Queensland University of Technology (QUT)

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

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.

Distorted: this feeble report misses the boat on classroom behaviour

At an event at Parliament House earlier this year I heard that 2024 is going to be the year of education. That is excellent news given that we haven’t heard much about education from the Albanese government but, to be honest, that has been somewhat of a blessed reprieve given the hyperventilation of the previous Morrison LNP government.

I have mixed feelings about what might be coming but wouldn’t if education policy was informed by evidence rather than politics. It isn’t. The impact of that politicisation is never openly acknowledged and the policy decisions that are made (or not made) by governments are never the focus of inquiries or reviews. Instead, the “problem” is always framed by alleged deficiencies in students, parents, teachers, and/or universities.

Disagreement among panel members

Take, for example, the Senate Inquiry into the issue of increasing disruption in Australian classrooms. The interim report has just landed, and, like the final report of the Disability Royal Commission, there was disagreement among panel members. Labor and Greens senators have made additional comments that acknowledge the complexity of behaviour in schools and the Greens have only one recommendation: to fully fund public schools at the beginning of the next National School Reform Agreement in 2025. 

I was called to give evidence at the senate inquiry. At the time, I expressed concern that the Inquiry based its case for ‘increasing disruption’ on PISA data, noting first, that there are cultural and other differences between countries and second, that there are problems with the rankings. I will have more to say about the report and its recommendations in time but for now I want to take readers through points I made in the new first chapter of Inclusive Education for the 21st Century, which extend my comments from the evidence I gave to the inquiry.

Since that hearing, I have looked more closely at the data on which these claims are based and I’m frankly astonished that the Inquiry team did not do this themselves. Even a cursory glance should have been enough to signal to the Senate that these rankings were not a rigorous enough premise on which to base an Inquiry. 

Let us wade through this numerical sewage together

The claim for ‘increasing disruption in Australian classrooms’ is based on the difference in results from two surveys of 15-year-olds who participated in the OECD’s Program of International Student Assessment (PISA). 

The first survey occurred in 2009 and the second in 2018. The disciplinary climate data is based on five survey items:  

1.       Students don’t listen to what the teacher says. 

2.       There is noise and disorder.  

3.       The teacher has to wait a long time for students to quiet down.  

4.       Students cannot work well.  

5.       Students don’t start working for a long time after the lesson begins. 

Here’s where things get interesting! Here are relevant findings from the two reports.

PISA 2009PISA 2018
Participating countries were ranked on the percentage of 15-year-old students who selected ‘never or hardly ever’ and ‘in some lessons’ for Item 1 ‘Students don’t listen to what the teacher says’, and Item 3 ‘The teacher has to wait a long time for students to quiet down’.79 countries participated and 76 were ranked, however, this time the OECD developed a disciplinary climate index that encompasses all five items with some minor changes in wording.
Australia was ranked 28th for the first item and 25th for the second.Countries were ranked using their respective Index scores.
Differences between PISA 200 and PISA 2009 were calculated.Australia was ranked 69th
Australia deemed to have an average disciplinary climate that had not significantly changed between the two timepoints.
Differences between PISA 2009 and PISA 2018 were calculated 
There was a significant difference between timepoints in the responses of Australian students for only two of the five items: Item 3 ‘The teacher has to wait a long time for students to quiet down’, and Item 4 ‘Students cannot work well’
Item (5) also declined (-1.8%) but not significantly, while Items (1) and (2) improved (both +0.8%), but again not significantly.

What does all this mean?

First, Australia has not fallen from 28th or 25th in the ranking to 69th. Rather, the number of participating countries has changed over time and so therefore have the rankings. To be clear, the number of participating countries has grown from 43 (2000) to 65 (2009) to 79 (2018). And, because comparisons can only be made between countries that participated in each assessment, the number of countries in the rankings has changed from 38 in 2009 to 76 in 2018. This is not to dispute that Australia is ranked lower than anyone would like but there are problems with the rankings which render them meaningless. 

Here’s why

1)    The types of countries participating in PISA 2009 and PISA 2018 substantively changed due to the entrance of Asian countries. Unlike Australia, these jurisdictions/systems are grounded in Confucian culture, which has a profound effect on teacher-student relationships, classroom interactions, and climate. 

2)    There was a significant difference between timepoints in the responses of Australian students for only two of the five items. The case for increasing disruption in Australian classrooms therefore rests on a 3.7% decrease in the number of students saying their teacher ‘never or hardly ever’ has to wait a long time for students to quiet down, and a 2.8% decrease in the number saying students cannot work well ‘never or hardly ever’. Given that there was no difference in students’ responses between PISA 2000 and 2009, that suggests that there has been no change in more than 20 years for at least two of the five items.

3)    Countries with almost identical disciplinary index scores are ranked above and below each other. For example, Australia and Belgium received Index scores of 0.20 and 0.21, respectively yet Australia is ranked 69th and Belgium 70th. There is a snowball’s chance in hell that these scores are statistically different to each other, so why is one being ranked above the other? Doing this simply expands the number of places in the ranking which makes the distance between countries look larger than it really is.

4)    No tests of significance between countries or ranks were conducted, so we do not know whether there is a statistically significant difference in Australian students’ responses to the OECD average or how much of a difference there is between Australia and the countries at the top of the ranking. Similar points have been made numerous times over the years in relation to the rankings for student achievement in reading, mathematics, and science, but at least in those cases, countries with statistically indistinguishable performances are grouped together and given the same rank. 

5)    Recent research by Sally Larsen from the University of New England has indicated no decline in TIMMS, PIRLS or NAPLAN results of Australian students. Any observed correlations between declines in PISA’s disciplinary climate survey and student academic outcomes should not be causally interpreted.

My view

If politicians are going to look at rankings, then look at them all. Let’s consider, for example, that: 

1.     Australia is sitting at the top of ranked countries in terms of the hours that teachers spend in face-to-face teaching. 

2.     Australian teachers spend more hours teaching than the OECD average (838.28 hours/year vs 800.45 hours respectively)

3.     Korea is ranked first in classroom disciplinary climate and Australia is ranked 69th. However, Australian teachers spend 323.30 more hours per year in face-to-face teaching than their Korean counterparts, who teach just 516.98 hours/year.

4.     In disciplinary climate, the difference between advantaged students and disadvantaged students in Australia (0.34) is double that of Korea (0.17). 

These are just some of the gaps and anomalies that arise when the PISA data is subjected to close reading, which is the absolute minimum amount of analysis that should have been conducted (if not, prior, then at least) during an Inquiry that used these data for its rationale.

The questions education ministers must ask

Readers of the Interim Report, especially Education Ministers, should regard it very critically and start asking serious questions:

  • Who stands to benefit from such simple representations of these data?
  • Might there be financial benefits for non-university providers from the ‘deregulation’ of initial teacher education?
  • Are there other data that have been ignored and, if so, what does their omission suggest about rigour and bias?
  • Might Australian students tell a different story if asked by expert researchers using both open and close-ended questions? 

Are we brave enough to ask them?

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: Theory, Policy and Practice, 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.

Andrew Tate: Why the blind hope of a mother needs urgent help from the underworld

Andrew Tate, sent to trial overnight, is a hugely popular influencer whose extreme misogynistic views are infiltrating classrooms and playgrounds across the world. His impact on classroom behaviour has been reported in popular media and include teachers overhearing jokes about sexual violence and  children writing misogynistic essays. Wescott and Roberts recently published insights on their study of Australian classroom experiences with the manosphere. Their study ‘illuminates the presence of rampant disrespect towards teachers, sexual harassment of teachers and girls, physical intimidation and blatant disregard for women’. 

My own experience with the ‘manosphere’ has been through my own child being called names so horrible it took my breath away. How does a child in primary school even know those words? What does a teacher or parent even say to that? I’ve taught in pretty rough schools in my time: been sworn at, even emailed pornography. But I kinda thought for a long time that ‘feminism had done its job’ by now. We just simply don’t speak to each other this way! Let alone eleven-year-olds. I know that’s naïve but there is nothing quite like the blind hope of a mother.

Maybe it’s because I research social media and education, but I have also had a number of people ask me about ‘what should we say about Andrew Tate’? Many parents and teachers are concerned. He’s not really on my research radar but online democracy is. So I turned my 25 years of Civics and Citizenship teacher skills to the problem of ‘Talking about Andrew Tate and the manosphere’. 

The first thing to get straight is that it is pretty much impossible to ban Andrew Tate, despite what he says. He is hugely popular, even after Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, Instagram and Facebook banned him

Suddenly people began to wonder who this person was, and his name got more clicks. Nearly every news outlet reported bans, bringing him into the sphere of older people who might not have heard of him before. If we are thinking in democratic terms, since 2016 we have seen underground extremist groups collectivise, radicalise and come to dominate political decision-making in the US, the UK and even in Australia. Indeed, reactionary approaches to extremism are more likely to send kids underground. Collectivised underground groups provide a sense of community a lonely teenager will most likely value and fight hard to keep. What we need is to be responsive and use well-worn democracy tools to help shift kids’ thinking. 

The following advice can be applied to any influencer you find in the dark parts of the Internet. All you have to do is remember PLUTO. Yes, PLUTO the mythical god of the underworld and the poor, hard-done-by dwarf planet. Yes, it’s a planet again.

PLUTO stands for: Partnership, Listening, Understanding, Talk with purpose, and be Organised.


When speaking to kids about someone like Andrew Tate you must be a partner in the conversation. Do not pretend that you know more than the kids. You don’t. You will never catch up to them, especially if they have been down the rabbit hole for a while. Besides, Andrew Tate has already given them all the comebacks. 

What you do need to know about is what it means to be a part of a fair and just society, what the laws are about hate speech and defamation, and what it means to be an active and informed citizen. You can use these tools to speak with the kids about whether misogyny progresses a good society or sends it backwards.


Listen. Don’t judge the words that come out of their mouths. Andrew Tate has given language that does not necessarily match their development. Ask them to think deeply about the meaning of the words they are using and how that might make others feel. How that makes them look to others. Do some detective work. Ask them what the evidence is that they would use those words to describe another person. Let them know that freedom of speech only applies when it’s true.


The goal is to achieve a collective understanding of what is going on with your classroom or family when a member is listening to Andrew Tate. How is that affecting the dynamic? 

All of these conversations need to happen with a trusted adult. A school inviting ‘an expert’ to speak about the manosphere on assembly is only going to alienate people and probably bring in parental complaints. You don’t want strangers talking to them about Andrew Tate. The same thing goes for a package bought and implemented in a life skills lesson. A package will speak at the young people, not with them. There needs to be a skilled classroom teacher for those kids. Someone who has built a relationship of trust who can work in partnership with the kids, not tell them what to do. 

Talk with purpose

Too often conversations about misogyny happen on the fly. Maybe driving in the car or when it comes up in class. When speaking to kids who have potentially been radicalized, these occasions are not the time to try and shift thinking. When, where and with whom the conversation occurs needs to be well planned. It also needs to have a purpose. Be well designed in its resourcing and intention. Reactionary conversations are most likely going to be ‘won’ by someone who the manosphere has already given all the answers to. 

Be Organised

You, as the teacher (or parent) need to demonstrate a rigorous decision-making process. You need to educate yourself about what it means to live in a fair and just liberal democracy. The discipline area in the Australian curriculum most suited to these conversations is Humanities and Social Sciences, specifically the Civics and Citizenship strand. This, often overlooked, cousin of History and Geography has all the tools needed for talking about how misogynistic views affect our democracy and ultimately society. Civics and Citizenship, as a part of the HaSS suit has purposeful, structured inquiry embedded in its pedagogy and has since Socrates. It also has decades of resourcing about what it means to be an active and informed citizen. 

So, remember PLUTO when you need to talk about Andrew Tate, or any of the people and ideas in the dark, reactionary, radicalizing areas of the Internet. PLUTO: Partnership, Listening, Understanding, Talk with purpose, be Organised.

This is an extrapolation of a lightning talk I gave on a panel ‘Talking about Andrew Tate and the manosphere with boys and young men’ at the Centre for Justice research group at QUT. You can find a recording of all the speakers here. The licence for the header image is to be found here.

Dr Naomi Barnes is a senior lecturer at QUT and is interested in how crisis influences education politics, specifically the effect of moral panics. She also considers how the curriculum relates to nationalism, identity, and democracy. Naomi lectures future teachers in Modern History, Civics and Citizenship and Writing Studies. She has worked for Education Queensland as a Senior Writer and has worked as a Secondary Humanities and Social Science teacher in the government, Catholic and Independent schooling sectors.