How teachers are taught to discipline a classroom might not be the best way

Punitive measures aren’t always the best way to discipline students in class, despite what teachers are taught. SHutterstock

The national review of teacher education, released last week, emphasised that teaching graduates need to enter the classroom with practical skills for handling a classroom, and not just knowledge of the subject they’re teaching. One of the most important aspects of educating future teachers is teaching them how to manage a classroom.

Research clearly shows that students learn best in engaging environments that are orderly. However, all children are different; they respond to discipline in different ways. So how do we teach our teachers to manage all types of behaviour?

What sort of unproductive behaviour generally occurs in the classroom?

Recently, my colleagues and I used the Behaviour at School Study teacher survey to investigate the views of teachers about student behaviour in South Australian schools. The unproductive student behaviours they identified were grouped into the following types:

  • Low-level disruptive behaviours
  • Disengaged behaviours
  • Aggressive and anti-social behaviours.

The results showed that low-level disruptive and disengaged student behaviours occur frequently, and teachers find them difficult to manage. Aggressive and anti-social behaviours occur infrequently.

How are teachers taught to deal with student behaviour?

For many years, teachers have relied on intervention strategies to curb unproductive behaviour, such as rewards – which are used to promote compliant behaviour – and sanctions, which are used to deter students from disrupting the learning environment.

Not so long ago, schools across Australia readily used corporal punishment as a way of responding to inappropriate behaviour. Following the banning of corporal punishment from most schools, schools introduced stepped systems.

Gone are the days when teachers can threaten kids with the strap. Shutterstock

Stepped systems are a standard set of “consequences” that increase in severity and are used for all types of unproductive behaviour. These stepped approaches usually begin with a warning, in-class timeout, out-of-class timeout, being sent to school leader, then suspension and exclusion. They involve isolating students from their peers and removing them from their learning.

This approach might seem sensible because it allows the teacher to continue to teach and other students to continue to learn. However, it ignores the root of the problem. The “offending” students find it hard to get back into learning after missing work and continue to disengage from schooling.

The teacher survey showed that 85% of teachers indicated that they had used a “step” system involving an escalation of actions during the past week of teaching. Yet only 33.3% reported that it was effective.

Teachers seem to realise that threats and actions that remove students from their learning do not always work. This is supported by an emerging body of international research. The evidence clearly shows that relying on punitive approaches to managing behaviour, such as putting students in timeout, are not effective at fixing the problem. In fact, they exacerbate it over time.

So what is more effective in stopping unproductive behaviour?

Focusing on prevention is the key. Considering the physical environment, the curriculum and resources and the teaching method can prevent students from becoming disengaged and thus becoming disruptive. Teachers should teach problem-solving and conflict-resolution skills so students don’t resort to aggression to cope with situations.

Teacher education involves learning how to establish not only engaging but orderly learning environments. We know that the most common behaviours teachers are likely to encounter are low-level disruptive and disengaged behaviours, so it is important that teachers learn how to prevent such behaviours from occurring in the first place.

The Behaviour at School Study findings show that teachers should shift their attention away from focusing on trying to “fix” student behaviour by using rewards and consequences. Instead, they should seek a greater understanding of how other factors such as the teaching method and curriculum influence engagement and therefore student behaviour.

The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) now requires all teacher education programs to ensure graduates can

… create and maintain supportive and safe learning environments.

This is a significant development in teacher education. It recognises the importance of the whole learning environment, rather than just focusing on managing student behaviour.

There will never be one approach that can be applied across all schools and classrooms to prevent and respond to unproductive student behaviours. Teacher education courses need to teach approaches, skills and strategies for handling unproductive student behaviour in ways that are educative and caring, but, most importantly, that focus on how to prevent such behaviour occurring in the first place.


Further reading on discipline

How to discipline your children without rewards or punishment

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