Australian schools need to think very differently about the way they manage student discipline in the classroom, with traditional, punitive practices proving ineffective in the long run and often escalating problems with student disengagement and alienation.
That’s the view of three University of South Australia researchers who have edited a new book - Challenging Dominant Views on Student Behaviour at School – Answering Back.
Dr Anna Sullivan from UniSA’s School of Education says practices that mistreat, exclude or denigrate students based on intimidation, anxiety, threats or retribution should be thrown out the door.
“We know there are schools out there that adopt caring and humane ways of doing behaviour work with students and they are creating calm and respectful learning environments,” Dr Sullivan says.
“The reality is though, there are other schools and teachers that need to re-focus and break away from outdated and unsupported ideology.
“The research reported in this book shows us that the goal is to develop a whole school environment which respects students’ human dignity and treats them fairly rather than equally – it’s about the quality of relationships.
“On the face of it, the tough approach might seem sensible, but there is growing awareness that it escalates problems both for the students concerned, the school and society.
“We shouldn’t be assuming a student’s family, home environment or community, is a single contributor to how they are behaving at school.
“The research even points to some practices commonly used in school as being unacceptable from a human rights perspective.”
Answering Back recommends schools and teachers take an educational rather than managerial or behavioural approach to working with students.
It advocates that everyday practices should see staff engage in friendly greetings, informal chats, civil exchanges of information and celebrations with students.
Teachers should help students with work and keep helping until they get it. They should also employ teaching methods that focus on engagement, by designing relevant, meaningful and appropriate academic tasks.
The book calls for a cessation of students being set work they can’t do, or expecting them to complete work in unrealistic timeframes.
The practice of picking favourites, escalating a small issue into something major, getting annoyed if students don’t understand the work, or ridiculing or patronising those who struggle has also been called out as destructive.
Dr Sullivan says schools and classrooms are complex and demanding and they require sophisticated and sensitive policies and practices to give everyone involved the best chance to flourish.
“The solutions we’re calling for are not simple, we know that, but Australian schools need policies informed by educational research, not outdated traditions,” she says.
A common technique used in Australian schools to manage behaviour is to exclude a student from their learning, with practices stepping up over a scale from warnings to suspension, depending on the student response.
Another longstanding practice is the ‘ripple effect’, where some teachers will reprimand students in front of others or keep public records showing those compliant or non-compliant.
This is designed to coerce other students to behave by humiliating, shaming or chastising the non-compliant student.
Research covered in the book argues that both practices could be considered a violation of a students’ right to an education and their right to be treated with dignity under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Dr Sullivan says that controlling behaviour-management practices exacerbate rather than ameliorate the problems faced by the most vulnerable children and youth in the contemporary school system.
“Other key findings show that when children don’t feel cared for at school, because some teachers are really disrespectful towards them, this contributes to them displaying problematic behaviour in response,” Dr Sullivan says.
“Research also indicates that the formative first few years of school are critical to how relationships form between students and teachers.
“Students can quickly see that teachers may care ‘about’ them, but not ‘for’ them.
“As these relationships fail, students become more alienated and disengaged and passively withdraw from school or retaliate in antisocial ways.”
Dr Sullivan says the co-editors of this book understand it will be provocative.
“The book brings together genuine research into what is really behind the behaviour issues encountered in schools – it unpacks the human dynamics at play,” she says.
“We understand it challenges the dominant view – but it ‘answers back’ with research and evidence and it provides a better way of building respectful school communities where learning is paramount.”
Challenging Dominant Views on Student Behaviour at School – Answering Back focusses on Australian research.
It is co-edited by Dr Anna Sullivan, Professor Bruce Johnson and Bill Lucas from UniSA’s School of Education and is an outcome of the Behaviour at School Study, including the 2014 summit on Behaviour in Australian Schools.
The research and the publication have been supported through the Australian Research Council Linkage Scheme.
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