Persistent misbehaviour challenges teachers more than student violence and aggression

By Anna Sullivan

Australian schools are not out of control and violent behaviour in Australian classrooms is not common. Don’t believe the media beat up that has been going on for at least the last two decades.

Our research confirms what teachers already know: low-level disruptive and disengaged behaviour is the main problem in our classrooms, not violence and aggression.

What may surprise you is teachers feel more challenged by the small daily transgressions in their classrooms than by any other kind of behaviour. In fact teachers are more worried about students using their mobile phones inappropriately than someone being violent or abusive.

Classroom management is one of the greatest concerns of teachers today. It often leads to burnout, job dissatisfaction and early exit from the profession.

We conducted a web-based survey of teachers across all school sectors in South Australia to investigate the extent to which student behaviour is a concern for schoolteachers. It was open for five months and 1750 Reception to Year 12 teachers responded.

They told us of the most challenging things that students do in classrooms are: –

avoiding doing their schoolwork

disrupting the flow of a lesson

disengaging from classroom activities

talking out of turn

being late for class

using a mobile phone inappropriately.

We also uncovered problems with the strategies teachers use to try to manage this low-level disruptive behaviour.

Most teachers spend considerable time and energy trying to prevent students from disrupting the learning environment. The strategies they use frequently involve ‘controlling’ students to ensure their compliance. Rewards are used to promote compliant behaviour and sanctions are used to deter students from disrupting orderly learning environments.

Step systems are often used and typically involve an escalation of punitive responses such as giving a warning/reminder, in-class time-out, out-of-class time-out, referral to a school leader, inschool suspension, out-of-school suspension, and permanent exclusion from school.

However these attempts to control or punish the student do not address the underlying causes for a student being disengaged and ultimately may not change that behaviour.

What is important is the creation of classroom conditions that promote academic engagement. Engagement is the key to establishing schools and classrooms where behaviours are more productive.

We argue that if teachers gained a greater understanding of the broader ecology of the classroom and how it can influence engagement and therefore behaviour, we might see a shift in focus to engagement rather than punishment.

We use our ecological approach to explain and manage both productive and unproductive student behaviour. In the ecological model we use (see the figure below) the classroom is thought of as an ecosystem involving interactions between the physical environment, teacher characteristics, curriculum including teaching methods and resources, and a multitude of student variables in examining specific productive and unproductive behaviours and teacher responses.



The theoretical framework underpinning this study suggests that disengaged student behaviours have more to do with factors within a teacher’s control than with those located within the student. Teachers can consider aspects related to the physical environments, the curriculum and resources, and their teaching to engage students in learning activities.

The key principle is that student behaviour does not exist in isolation but within the interaction between all elements of the ecosystem. At the whole-school level, as well as internal factors, the influences of outside factors (home, socioeconomic, political, cultural/racial/religious) impact on the ecology of the school.

This model leads us to understand that various factors influence student behaviour and that responsibility for behaviour should not rest just with students.

We believe if teachers give thought to the ecology of their classrooms they might feel less overwhelmed by the challenging behaviour they face daily.

A teacher who can see and positively influence this ecology is more likely to feel a sense of hope that they can reduce disengaged and disruptive behaviour and create a more productive classroom.


  Anna Sullivan

Anna Sullivan is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of South Australia. Anna currently teaches undergraduate and postgraduate students in the area of managing learning environments. Anna is a chief investigator on a few Australian Research Council Linkage grants. Her current research interests include critical policy studies, micropolitics, teachers’ work, student behaviour, classroom management and school discipline.

This blog is based on the research paper Punish Them or Engage Them? Teachers’ Views of Unproductive Student Behaviours in the Classroom by Sullivan, A. M., Johnson, B., Owens, L., & Conway, R. (2014) published in  Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 39(6), pp 43-56.    Find the original paper HERE

Behaviour at School Study website

A National Summit “Behaviour in Australian Schools: Current trends and possibilities” will be held on 15-16 July, 2014. Both Dr Sullivan and Professor Johnson are participants. Find details of the summit here

6 thoughts on “Persistent misbehaviour challenges teachers more than student violence and aggression

  1. Engagement lies at the heart of all learning, regardless of the setting. Teachers who are unable to engage student interest are ineffective – simple as that. By the way, it seems to me that high quality teachers have always understood (even before the term ‘student engagement’ found prominence in educational discourse) how to use student motivation effectively.

  2. Anna Sullivan says:

    Engaging students is very important, and teachers can do a lot about this. I am always bemused when teachers assess students as not motivated! Locating responsibility for motivation to the student is unhelpful. Teachers’ work is challenging and complex.

  3. Aaron Davis says:

    What a great post. Every time I get a student teacher they are always so worried about ‘controlling the class’. I often tell them that they should be more worried about being prepared and if they do so that it will go a long way to alleviating such problems and concerns. Now I have a better way of explaining that using the notion of the ecosystem.

  4. Anna Sullivan says:

    Thank you for you comment! Yes, preservice teachers often focus on controlling kids. They need support to move beyond this. Anna

  5. Roseanne Byrne says:

    I’ve been driven out of teaching, but I agree that it is not only the violence and aggression (from parents) that is the issue. For me it is the absolutely ridiculous belief beiing forced on teachers that you can be all things to all people. We are expected to differentiate our teaching for every child, with expectations from our leaders, and then we have parents who have free access to us telling us why their special child needs your special attention each and every day. Being met by one parent every day before school, and after school with their opinion on what you are doing right or wrong is stressful – particularly when you are not allowed to disagree with their view point.
    But mostly it’s about support – or the lack of it from managers. A kid being violent is able to be dealt with if someone removes them and deals with it. But increasingly our stressed leaders don’t remove them or can’t deal with it. Not being able to ask for support because everyone up to and including the Principal is stressed is no fun. And being surrounded by teachers who are barely coping too is awful. Our schools are broken and only the disengaged from the coal face can’t see it.
    For me the absolute trigger is seeing young children physically and mentally shut down because they can no longer take the disruption. They are dissociating from reality. And as a teacher with no support there is nothing left to do. Your article minimises this. No other generation of teachers has been so damned powerless in the face of increasingly unrealistic demands from the bureacracy and parents.

  6. Stacey says:

    Schools must have a plan of how to manage these situations. It’s not a problem for the individual teacher, it’s a problem for the entire school to find a solution to.

    Often violent kids don’t come from an ideal home, the last thing we need to do is punish them at school also. School should be a place for these kids to find some respite & support.

    I have seen a high school here in Victoria that takes violent., aggressive & highly disruptive kids out of the mainstream classes & into a smaller class of 5 to 6 kids so the teacher has more one on one time with the kids and the school has an opportunity to seek individual support for the kids.

    Listening, understanding the individual needs & support is a far better way to approach the problem than endless punishment of kids who really need some support in their lives.

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