behaviour at school

Behaviour: Senators ignored the research

Schools are workplaces as well as places of learning. All those who work in them have the right to feel safe. Clearly, not all teachers feel safe. The interim report of the Senate Education and Employment References Committee: The issue of increasing disruption in Australian school classrooms and the submissions to it provide evidence for this. The interim report refers to surveys conducted by the Australian Catholic University (ACU), Monash University and the Victorian Branch of the Australian Education Union, all documenting the unacceptably high levels of fear which some teachers operate under as a result of perceived and real threat. While the levels are disturbing, we want to stress that any level is too high.

In our view, the recommendations by this Committee to address such behaviours miss the mark.

Within the report there is yet again, and something that those working in teacher education are becoming very familiar with, a critique of initial teacher education. Inadequate ‘teacher training’ alongside a lack of classroom management skills is foregrounded as one of the major contributors to poor behaviour. Included are also the structures of classrooms, especially for students with disability, socioeconomic factors, bullying and family trauma. The recommendations thus focus on fast tracking reforms outlined in the TEEP Report.

Where’s the evidence?

The report makes frequent reference to the need for ‘evidence-based approaches’ as if ITE programs across the country are not already providing them. A scan of such programs will reveal plenty of courses that aim to explain the root causes of schooling disengagement that lie at the heart of ‘disruptive classrooms’; indeed, the report notes many examples provided in diverse submissions from many social and educational bodies – typically, low SES, disability, undiagnosed neurodiversity, childhood trauma and just the challenges posed by adolescence. Many approaches are suggested but the Senate Committee appears to favour suggestions that coincide with practices from the past that may have been suitable in a non-global industrial era rather than approaches that are responsive to the needs of young people today who come to school with vastly different attitudes and digital skills than, say, the “boomer” generation.

The report makes much of the need for “explicit instruction”, including explicit behavioural instruction; it favours “traditional” classrooms and “Positive Behaviour for Learning”. The Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO) claims to have “the most rigorous and relevant research” and the Senate Committee appears not to question that despite many other contributing research organisations who present very different views that situate challenging student behaviours within broader socio-economic and social factors and the roles played by community and parents/caregivers. Reverting to what seems to translate into “training-for-good-behaviour” will not solve the problem and will stifle engagement even more.

What needs to be fixed first

Schooling engagement and associated behaviours have several dimensions – cognitive and emotional as well as “behavioural”. The first two factors have to be addressed before “better behaviour” will occur. Students have to be intellectually stimulated to engage cognitively; for teachers to do this they must be confident in their subject matter and enthusiastically creative in their delivery. Learning should be an enjoyable journey for students; it should be meaningful and provide them with opportunities to problem-solve and work in teams; these are the skills required for future economic and social structures for which “explicit instruction” will have no place.

Students need to feel respected and have a sense of belonging; to feel supported and safe at school. Whilst acknowledging the external impacts of poverty, the report does not address it. Young people who experience homelessness, hunger and family violence will remain “disruptive” regardless of what happens to ITE programs. This is a shameful problem that we share as a society: the fact that some young people are so neglected, sad and angry that often their response is to turn against their teachers cannot be solved by educators alone.

While we support Recommendation 3 that calls for investment in professional learning for teachers, we rigorously challenge the conclusion evident in Recommendation 4 with its sole focus on promoting ‘explicit instruction; formative assessment; mastery learning; and spacing and retrieval to manage ‘disruptive behaviour in classrooms and provides the best possible learning conditions, to be implemented’. We need rich forms of professional development that recognise, value and enhance the professionalism of teachers. 

No one-size-fits-all

Within academic research and also evident in the submissions to the committee, is a clear need for a diversity of responses to student behaviour, depending on the reasons for the behaviour: there is no quick fix, no “one-size-fits-all”. Additionally, the conclusion evident in Recommendation 4 appears to ignore the complexities of the lives of adolescents living in the 21st century and the skills that they will need for future economies and their self-efficacy and well-being.

We support Recommendations 5 and 6 that call for greater support for young people and teachers in managing neurodiverse students. Whilst we agree that a national approach to classroom management might lead to the sharing of useful research, we are alarmed by Recommendation 9 seeking to ‘fast-track the implementation of the National Unique Student Identifier for school students’. 

This proposal is Orwellian in its intent to “track” students who may have experienced challenges at school. Wherever they go to school in Australia, their past will follow them and label them as “trouble-makers”. How can young people start with a clean slate at a new school and prove themselves. The suggestion of a National Unique Student Identifier is an egregious assault on their human rights. Historically, young people have been labelled as “good” vs “bad” but we argue that such simplistic generalisations have no place in 21st century education systems.

Alarm bells

The silences in the report also raise alarm bells. There are references to violence without any mention of gender. There is no consideration here about who the students are who are threatening violence against teachers. We know that there is a strong relationship between dominant forms of masculinity and violence. The threats posed to teachers, and others, as a consequence of toxic forms of masculinity performed by some boys need to be challenged. This violence can also contain a sexual element to it. We know that female teachers can be sexually harassed by male students and made to feel uncomfortable and threated by innuendo and verbal abuse.

Much of the report often implies that it is schools located in lower socioeconomic areas where teachers are likely to be most threatened. However, we know that gender-based violence towards female teachers can be present in some of the ‘best of schools’. Similar silences exist in the report about other forms of discrimination and the ways in which teachers can, for example, be the subject of racial vilification or transphobic abuse from students. Addressing these issues will require, alongside broader societal approaches, school programs and curricula that address consent, valuing difference, human rights and social justice. There is nothing in this report that encourages such approaches.  

Unfortunately, the Senate Committee’s recommendations are largely based upon one view which disempowers teachers and students and is backward looking rather than aspiring towards the future worlds in which our young people will live. Many submissions pointed to relational and pastoral approaches of working with young people within contexts of support and early intervention. It is our view that this is confirmed by a breadth and depth of peer-reviewed educational research.

Glenda McGregor is associate professor and deputy head of the School of Education and Professional Studies, Griffith University. Martin Mills is a research professor in the School of Teacher Education and Leadership, QUT. He was awarded an honorary life membership of AARE in 2023 for services to educational research and the Association.

Schools are unfairly targeting vulnerable children with their exclusionary policies

Australian schools are unfairly suspending and excluding students, particularly boys, Indigenous students, and students with a disability.  Our research is examining exclusionary policies and practices in Australian schools and the impact they have on vulnerable children. The findings suggest that these practices are discriminatory and harmful to the health, welfare and academic achievement of the children involved.

Recent publicly available data from 2019 shows that school exclusionary practices are being disproportionately applied towards particular groups of students in Australia. Our analysis shows that the following groups of students are at greater risk of being unfairly suspended and excluded from schools:

Indigenous students

  • In Queensland, Indigenous students received a quarter of all fixed-term and permanent exclusions (25.3% and 25.4% respectively), despite making up just over 10% of all Queensland’s full-time state school enrolments.
  • In NSW, of all short and long suspensions approximately 25% were for Aboriginal students, even though this group represents just 8% of all student enrolments.
  • In Victoria, 6.5% of all expulsions were for Indigenous students, however, this group represents only 2.3% of the student population.

Students with disability funding

  • In Victoria, students with disability funding received 14% of all permanent exclusions yet constituted only 4.5% of all government school enrolments.

Male students

  • In South Australia, over three quarters of all suspensions were given to male students (77%), a ratio of over 3:1 compared to females.
  • In Victoria, males received over 80% of the permanent exclusions, a ratio of 4:1 compared to females.
  • In NSW, around three quarters of all short and long suspensions in 2019 were for males (75.3% and 73.9% respectively).

It’s not just happening in Australia

A recent review of US research concluded that marginalised groups, including students from particular racial backgrounds, students with disabilities, boys, and, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, were disproportionately at risk of being suspended and excluded from school.

Similar findings have been observed in England. Research has shown disproportionately higher rates of exclusionary practices are applied to Black Caribbean students, Gypsy/Roma and Traveller pupils, Mixed White and Black Caribbean pupils, boys, as well as those with disabilities and/or behavioural, emotional or social difficulties.

What exclusionary practices are involved?

Exclusionary practices involve removing students who disrupt the ‘good order’ in schools and threaten others’ safety. This includes suspensions in which a child is removed from a class to a different place in the school (in-school suspension) or suspending a child from attending school for a set number of days (out-of-school suspension). It can also include exclusions or expulsions, whereby a child is removed from the school either temporarily or permanently.

Why it matters

Exclusionary practices that disproportionately affect vulnerable groups of students have the potential to contribute to ‘deep exclusion’. Deep exclusion refers to ‘exclusion across more than one domain or dimension of disadvantage, resulting in severe negative consequences for quality of life, well-being and future life chances’.

Research shows that there is a clear relationship between suspension from school and a range of behaviours detrimental to the health and wellbeing of young people’ including alienation from school, involvement with antisocial peers, increased alcohol and tobacco consumption and a lower quality of school life which increases the likelihood of school dropout, and involvement in illegal behaviour.

Students who are considered vulnerable or disadvantaged in more than one way are at heightened risk of being suspended from school and are therefore more likely to be adversely affected.  Thus, school exclusions are likely to both result from and contribute towards further deep exclusion.

What is possible instead?

We believe exclusionary practices should be considered as a last resort and that legislation and policy related to school exclusions can be framed in ways that provide guidance for school discipline while also keeping students in school where possible.  We hope our ongoing research will help provide the evidence base for policy and school-based interventions that enhance the success of vulnerable children in our schools.


For those who want more information – please visit our website School Exclusions Study

Anna Sullivan is an Associate Professor and Director of Research for Educational and Social Inclusion Group at the University of South Australia. She is a leading expert in school discipline and is committed to investigating ways in which schools can be better places. A/Prof Sullivan was lead researcher of a major Australian research study investigating behaviour in schools. The findings from this research have led to a greater understanding of teachers’ views of student behaviour and how school leaders can enact behaviour policy to support students in humane and caring ways. Her research has informed education policy and practice internationally.

Neil Tippett is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of South Australia, who completed his PhD at the University of Warwick in May 2015. His doctoral research examined school bullying from a socioecological perspective, identifying how individual behaviour and wider societal characteristics impacted on the likelihood of children being victimized or bullying others at school. Currently, his research interests include child safety, mental health, and student wellbeing and behaviour. Most recently he played a central role in reviewing and updating the National Safe Schools Framework, the Australia-wide document guiding how schools and communities can support the safety and wellbeing of their students. 

Bruce Johnson is an Emeritus Professor at the University of South Australia. He is an international expert in school discipline and classroom management. His research interests include human resilience, curriculum theory and development, school reform, classroom management, and sexuality education. He was a Chief Investigator on the Australian Research Council Linkage funded Behaviour at School Study

Jamie Manolev is a PhD candidate at the University of South Australia undertaking research within the fields of classroom management and school discipline. His expertise is in discipline, classroom management and critical policy analysis. He has worked as a research assistant on two ARC Linkage projects: The Behaviour at School Study, and the Refugee Student Resilience Study.