Managing behaviour:Who is responsible?

It would come as no surprise to teachers that studies such as the Trends in International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) found correlation between behavioural issues and student achievement. Teachers already know that when a student becomes disruptive – to their classmates, to their teacher, or continually distracts themselves – it becomes difficult for teachers to engage them in classroom learning. But where does the responsibility lie in managing students’ behaviour? IE Journalist Sara El Sayed looks at what is influencing student behaviour, and to what extent teachers are able to manage this issue.

Behavioural issues are more nuanced than blanket descriptions of ‘bad behaviour’ versus ‘good behaviour’. Associate Professor Anna Sullivan of the University of South Australia said that when conducting a survey of teachers across Australia, it was discovered that students with behavioural issues fell into three categories: low level disruptive, disengaged and aggressive/antisocial behaviours.

A teacher should have the autonomy to make these professional judgements and decisions.

“Low level disruptive behaviour included students talking out of turn, moving around unnecessarily, or using mobile phones in class,” Associate Professor Sullivan said.

“Disengaged behaviours – which were prevalent in the study – were being late for class, avoiding school work and disengaging from classroom activities.

“The third and most extreme behaviour group was aggressive and anti-social behaviours – verbally abusing other students or teachers, sexual harassment, physical abuse, or violence.”

With these differences in mind, understanding the nature of particular student behaviours can help schools and teachers to prevent and respond to these issues in nuanced and effective ways.

What influences a student’s behaviour?

Associate Professor Sullivan’s study, Punish them or engage them? Teachers’ views on student behaviours around the school, demonstrated that student behaviour is affected by classroom influences, school influences and external influences (see diagram).

“Research shows teachers have the capacity to make decisions in the classroom – the physical layout of the classroom, establishing classroom norms and standards of behaviour.

“A teacher should have the autonomy to make these professional judgements and decisions.

“However even with the best of intentions and efforts made by teachers, often behavioural issues remain,” Associate Professor Sullivan said.

External factors

While there are many factors that are hindering teachers’ abilities to control their classroom environment, one major factor is the external influence of authorities and governing bodies.

The implementation of standardised testing, for example, further diminishes teachers’ capacity to exercise autonomous judgement in the classroom.

“We know that tests such as NAPLAN are constraining the way teachers and schools are teaching in some respects, and this seems to be having an indirect influence on student behaviour,” she said.

The parent’s role

Parents, as their child’s first teacher, have the ability to influence their child’s social skills directly.

Associate Professor Sullivan said schools that successfully address student behavioural issues engage parents in conversations but do not place blame on them.

“Most parents do the best they can given the circumstances that they are living in, so the key is working collaboratively with them, not necessarily to ‘fix up’ their child or to change the way they’re living, but to understand where they’re coming from and to work in a supportive way.”

IEUA-QNT member and teacher Vince Wall said families play a vital role in the lives of their children, and need to be considered as partners in the learning process.

“When communicating with families, teachers need to remember just how diverse families are.

“Many families are finding life very difficult. It’s not surprising that sometimes external factors in students’ lives spill over into their classroom interactions with teachers.

“Empathy and respect are currency in our dealings with students. The more we give from these reserves to the students in our care, the more we seem to get in return,” Mr Wall said.

Collaborative approach

How well teachers are supported in managing students with difficult behaviours can have a profound impact on their confidence and effectiveness in their role.

Schools should have a developed student behaviour management policy. These policies need to be comprehensive and implemented by all staff in order to make a positive and effective difference in the classroom. When the implementation of strategies and policies fails, it is essential that members report each occurrence to their employer, seek rectification and request additional support and assistance.

Mr Wall said school support is crucial in managing behaviour.

“Teachers should remember that they are not alone when dealing with behaviour management issues. They shouldn’t feel isolated from the support of the school – schools themselves should be building cultures based upon the values of respect and care.

“Teachers can discuss their concerns with pastoral care staff, counselling staff, school leadership; this helps to bounce around ideas and develop joint strategies with others in their staff rooms,” Mr Wall said.

Associate Professor Sullivan’s research found that schools that successfully address student behaviour issues have a whole staff commitment to students and each other.

“They work collaboratively, so if there is an issue with a student who has challenging behaviours; it is not left to the individual teacher to resolve.

“This collaboration means teachers have more support and resources to draw on in order to manage the complex environment they work in more effectively,” she said.

Supporting early career teachers

For early career teachers, the task of tackling problem behaviours in the classroom can be overwhelming.

“It is an ongoing learning process for early career teachers, just like every other aspect of teaching, and so supporting these teachers as they make that transition in the first few years is really important,” Associate Professor Sullivan said.

Mr Wall said experienced teachers can support early career teachers in both informal and formal ways.

“The friendly informal mentoring and guidance of expert practitioners is a powerful support for early career teachers. Ongoing informal moments of support from positive, knowledgeable, and wise mentors are invaluable.

“Experienced teachers can also play a part in building formal structures within schools to support teachers. These structures should allow early career teachers the time and space to reflect, share, discuss and debrief in an authentic collegial way. Building these structures might be of value at departmental, pastoral, and school levels and may need timetabling support,” Mr Wall said.

IEUA behaviour management policies

Members can access their respective IEUA Branch policy regarding student behaviour via the following links:


IEUA NSW/ACT: Currently being negotiated as part of Work Practices Agreement.

IEU VicTas: