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Help disruptive students, don’t just suspend them

Kicking the naughty kid out of class won’t make them behave. Helping them might. Shutterstock

Reports that Australia scored poorly compared to the OECD average on classroom noise and disorder prompted calls for a return to “traditional” styles of teaching and increased power to allow principals to suspend “repeat offenders”. Such approaches, however, stand in direct conflict with the research evidence.

As to the first of these recommendations, extensive research by the Centre for the Advanced Study of Teaching & Learning in the US shows that the development of an optimum teaching and learning environment is a complex process; one that can’t be reduced to the adoption of one style or method of teaching.

In terms of suspending students, international experts on school discipline have found that exclusionary responses to student misbehaviour – time-out, suspension, referral to separate settings – are ineffective because they do not address the underlying causes of disruptive behaviour.

Longitudinal research shows that such responses tend to exacerbate student disaffection, resulting in more negative outcomes. For example, not only is school suspension the most robust predictor of special education placement and later school failure but suspension has been found to increase antisocial behaviour.

So, if suspending “repeat offenders” is not a solution because it ignores the underlying causes of disruptive student behaviour, then what might those underlying causes be? Or, perhaps more importantly, which ones can we realistically address?

The most common explanation for disruptive behaviour is the young person themselves: their socioeconomic background, family upbringing and biological make-up. But neither the individual nor their family background explains everything. If that were true, then we’d have far graver problems in our schools than we currently do.

Severely disruptive student behaviour is far more complex than that. It involves ongoing interactions between the individual student - their ability, attitudes, interests, temperament and background - together with their school context.

That context includes the children they go to school with, the types of schools they attend, the approaches to school discipline employed, the learning experiences to which they are exposed, the pace and type of instruction they receive, and the teachers with whom they interact.

What do the kids say?

Interviews with 33 boys enrolled in special “behaviour” schools suggest that negative trajectories begin early and build over time.

Almost two-thirds of these boys (average age 13.5 years) said that they first began disliking school in the early years (kindergarten - year 4). Just under half (44%) named “school work” as the reason they began disliking school, signalling difficulty with the increasing pace and complexity of the academic curriculum:

Just all the work and the homework and everythin’. I got over it and when I was in Year 3 just started misbehavin’ and everythink

(Damon - age 13)

Another third nominated “teachers” as the reason they began disliking school. However, their problems with teachers were multi-faceted. Some boys resented being singled out and treated less fairly than the “smart kids”, while others felt as though they hadn’t received the support and attention that they needed to overcome learning difficulties. Underpinning both of these sentiments was a sense that they don’t matter:

…it’s not me being bad so much as them kind of pointing you out. If one of the kids, basically, I’m just going to call them the dumb kids, if we talked to one of the smart kids in the class, they would suddenly – like, if we talked to each other, they wouldn’t care, but if we talked to one of the smart kids they’d say, “Stop it. Don’t rub any of YOU onto them.” And they’d basically try to split you up as much as they can. And the dumb kids just stay back in the corner of the room and we don’t matter.

(Ben - age 15)

While many expressed anger and resentment at the ways in which they are treated by certain teachers, students’ dislike of teachers overall appears less related to individuals and more to their role making them do work that they find too difficult. For example, when asked what they liked least about school, two in three boys said school work, while only only in five said teachers.

Similarly, when asked what they tend to get in trouble for, just over three-quarters nominated behaviours that would be classed as “persistent disobedience”, (something teachers acknowledge as the main issue with behaviour) but which the kids themselves described as arising from conflict over task avoidance.

Backchattin’. Always. Just like teacher tells me to do somethin’ I tell them no. Then I’ll get in trouble because then they’ll be like, why not? Then I’ll tell ‘em, then they’ll just be like, oh, then I’m just like, nuh - then I’ll just keep sayin’ that. Then they’ll go, “Out!” I’m just like yeah, then I just walk out.

(Patrick - age 16)

Pieced together, these students’ stories suggest that academic difficulties lead to task avoidance which leads to teacher-student conflict which leads to the use of time-out, which is followed by an escalation in disruptive behaviour, which is met by repeat long-suspension, leading to further escalation, and eventually referral to special educational settings.

Less than half ever make it back to mainstream, with research suggesting that boys leaving behaviour schools from age 13 onwards may be graduating to juvenile detention. Not exactly a recipe for success. Yet, according to behaviour school principals, this process is beginning younger and younger.

What’s the solution?

While the majority of these boys could not think of anything that their previous schools could have done differently, almost one in three were quite sure that suspension was a poor substitute for the understanding, attentiveness and individualised supports they needed.

In their words, they need help before they receive punishment. This was best articulated by 14-year-old Xavier who, after thinking through the question “Is there anything that your previous school could have done differently?”, replied:

Not suspend me. Find other ways to help me instead of just always suspending me.

Given a place in a behaviour school costs taxpayers between three and 10 times as much as a place in a local secondary school, and because time in juvenile detention (where a few of these boys have already ended up) will cost infinitely more, he’s right.

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