Australia doesn’t need a ‘Behaviour Curriculum’. We need to implement Social and Emotional Learning now

By Melissa Close and Linda Graham

Last month, the Senate Education and Employment References Committee released an interim report on the Senate Inquiry into increasing disruption in Australian school classrooms – and it looks like we will get the final report today. It used an unsubstantiated decline in Australia’s rank in the OECD’s disciplinary climate index to claim Australian classrooms as among the most disorderly around the world and raised concerns about teacher safety, job satisfaction, and retention, and the impact of classroom disruption on students’ academic learning. Meanwhile, rigorous research has demonstrated no decline in three of four measures of learning.

The interim report’s recommendation for a ‘Behaviour Curriculum’ is similarly flawed. Student behaviour is complex, shaped by a myriad of social, economic, political, and environmental factors. Consistency in the school-wide use of evidence-based classroom management techniques, such as the use of clear routines and coherent reward/consequence systems, provide effective parameters for expected behaviours but they are not enough on their own. There is also significant danger in a simplistic “tips and tricks” approach that implies that all problem behaviours are misbehaviours that can be corrected by teachers who have mastered basic techniques to which they have (allegedly) never been introduced.

It is seductive to imagine that all challenging behaviours can be magically fixed by teachers learning how to “run a room”, but this ignores the reality with which today’s classroom teachers must grapple. Many of the most troubling behaviours for teachers are not deliberate actions of indolent children who could otherwise comply with the help of stricter discipline. Rather, they reflect differences in cognitive processing, underlying stress responses, and/or the outcome of emotional overwhelm by students who have experienced childhood complex trauma or who have a disability.

There is a disturbing current of ableism running through the report and through the submissions of various advocates for the behaviour curriculum. Look, for example, at the definition of disruptive behaviour used in the interim report. The parallels between these five criteria and the diagnostic criteria for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are obvious to anyone with any knowledge or experience of ADHD but, as that is clearly not the case for some, we have placed both in a table to highlight the overlap.

Senate Interim Report Definition of Disruptive Behaviour (p. 3)Diagnostic Criteria for ADHD
1.      talking unnecessarily and calling out without permissionOften talks excessively.Often blurts out an answer before a question has been completed.
2.   being slow to start work or follow instructionsOften avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to engage in tasks that require sustained mental effort. Often has difficulty sustaining attention in tasks.
3.   showing a lack of respect for each other and staffOften does not listen when spoken to directly.Often interrupts or intrudes on others.Often leaves seat in situations when remaining seated is expected.
4.   not bringing the right equipmentOften loses things necessary for tasks or activities.
5.   using mobile devices inappropriatelyIs often easily distracted by extraneous stimuli.

In fact, all five are consistent with ADHD, a neurodevelopmental disorder which is underrecognised and poorly understood/supported in Australian schools. Education providers are obligated to provide reasonable adjustments to ensure that students with a disability, including those with ADHD, can access and participate in education on the same basis as students without disability. Yet these students are commonly do not receive adjustments and are commonly (but mistakenly) perceived as wilfully non-compliant. Not surprisingly, they are overrepresented in school suspension, exclusion, and early school leaving.

While we acknowledge that challenging behaviours exist in classrooms and that these can be better managed (and that these students can and should be better supported), the real solution extends beyond a reductive curriculum focusing only on ‘behaviour’. What Australia needs is a holistic, forward-thinking approach that prioritises the whole child; one that addresses not just the symptoms but the root causes of disruptive behaviour.

Thankfully this need is being recognised elsewhere in government, judging by various recommendations to implement Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). MTSS is a comprehensive and integrated service delivery framework that systematises the provision of evidence-based prevention and intervention support across all developmental domains (academic, behavioural, and social-emotional) in three tiers (universal, targeted, intensive) that increase in specialisation and intensity.

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is a key component of MTSS, which recognises that there is more to education and child development and wellbeing than academics and behaviour, and that all three are inextricably linked. SEL involves teaching children to understand and manage their emotions, set goals, show empathy, establish healthy relationships, and make responsible decisions. SEL is both preventative and educative, proactively laying the groundwork for children to gain a deeper understanding of themselves and others, while cultivating the essential skills necessary for positive life outcomes.

(Close, 2023).

SEL is operationalised through evidence-based programs, integration into core academic instruction, and student-centred learning environments. Implementing SEL through a multi-tiered, systematic approach ensures it reaches all students and is integrated into various aspects of their lives, including the classroom, school, family, and community. The aim is to provide students with the skills they need to actively engage and succeed, rather than merely setting up a framework of rules and routines designed to contain and constrain with consequences when some students inevitably transgress.  

Developing students’ social-emotional competencies is already a recognised priority in Australia, as evidenced by the Personal and Social Capability strand of the General Capabilities, which includes four of the five core SEL competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and social management (akin to relationship skills). The fifth competency, responsible decision-making, is integrated within the social management domain. The Personal and Social Capability strand provides an encouraging starting point for SEL, indicating that the curriculum infrastructure already exists.

The critical issue that has so far prevented this approach from achieving its aims in Australian schools is that this aspect of the curriculum is not assessed. And, due to the emphasis on literacy and numeracy—which is assessed—this important area of child and adolescent development does not currently receive the time and attention needed for it to be effective.

The recommendations emerging from the Review to Inform a Better and Fairer Education System and the Review of the National School Reform Agreement before it, are an ideal opportunity to streamline student mental health and wellbeing support across Australia. Traditional approaches, such as defaulting to a behaviour curriculum, the concept of which has been imported from England, is not the answer.

Australia needs to adopt a more intentional approach to address challenging behaviours, transitioning from reactive methods to proactive approaches. This involves laying the groundwork to explore how SEL can be implemented within an Integrated Multi-Tiered System of Support that includes—but is not limited to—evidence-based approaches to positive behaviour intervention and support. Relying on a behaviour curriculum of the type being advocated in submissions will continue to leave students behind who struggle with social-emotional skills, particularly those exhibiting the most challenging behaviours —the very students who stand to benefit most from SEL.

Melissa Close is an Outreach and Engagement Officer with the Centre for Inclusive Education at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). She has over a decade of experience as an educator in international and domestic settings. She holds a Master of Education (Leadership and Management) and is currently pursuing a Master of Philosophy at QUT focused on the systemic implementation of Social and Emotional Learning in educational settings in Australia and the United States. 

Linda Graham is professor and director of The Centre for Inclusive Education at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). She has led multiple externally funded research projects and has published more than 100 books, chapters and articles. Her international bestseller, Inclusive Education for the 21st Century, is now in its second edition. In 2020, Linda chaired the Inquiry into Suspension, Exclusion and Expulsion processes in South Australian government schools. She also gave evidence to the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability on the use of exclusionary school discipline and its effects.

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6 thoughts on “Australia doesn’t need a ‘Behaviour Curriculum’. We need to implement Social and Emotional Learning now

  1. Tom Worthington says:

    Have seen disruption in Australian parliaments, & concerns about safety, job satisfaction, and retention, perhaps teachers could offer to run Social and Emotional Learning programs for MPs, modeled on those in schools.

  2. Yes, how about proper trauma-informed teaching (including culturally responsive pedagogies) and small class sizes?

  3. Chris says:

    Find it amazing that the drivers of discussion are those who don’t spend 20 classes a week in a secondary mainstream classroom as I do and have so for over three decades. I therefore do hope that those who have the ideas drop into a mainstream school for a full year and full teaching load and then produce a report on how well their theories fitted in practice and how well the weathered the experience.

  4. Aaron says:

    It’s frustrating to see academics setting up a straw man and attacking that. Saying that children are generally responsible for their behaviour in the classroom is not ableist.

    Your assessment fails to recognise that good teachers don’t experience the same issues that less skilled and newer teachers experience. It feels ideologically driven and completely removed from the reality of teaching.

    In my case, my classrooms are quiet and productive. I never feel the need to resort to yelling, and I read the room to ensure children are as on task as they can be for a given time of day. This year I was asked to teach the “hard to teach classes “ specifically because of my successful practices. Those same classes descend into chaos when inexperienced or low care-factor teachers enter the room.

    If your ideas were implemented teachers would be burdened with yet more planning, compliance and oversight than we already have to deal with.

    The truth is those teachers not yet worn down by the ceaseless pressures of the job, those who want to succeed feel worried about implementing the behaviour management practices already established for fear of being seen as repressive. This is reinforced by leaders and activist academics telling teachers that behaviour is communicative the solutions are to found in better understanding their students. It’s destructive nonsense and is adding to the sense of failure and jadedness so many of my colleagues experience.

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