‘Zero tolerance’ is the wrong approach to classroom behaviour management

By Karen Peel

The Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, has demanded a zero tolerance approach to students’ bad behaviour in Australian classrooms. He was reponding to key findings from the latest PISA report which found Australia scored “significantly lower than the OECD average” for classroom discipline levels. From the perspectives of the students surveyed, Australian classroom environments were not “consistently conducive to effective learning”. In part the results “indicated a poor climate of classroom discipline”.

We can only wish a simple solution such as a zero tolerance approach would fix the problem. However from my teaching experience, and as is recognised in research evidence, control and quick fixes more often exacerbate behaviour problems in schools. As I see it, the Minister’s response appears to be aimed at punishing students’ non-compliance where a proactive response, such as focusing on practices to increase student engagement in learning, has the potential to be much more effective.

Student behaviour in contemporary schools can be a contentious political issue for policy-makers. Regular negative media coverage creates concerns for politicians, principals, teachers, parents and students.

For teachers, the prevalence of low-level disruptive behaviours can be especially difficult and frustrating to manage. Indeed, a disruptive classroom climate can hinder the learning process and lower the achievement of the entire class. As such, reducing disruptive behaviours in the classroom has a positive effect on students’ learning.

However, it is unlikely that students will flourish as learners in classrooms that are narrowed to obedience and sheer compliance.

I would much rather see students taught to self-regulate their learning and behaviour within productive and supportive learning environments. This is an alternative to teachers viewing classroom behaviour management as the use of tools, tricks or interventions to control students’ behaviour.

The emphasis on controlling student behaviour

Historically, classroom behaviour management has been viewed with an emphasis on controlling students’ behaviour. Behaviour management is usually focused on actions taken by teachers to establish order, elicit students’ cooperation and engage them in learning.

In both the UK and the US there are moves to give teacher control of student behavior more emphasis in teacher education. In the UK the talk is about “expectations of compliance and effort” and the “3Rs of the behaviour curriculum”: Routines, Relationships and Response strategies. Similarly, in the US, five key strategies for effective classroom management were identified that include rules, routines, praise, consequences for misbehaviour and active student engagement.

I argue that there is a serious omission here. There is a fourth R: teaching students to take Responsibility for their learning. The ideals of students sharing the responsibility for their learning are not included as a future priority for effective classroom behaviour management in either of these strategies.

Also there is the added layer of complexity in that teachers might think about instruction as teacher- and student-centred, and then view classroom behaviour management only through the teacher-centred lens.

Approaches matter

I believe the approaches teachers choose to take to manage classrooms and behaviours impact on students, now and into the future. And yes indeed teachers do have an overall responsibility for providing all of their students with access to high-quality schooling.

However when teachers try to seek compliance by administering rewards and consequences, students have limited opportunities to regulate their own learning. Hence, a vicious cycle can be established and perpetuated through excessive teacher control, with the potential to compromise a conducive learning environment. For instance, it is possible that students’ compliance reduces when opportunities to regulate their learning are not met, which in turn increases the likelihood that the teachers’ quest for compliance will continue through implementing control, or worse an arsenal of punishment for non-compliance.

Also it should be noted that students who are compliant can be quietly disengaged from learning.

Self-regulated learning

Providing opportunities for students to engage actively to self-regulate their learning, shifts the aim of classroom behaviour management beyond the function of maintaining order in the classroom to a focus on learning, being responsible and having fun.

Self-regulated learning integrated into classroom management can empower students to take control of their own learning and can empower teachers to share the responsibility for creating positive classroom cultures. As opposed to a teacher reflecting on “how well did I manage the students’ behaviour in the classroom?” the emphasis is on whether the teacher provided opportunities for the students to regulate their learning within a social environment. After all, no one has control over the students’ behaviour and learning success more than the students themselves.

The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) has developed the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (APST) to provide a clear vision of what teachers are expected to know and be able to do today. These call for an approach to creating environments for learning that can inspire students as self-regulated and lifelong learners to connect with a learning desire. This goes beyond the teacher just maintaining acceptable standards of behaviour. For teachers in contemporary classrooms, this shift in thinking considers the needs of all their students to feel responsible and respected.

I believe understanding and valuing the development of students’ self-regulatory capabilities can lead to an approach to classroom behaviour management that offers a pathway for fostering lifelong learning skills.

When teachers provide their students with opportunities to set goals, monitor progress and reflect on their learning within supportive social communities, the approach to classroom behaviour management moves away from thinking that students are not capable of controlling their own behaviour and what becomes important is teachers knowing their students and how they learn.

This shift in thinking requires the policy makers and the teaching profession to recognise the value of a proactive approach for “improving student learning as opposed to controlling behaviour”. The challenge is for those involved in education to understand the classroom as a social system for learning and to see beyond the immediate behaviour of students with the aim of knowing who they are and how to engage them in learning.


Karen Peel has extensive experience as a classroom teacher.  She shares her expertise in making the connections between practice and theory as an initial teacher educator within the field of classroom behaviour management at the University of Southern Queensland.  Karen’s current research is situated in the primary to junior-secondary school transition years and focuses on exploring teachers’ proactive pedagogical approaches that empower young adolescent students to take control and responsibility to self-regulate their learning.

Karen will be presenting at The Learner conference in July in Hawaii- The Learner Research Network: “A Pedagogical Model for Self-Regulated Learning: Why aim for behavioural compliance when we can inspire learning?

13 thoughts on “‘Zero tolerance’ is the wrong approach to classroom behaviour management

  1. Brian Cambourne says:

    Thanks for calling out the minister’s knee-jerk response and challenging the “strict-father” ideology on which conservative governments base their policy decisions. I hope your research on developing classroom cultures which support and nurture self-regulated learning get the support and attention it deserves.

  2. Karen Peel says:

    Thanks Brian for your encouraging feedback. Sometimes it is important to look past the “problem” to find a “solution” because the real reason for something maybe more obvious when looking from another perspective. The inspiration for my has research originated from my prolonged experiences as a primary school teacher where I observed past students transition from primary school to secondary school and then into the broader community. My experiences developed my awareness of the ongoing obligation of teachers in preparing students to journey towards worthwhile participation in adult-life and lifetime learning.

  3. Will a ‘Zero tolerance’ approach also be applied to the Australia Parliament? Will MPs and Senators who use interpret language, are late, plagiarize work or are drunk or under the influence of illegal drugs be expelled? 😉

    More seriously, a teacher need to be able to helps students with behavior. This apples to adult students as well. It can be an issue on-line, as well as in a face-to-face classroom. On occasion I have had to be firmly told to stop posting so many long items with many links, as this was disrupting the discussion of an on-line graduate course. But usually I am the one advising students to post more, and more relevant comments.

  4. Karen Peel says:

    Thanks for your comment Tom. As you suggest, providing opportunities for adults to take responsibility for their behaviour in all contexts teaches them to develop capabilities for life.

  5. Sheila Forknall says:

    Behavior of parliamentarians is often appalling yet they are adults and have airconditioned comfort. They should try being in a classroom with 28 other bodies on a stinking hot day.

  6. Karen Peel says:

    Hi Sheila

    Thanks for your post. It is hard to forget the experience of a classroom of teenagers after lunch, in the afternoon of a hot day.

    In addition to your comment, sadly many adults in society do not model behaviours that they expect from students/children/other adults.


  7. peter o'brien says:

    Thanks for the article. I have recently started overseeing an alternative secondary setting for “disengaged” youth. I constantly hear the mantra of “tough love” which at this particular setting, translates into rules and regulations with punishments and consequences for non compliance. It is a form of control with no consideration of self regulation. It is teacher centred, misguided and implemented to make life manageable for the teachers rather than the students.

  8. Karen Peel says:

    Hi Peter
    Thanks for your comment.
    Although I acknowledge the necessity for students’ compliance with rules and procedures that afford conditions for learning, in this article I have proposed a paradigm shift by suggesting that the aim of classroom behaviour management should be featured as creating and sustaining productive and supportive learning environments. Such a shift Involves teachers sharing the responsibility for and control of learning with their students. I would be very interested to know how this approach impacts on behaviour and learning in the context you are currently working in.

  9. Nat says:

    I’m surprised that a learning space for disengaged learners takes the approach mentioned above. I’m so disappointed. Many of those students have trauma in their backgrounds, and traditional approaches to compliance are a total waste of time and often add further trauma.
    I loved this article and the thinking around the approach. A lot of misbehaviour relates to a lack of self-regulation. This is a tool every human requires to be successful in life. Using school as a place to teach this skill, and meeting each individual child where they are at, is critical. If teachers get that right, they’ll give each child an incredible gift

  10. Karen Peel says:

    Thank you Nat for your positive feedback and comments. A proactive approach to classroom behaviour management develops students’ self-regulated learning capabilities and teaches them that that they are in control of their behaviour. Students need to see the purpose for the learning, accept responsibility and feel capable to experience success and enjoyment from learning. This is a perpetuating cycle that is can be optimised or thwarted in educational learning environments.

  11. Danielle Lawless says:

    My child who is autistic and who has been labelled as having behaviour of concern certainly needs an alternative. This behaviour of concern comes from them not coping with certain aspects within in the school and learning environment.

    This behaviour has coincided when typically they have not been reasonably supported in regards to their individual needs.

    The usual responses have been reactive. Including restrictive practices such as physical restraint and timeout strategies, suspensions, reduction of attendance, lowered learning expectations and access to the curriculum, exclusion from school and social activities, and segregation within and outside the classroom

    These actions have been justified through obligations of health and safety. Our common experience although has been this is said rather than qualified and quantified. Critically I have been of the opinion this has worked more as an excuse to cover the lack of reasonable adjustment and competency.

    Rewards and motivators have been too heavily relied upon as well. A common one is you will get a treat which usually has been chocolate or you will get time to play your games. The net result for my child I feel is they don’t value their learning experience beyond it being a chore or a means to and end. I felt too this lack of valuing of their learning experience itself and that this should be positive is contributed by poor attitudes and stereotypes of what it means to be autistic

    I know as their parent what challenges and struggles they face and deal with on a daily basis but I do my best not to exclude them or under value their ability, capacity, and their right to self determinism in self regulation and learning. I don’t understand why the education system can’t do the same

    Judging by Mr Birmingham demands for zero tolerance, political leadership a significant likely factor

    Thank you Karen for this article and what you are passionate about as an academic and researcher. If I could ask how much research and academic discussion is going on in this area. More specifically children with disabilities who have behaviour of concern

  12. Karen Peel says:

    Hi Danielle
    As you have indicated the subject of behaviour in schools is an emotive and contentious issue that can lead to responses that are often reactionary rather than educative and inclusive of the needs of each and every student.

    The literature and research in the field of classroom management indicates the value of developing supportive learning environments, along with the limitations of external inducements and sanctions, and many school behaviour plans reflect this approach. However, in the quest for compliance, sometimes the behaviourist element of the plan that focuses on rewards and consequences can dominate, especially when teachers are challenged to quickly fix the problem. This is suitable in times of safety and security. In addition, teachers need to be empowered to teach prosocial skills that empower students to see the value of learning and to experience enjoyment from learning with others.

Comments are closed.