Challenging student behaviours are affecting the health, productivity and welfare of Australian teachers as well as the students themselves, a leading special education academic said.
Dr David Armstrong, author and Chair of Research in Special Education (RISE) within Flinders University’s Educational Futures Research Institute, said teachers, behaviour specialists and parents should focus on identifying the cause of challenging behaviours that may have an enormous impact on the student.
“Many students are struggling to psychologically cope with school or with mental health conditions, and express their distress through damaging behaviours that challenge or concern parents and teachers,” Dr Armstrong said.
“Students are being disciplined for their behaviours, often to the extent of being excluded from school or choosing to withdraw to avoid such discipline, yet the root causes of those behaviours may be ignored.
“In many cases the children are given behaviour labels that don’t explain why they are not coping with school and why they express this through withdrawal or aggressive or defiant behaviours.”
Dr Armstrong said children from disadvantaged backgrounds, or with disabilities such as autism, are most at risk of behaviours that lead to exclusion, poor school attendance or self withdrawal from school.
“These factors may be the cause of the challenging behaviours, yet they are often missed as the focus is on the behaviours,” he said. “These causes should be identified and treated, and if necessary the students should be referred to specialists, at the same time as immediate strategies are implemented to help the student cope more effectively.”
Dr Armstrong said the effect of students’ challenging behaviours on their teachers was becoming increasingly apparent.
“Teachers’ organisations in Australia, the UK and US are expressing concerns about the impacts of students’ behaviours on educators’ health and wellbeing, so that it is now considered a costly occupational problem,” he said.
“Educating students with major behavioural needs is demanding, and teachers need all the support they can get.
“The phrase ‘team around the child’ has been used in schools – I prefer ‘team around the teacher’ to stress the need to support educators’ welfare in meeting the needs of all students, now and in the future.
“Teachers and other professionals working with students should be non judgmental – show at all times that they care about them – while having the skills to prevent or de-escalate negative situations.
“Calmer school environments must be the goal, so all students and teachers can work safely and productively.”
Connecting schools with good quality research that demonstrates what will work in classroom practice is a key issue, Dr Armstrong said.
He pointed to behavioural science and psychology as fields offering research to help in classroom situations. He said cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has long been used in health settings to help individuals adopt more positive behaviours, and clinicians use Trans Theoretical Model (TTM) to reduce damaging behaviours such as smoking and excessive alcohol use.
“These are proven therapies that are rarely applied in education settings,” Dr Armstrong said. “This seems like a lost opportunity.
“The lesson from the US is that efforts to tackle this problem will probably fail to be sustained without root and branch reform. To serve the needs of students whose behaviours are concerning we need to provide more support to teachers and connect our schools with the mental health services that will support our students.
“Universities and state and federal governments all have roles in what will require an interdisciplinary approach to reform.”