Schools’ Tough Approach to Bad Behaviour Isn’t Working – and May Escalate Problems

It’s often thought a tough approach to behaviour is the way forward for schools. But research shows that punitive responses, such as writing names on the board, taking away a student’s lunch time, or handing out detention, are actually ineffective in the long term and can exacerbate student disengagement and alienation.

Harsh actions might initially bring about some student compliance, but over time they build resentfulness, and relationships then breakdown.

So why do schools in Australia continue with this approach? What does research say about how to improve behaviour in schools? And are other countries getting it right?

How Australian schools discipline kids

A common technique used to manage behaviour in Australian schools is to remove students from their learning.

Often schools use exclusion practices that increase in severity. These approaches typically begin with a warning, which is followed by isolating children from their peers, at first inside the classroom and then outside the room. This can escalate to a school leader intervening, and then to suspension and exclusion.

Use of this type of system is extremely prevalent. Around 85% of teachers in a recent survey indicated that they had used a “step system” involving an escalation of actions during the last week of teaching.

But there’s little evidence to support such exclusionary approaches. If used regularly, removing students from their learning as a behaviour management practice violates a child’s right to an education.

While we don’t want to violate other students’ right to an education, there are other ways of responding and managing behaviour that balance the rights of the individual and the group.

Another longstanding practice used in schools is the “ripple effect”, where teachers reprimand students in front of others, or keep public records of students who are non-compliant to influence behaviour.

Charts, lists, posters and electronic records are commonplace in classrooms.

frustrated-1174084Teachers use such public practices to coerce other students to behave by humiliating, shaming or chastening badly behaved students.

The problem with these techniques is that, over the longer term, such controlling behaviour management practices exacerbate rather than ameliorate the problems faced by our most vulnerable children and youth in contemporary schools.

Approaches being used overseas

We have learned a great deal from the US. In 2001, new federal legislation led all US states to develop zero-tolerance policies for schools.

Schools implemented strict practices, such as detentions, suspensions and exclusions, in an attempt to control student behaviour. They even introduced police to monitor infringements on school grounds.

However, substantial evidence now shows that these zero-tolerance policies and practices, especially the use of suspensions and exclusions, have had devastating effects on marginalised groups, which include minorities (especially black and Latino children), male students with disabilities and low achievers.

Students who are disadvantaged in more than one way are at higher risk of being suspended from school.

For example, in Chicago, 75% of black middle school males with disabilities were suspended from school. This is a major problem because these students are more likely to drop out of school and, more importantly, end up in the juvenile justice system.
It has had such a devastating effect, that the US Department of Education is now calling on states and schools across the country to rethink their approaches to school discipline.
In England, there have been continuous calls for teachers not to “be afraid to get tough on bad behaviour and use these punishments”.

The current education secretary, Nicky Morgan, recently appointed an ex-teacher and “behaviour tsar”, Tom Bennett, to help teachers better deal with problem student behaviour. She also introduced tougher discipline polices. However, some reports indicate that student behaviour has continued to get worse in English schools.

These two examples illustrate the ways in which governments tend to offer quick-fix solutions to complex problems.

In addressing problem behaviour and providing safe schools for students, governments seem to seek political gain by making policy decisions based on ideology. The problem is that this doesn’t work.

What is wrong with the current situation?
Many students do not feel cared for at school and some teachers can be disrespectful towards them. For example, some teachers yell at students, do not listen to them and make incorrect assumptions.

This can lead to students exhibiting problematic behaviour, such as struggling for recognition.

While teachers might care about students, they do not always demonstrate that they care for students.

Students’ perceptions of this lack of care begin within the first few years of school and develop into mutually negative relationships, which are difficult to reconcile.

As relationships fail, students become more alienated and disengaged, and passively withdraw from school life or retaliate in antisocial ways.

These students, particularly boys, are effectively excluded from mainstream schooling.

Teachers typically use punitive responses to manage students who exhibit reactive, aggressive behaviours, which are controlling and authoritarian in their nature.

Too many young people are alienated and disengaged from schooling, particularly boys and students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Schools contribute to this alienation and disengagement, yet individual students or their families are blamed for the problem.

While some students struggle to behave appropriately, schools who see this as an educational issue provide more opportunities for these children to learn appropriate ways of behaving.

Some common behaviour management practices used in schools violate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child – students have a right to an education and a right to be treated with dignity.

There is another way

Adopting an educational rather than a managerial approach to behaviour is the key.

Schools should focus on relational aspects so students feel cared for, respected and valued.

They can do this by attending to the little things like engaging in informal chats and inquiring about family members. But they also need to do more complex work such as creating classroom environments that are supportive, connected and intellectually demanding and that recognise individual differences.

Schools need to avoid practices that mistreat, exclude and denigrate students and are based on intimidation, anxiety, threats and retribution.
Teachers need to cater for all students, not just the average students, by setting work that students can actually do within reasonable timeframes. Teachers need to provide ongoing support to students so they understand the work they are doing. Sometimes this requires patience and persistence as some students take time to learn and understand work.

3 kids

Teachers shouldn’t treat all students equally in relation to behaviour, just as they wouldn’t with other learning matters. All students are different. What is important, though, is that students are treated fairly. For example, teachers need to avoid having favourites.

Despite all of this, some students will still exhibit aggressive and disruptive behaviours. This might require a brief exclusion from class, but it should be used minimally and as a last resort after more educative strategies have been used.

Schools and classrooms are complex and demanding contexts, which require sophisticated and sensitive policies and practices.

We know that schools that do behaviour well are committed to creating calm and respectful learning environments. They promote student engagement and consistently respect the rights of students.

Australia needs policies that provide complex solutions informed by educational research rather than ideology.
About this article:

Anna Sullivan is a Senior Lecturer at the University of South Australia

Source: Anna Sullivan – The Conversation


  1. Avatar Maxine Turner   •  

    Thank you for this informative piece Liz. I have found that if a teacher has what they call a disruptive student in their class, the first point of call should be with the parent. Together they can work together to show the child the right and wrong way to behave in class. Having gone through this myself with my child, it is difficult and is an ongoing lesson for all of us.
    Teachers should never shame a child in front of their peers. I know with Billy if he has to be kept in for a little while during lunch so as to finish his maths, that can throw his whole day off. He tends to hate everyone and then will be more disruptive.
    Having worked to improve his attitude in class with his teacher from last year and his new teacher this year, we have all seen a remarkable improvement. There are still a couple of teachers who need to be reminded on how to teach him and to adapt the class content so that he can understand it better, but I feel teachers are more than happy to work with the child and parents to improve the whole school experience.

  2. Avatar   •  

    Thanks for this feedback Maxine. It sounds like Billy is making some good progress, which is great news.

  3. Avatar Brenda   •  

    I really enjoyed you article. I have bee teaching in N. Ireland for 16 years. I have always been known to have good discipline and classroom management but I have changed my style in recent years as the disciplinarian approach I grew up no longer worked. It’s all about fairness (not equal) and building relationships with the children. I have been fortunate enough to have attended incredible years training and find their model and approach very effective. Attention is given for positive behaviour not negative. I have quiet words on passing with children or use proximal praise. Children want attention . often the child who has to miss break time okay is the one who needs it mist

    • Avatar   •  

      Great feedback Brenda and interesting to hear you have changed your style over the years to meet the needs of your students. Well done!

  4. Avatar Anne   •  

    Most teachers who are successful already know and implement such strategies intuitively. However, the view is idealistic in so far as teachers do not have the time to get to know students, any level of I formal interaction is increasingly frowned upon and all I traction should be measurable by progression towards an assessment.
    Behaviour isn’t getting worse because of teachers. Behaviour is getting worse because of the inadequate, corrupt education system.
    Let’s respect teacher professionalism, allow them to do their job and keep behaviour and education ‘tsars’ out of children’s lives.
    It might be a radical notion but teachers actually understand education better than politicians and should be consulted first, foremost and ultimately when it comes to policies on pedagogy.

    • Avatar   •  

      Teachers definitely need to be part of the the solution.

  5. Avatar belinda   •  

    As a parent of a “labelled” child, I found this article incredibly interesting, thank you. I have a 6 year old son in Year 1 in primary school in South Australia.

    Since the beginning of Reception (aged 5) in 2015, he has been regularly excluded from class for disruptive behaviour. He has been made to write out lines (he could barely write his own name at the time). I challenged the school and asked them to demonstrate evidence that such disproportionate punitive measures such as writing out lines or exclusion would assist a 5 year old boy engage with learning and learn socially acceptable classroom behaviours. The teacher refused to change her methods and continued to make him write lines until we made it clear that we would remove the child from that school if it continued. A 5 year old child? Seriously? Particularly a boy that has diagnosed extreme sensory processing challenges and cannot bear the loud noises that come with being in a class of more than 25 kids (his Reception class was 53 kids and 2 teachers and a support teacher in the one classroom space).

    This year, we are working with his year 1 teacher on a daily basis to try and find non-punitive measures to help my son make better choices. The wins are few and far between but we celebrate them nonetheless. But it is a constant struggle to try and keep my son engaged, focused and on task each and every day. I take my hat off to you incredible teachers who just keep trying.

  6. Avatar   •  

    Thanks for your feedback Belinda. Sometimes you wonder how it is, that schools and disciplinary methods can be so different. I cannot imagine asking a 5 year old child to write lines. In fact I have never even heard of this before. Glad to hear you are working with your Grade one teacher this year to create better outcomes for your son. Keep at it, every little bit helps.

    • Avatar Wendy Nelson Capaldi   •  

      Hi, I just happened to read your post after posting my own. I have seen some weird teachers over the years. (I’m a retired teacher.) My five -year- old brought home a note that said ‘children who did not complete assignments would be kept in for a detention after school Five years old? We changed schools the next day! This was in Miami BTW.
      I taught special education classes and would never have assigned lines! We had a soft place to try and get over episodes.

      • Avatar Liz Dunoon   •  

        Wow detention for a 5 year old. I have never heard of that before. No wonder you changed schools. I would have done the same. I like you strategy much better and have used it myself.

  7. Avatar Wendy Nelson Capaldi   •  

    I agree that we should never denigrate students. Children learn to cope in different ways and we don’t always know why they behave the way they do.
    I think that if students are acting out and are not able to deal with whatever is going on a teacher should acknowledge this and offer a “quiet” place for them to engage in a different kind of activity until they are able to continue. This could be discussed with the whole class at the beginning of the year. For example, “I know that sometimes some of you will not want or be able to cope on certain days. We all have bad days. If I notice that, I will not expel you from the class, but will give you the opportunity to ‘check-out’ for a while. That does NOT mean you get out of the work and it is your responsibility to catch up.” However, violent behaviour should not be tolerated and kids need to know that too.
    I really enjoy receiving your emails!

    • Avatar Liz Dunoon   •  

      Thank you Wendy, I agree with you too. Children today have many issues to deal with in their lives. Understanding is what is needed in majority of cases.

  8. Avatar Angela   •  

    As a teaching assistant I have observed or dealt with many behaviour issues over the years and observed how different teachers have different approaches. Most teachers have always got their students best interests at heart. I do feel that a big reason why behaviour is getting worse is that the work is often too difficult or too boring for some children. This could be modified by the teacher to make learning more interesting and fun, however I feel that teachers are finding this more and more difficult with the government’s focus being on attainment and testing. The government are expecting more and more from children at such a young age and more and more pressure is being put on to teachers to get results and have all their paperwork up to date that they haven’t always got time to focus on what’s important. Children are growing up knowing how to do some of the most difficult maths and grammar but unfortunately don’t learn some of the most important life skills! Some of the children in our school can tell you what a fronted adverbial is and can do long multiplications but they can’t remember the months of the year and how many days are in a month etc or how to tell the time properly! Some children don’t know what it’s like to be loved or how to deal with anger and other feelings. Although we try our best and try to get them the help and support they need, it’s often not enough because they have real attachment issues and quite often we don’t have the support of their parents or the parents haven’t got support for whatever problems they might have.
    All in all our school has a positive impact on children’s lives and we have helped and supported each child and their families as well as educated them. However, I am noticing that it is becoming increasingly difficult to do this with government pressures and not enough support for teachers. I also feel that we should raise more awareness of attachment issues and the difficulties these children face, so that parents, schools and the government are all striving towards the same goal, which is to give all children the best start in life and equip them to deal with real life issues and achieve their goals.

    • Avatar Liz Dunoon   •  

      What a well thought out reply Angela. Your school seems to be on the ball. School is definitely losing its appeal for many children. They are gaining more from other media these days and at a faster pace too. Children need community and this is what many schools offer when things are not going so well at home. Your school sounds like it offers great community.

  9. Avatar Karen Cronin   •  

    I love this article and whole heartedly agree in the approach you suggest. I would do my best to get to know the child and for them to trust me enough to start to listen and make changes to their approach to learning. Sometimes a rapport can not be make with the young person so it is vital that someone else, another student or teacher, give mentoring at try. School can be like a family, if this approach is adopted by all teachers. Unfortunately I know so many, once great but now very bitter teachers, who choose to ridicule these difficult young people. This will only ever decrease their own self value and create more disruptive behaviour. If only there was more time, training and emphatic staff available.

  10. Avatar Liz Dunoon   •  

    I agree Karen. Times are changing and schools and teachers must change too. This is hard for some. Schools must be relevant and caring placing to get the best from the students, even the difficult ones.

  11. Avatar Susan   •  

    Thank you for this article. My teen has Dyslexia & Delayed Sleep Disorder. The school has her on a step program to cancel her enrollment and exclude her from Senior Schooling education. Although she has stressed continually that she wants to finish senior schooling.
    Part of it is they think her effort needs attention. The effort to just get to school & be in the classroom wanting to learn, is substantial. I find your article very interesting & wished there were educators at my daughters school that recognized your studies in this area.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *