, teachers can help foster a calm and safe environment for students.
This gives all the more reason to ensure that teachers are supported by management and colleagues when they are emotionally exhausted, and encouraged to take a break without negative consequences: both for their own sake, and to ensure a healthy learning environment for their students.
“There needs to be evidence-informed programs on a state and national level to reduce teacher stress,” he says.
Part of the problem is a tendency for the public and policy-makers to respond to panic rather than the best available evidence, making the behaviour management model difficult to dislodge.
“Policy-making in Australia and in England particularly seems to be responsive to periodic moral panics about behaviour in schools rather than reliant upon careful, research-informed consideration of how and what might be effective and ethical in practice.”
David Armstrong (2018) ‘Addressing the wicked problem of behaviour in schools’, International Journal of Inclusive Education.
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Based at Flinders University, MCERA (the Media Centre for Education Research Australia) is an independent organisation which puts education research and researchers in touch with the media to help improve public understanding of key education-related issues.