How schools can effectively manage students’ classroom behaviour

How schools can effectively manage students’ classroom behaviour

Recent research suggests exclusionary practices in schools not only fail to identify the deep-rooted causes of challenging student behaviours but exacerbate negative issues rather than resolve them.

Senate committee report released in February detailed how disruptive classrooms are leading to lower student achievement, pointing to the PISA 2022 results which found that Australia ranks below-average in classroom orderliness when compared to fellow OECD countries.

In May, The University of Notre Dame Australia’s Faculty of Education and Philosophy & Theology (FEPT) will host Tom Bennett OBE, the UK Education Department’s independent behaviour advisor - and the founder and director of ResearchED - who will hold a series of lectures on this increasingly problematic issue.

Held online and in person in Fremantle, Sydney, and Melbourne, Bennett’s lecture series, ‘The State of Education’, Bennett will discuss why student behaviour still a problem, and draws from years of research and hands-on experience to share strategies that can help teachers navigate complex disciplinary challenges in the classroom.

Below, The Educator speaks to Bennett about the limitations of current approaches to managing student behaviour, effective strategies for teachers to create attentive classrooms, and how schools can cultivate a whole-of-school approach to student and staff wellbeing in 2024.

TE: As the UK’s Education Department’s independent behaviour advisor for nine years now, what are some of the key challenges you’ve seen that both the UK and Australian school systems share when it comes to managing student behaviour in the classroom, and how are their current approaches tracking in terms of meaningfully addressing this issue?

The key challenge is that children naturally like to test boundaries and aren’t always inclined to do what we want them to! The next big challenge is getting adults to accept that this means they have to create meaningful boundaries for children, who overwhelmingly prefer environments where they feel safe, valued and challenged. This has been the challenge since children have existed, so that’s not new. There will always be challenge between what students want to do, and what they need to do. Every society faces this dilemma, at all levels. More recent challenges have come in the form of smart phones internet access’s and lockdowns, which have all inevitably taken their toll on the habits and conduct- and wellbeing of children. Teachers and schools also now face unprecedented expectations from parents and society, who sometimes don’t- or don’t know how to- support schools with their children's conduct or learning. It has never been more important to take behaviour in schools seriously, or these factors can exacerbate the problems we already face helping students to do the right thing.

TE: In your new book, ‘Running the Room: The Teacher's Guide to Behaviour’ you say, “Good behaviour is the beginning of great learning”. Drawing from your book’s teachings, what is a particularly effective strategy you would recommend for a new schoolteacher who is struggling, despite their best efforts, to manage their classroom?

The first thing the new teacher should do is to understand ‘what do I mean by ‘good behaviour’?’ You cannot be vague or abstract about your expectations. Kids simply can’t easily follow instructions that are ambiguous, or be allowed to do what they think is right al the time. The teacher’s duty is to define the right behaviours, the classroom norms for kids. That can only happen when they are clear about what THEY mean by good behaviour. So get concrete- ask ‘what does a good entry to room look like?’ And so on. Once you are clear about what the right behaviours are for kids to flourish in the classroom, then you can do the most important thing: teach these behaviours to children. Make them clear, make them a habit, make them important. Once kids know the right thing to do, it is much more likely they will do it.

TE: In your lectures, you will discuss why behaviour still isn’t where it needs to be, and what educators can do about it. What do you think is the biggest problem with existing approaches to classroom management, and what do you believe teachers education policymakers need to be doing to make a meaningful difference?

One major challenge that we now face is that behaviour management has historically and internationally been very undertaught or often poorly taught. In this space has crept all kinds of myths, mistakes and misunderstandings, like the idea that therapeutic processes should be the chief strategy to deal with misbehaviour. There is a lot of very poor practice in schools, in the UK and Australia, that needs to be dismantled before we can make progress. Behaviour management cannot be meaningfully addressed by adopting practices designed by people who have never taught a challenging class in their lives. But often, these are the people who advocate the loudest in public spaces, influence policy, or grab the headlines. In the UK we’ve made some inroads in this area. In Australia I’m pleased to see that practical guidance and the voices of great teachers and leaders are beginning to gain ground. But we still have far to go in both areas.

TE: Looking ahead, what is the most important thing you believe principals should be doing to cultivate a whole-of-school approach to student and staff wellbeing?

As with teachers, leaders need to clearly understand what they actually want to se in terms of good conduct- only they have the much larger responsibility of designing this whole school behaviour curriculum across all spaces and areas of the school life: public areas, classrooms, and anywhere the school culture exists, like virtual spaces or school trips. Once they have a clear understanding of what students SHOULD do, this needs to be written down and turned into a behaviour policy that focuses on right with conduct rather than the wrong conduct. Next, the school consequences system needs to be transparent consistent and simple to use at the classroom level, including sanctions and removals.

Crucially, staff need to be trained in this too! Expecting them to do it without guidance is asking a group of adults to guess, and be telepathic with one another. So staff training is essential in order to achieve this kind of consistency. Lastly, leaders need to get serious about holding staff to account for their actions, in exactly the same way we do for students. Not in order to catch them out, but in order to make sure they know how to do the right thing, and to offer them support if they don’t. Leadership is the key driver of school behaviour. It all comes back to leadership. It’s an awesome responsibility.