Managing 20-30 adults in one room is a challenge for even the best managers. Swap the adults for children and you have what classroom teachers do every day.
Student behaviour and engagement in class are some of the biggest problems worrying Australian teachers and education experts. According to a 2022 report, Australian classrooms rank among the OECD’s most disorderly. This can range from low-level behaviours such as talking, not following instructions and using a mobile phone in class, to destruction of property, physical and verbal abuse.
This makes it harder for students to learn and more stressful for teachers to teach.
For the past year, a Liberal-chaired Senate inquiry has been looking at “increasing disruption in Australian school classrooms”.
What is in the report?
On top of its previous recommendation to introduce a “behaviour curriculum” (to “help students understand their school’s behavioural expectations and values”), the committee now recommends a further inquiry into “declining academic standards” in Australian schools.
The report notes the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results. Released in December 2023, this is an international test of 15-year-olds’ knowledge and skills in science, maths and reading:
while Australia’s relative performance has remained mostly unchanged over the last two cycles, Australian students’ overall performance has actually been in steady decline over the past two decades.
Along with the academic component, a PISA questionnaire asked students how often disruptions happened in maths lessons. This included asking whether students do not listen to what the teacher says and whether there is noise and disorder in the classroom.
Australia ranked 33 out of the 37 OECD countries in the survey. Around 40% of Australian students reported they get distracted by using digital devices in maths lessons, while more than 30% said they get distracted by other students using digital devices.
What could help?
The report also noted the Australian Education Research Organisation’s recent work on behaviour, backed by federal government funding.
Below are four key messages from this work.
1. Set expectations, routines and rules
Students don’t arrive at school innately knowing what is expected of them. This includes what to do when they are entering and exiting the classroom, wanting to gain their teacher’s attention, completing tasks or moving through the school.
So classroom rules and routines need to be explicitly taught and regularly revised to help students understand and demonstrate them automatically. This then gives them more headspace for learning.
Some expectations should be shared with families, such as arrival routines or expectations about homework.
Teachers should also role-model what they expect of students. This includes arriving to class on time, being organised, and listening to and speaking to students in a consistent and calm manner.
2. Prepare the classroom environment
The way a classroom is set up plays an important role in creating welcoming, calm and functional learning environments.
This can include the way furniture is arranged – so everyone can see and hear the teacher easily – as well as visual displays that are set up to enhance and not distract from learning.
This includes reminders for where students will put their bags, displaying timetables and routines so students know where they need to be and what they need to do.
3. Build student-teacher relationships
If students have a positive connection with their teacher, they are more likely to have a positive attitude towards school. Some ways teachers can establish a strong relationship include greeting students individually at the classroom door every day and interacting with students outside the classroom.
They should regularly “check in” with every student. For example, ask about their weekend, their activities and interests outside of school, such as how their football team is performing or how their dance performance went.
If there are issues, they should deliver feedback constructively. This involves reminding students of the expectations, identifying what they were doing and what they need to do instead and why. After giving feedback, teachers should let go of the incident and start fresh.
4. Respond to behaviour
Even with the best classroom management practices, there will be times when teachers need to handle disengaged or disruptive behaviours.
Teachers should be familiar with a combination of non-verbal and verbal “corrections” and escalate responses as needs be.
This includes talking to a student privately one-on-one, at a time that does not interrupt the flow of the lesson. They can also remind the group or whole class of expectations.
Teachers can also use non-verbal strategies, such as moving closer to a student who is not behaving, pausing and looking at a student in a deliberate way to demonstrate they are aware of what is happening. They could also make a gesture (such as a finger to their lips). The focus should always be on supporting students to re-engage in learning rather than punishing them.
Acknowledging and praising students who are meeting behaviour expectations is also as important as addressing disruption. This reinforces the expected behaviours for all students.
A complex issue
Student behaviour is a complex issue and is by no means solely an issue for teachers to fix. As the Senate inquiry heard, behaviour can be influenced by socioeconomic factors, bullying, family trauma and disability.
But there are practical things teachers and schools can do to help students engage in their lessons and keep classrooms calm and focused.