On best behaviour

How can we best equip graduate teachers to manage behaviour in classrooms? IEUA NSW/ACT Branch Professional Officer Pat Devery explores the politics and practices.

“It would come as no surprise that practising teachers consistently report behaviour management concerns as one of the greatest stress contributors to their working lives,” says teacher and school consultant, Dave Vinegrad.

Vinegrad is Director of Behaviour Matters, a Melbourne-based organisation that focuses on improving and sustaining positive relationships in schools, businesses and community organisations.

Yet Vinegrad regards himself as a teacher first, consultant second, and largely views the issue of behaviour management through the lens of school culture. “An understanding of behaviour management needs to operate at all levels,” says Vinegrad. “This includes school leaders, staff, students, parents, and policy makers.”

Align policy with practice

According to Vinegrad, schools have recently been very successful in aligning their teaching and learning outcomes with student wellbeing policies. But they have been less successful in lining up their discipline processes and policies in a similar vein.

Research supports promoting and developing of “relationships for learning”; however, many school-based discipline policies inadvertentlyharm relationships by workingagainst other policies.

As a simple example, a teacher might observe that their morning duty consists of standing at the school gate handing out demerits for students not wearing the correct uniform. The same teacher is then expected to spend the day developing positive learning relationships in the classroom.

Vinegrad believes punitive or retributive discipline policies stand in stark contrast to contemporary values about teaching and learning, and this is what schools are grappling with.

Problems with preparation

This disparity between student discipline policies and stated teaching and learning outcomes is often sheeted back to teacher quality, hence the current discussion surrounding initial teacher education (ITE) and its role in preparing teachers to handle all sorts of behaviours, in and out of the classroom.

The NSW Government made a submission to the recent national review of ITE which, among other things, called for beginning teachers to be given more access to behaviour management training. The submission went on to identify a lack of behaviour management skills in early career teachers, and this was linked to their increased stress levels and job-related anxiety.

And yet the data does not readily translate into policy. The NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) recently decided to exclude behaviour management from its restricted priority list for accredited professional development courses, despite the union arguing strongly for its inclusion.

There is a school of thought that behaviour management might fall under the student/child mental health priority area. But when teachers are telling their union this is a high priority concern, it is troubling that their voice is being ignored by policy makers.

Make it a priority

The dynamic nature of behaviour management issues, combined with ever-evolving community expectations, means teachers will develop and refine their approach to behaviour management throughout their career.

The IEUA NSW/ACT Branch believes behaviour management should be included among NESA’s priority areas (along with child safeguarding, but that is for another conversation). It should be afforded Accredited PD status.

Vinegrad believes part of the answer lies in developing school leaders, as well as quality teachers. But we don’t just want experienced teachers, he says, we need expert teachers; teachers who get to study and understand the current research and develop reasonable and appropriate policies that align with current teaching and learning objectives.

This is a constant and ongoing process involving a shift in how professional development for teachers is organised, Vinegrad says. Teachers learn best from other teachers, and we need to stop the ‘next shiny new thing’ approach or a ‘train and hope’ model that Vinegrad sees regularly in his role as a consultant.

Articulate your values

Unless a policy translates into the classroom it is likely to have a limited impact. Expert teachers, therefore, need the time and resources to mentor and model their learning back in schools. When working with pre-service, graduate or inexperienced teachers, Vinegrad says, mentors also need to be clear about what they want them to learn.

So how do we go about this? Schools, observes Vinegrad, are inherently values-driven organisations. These values are often articulated in flags, signs, billboards, and school mottos and mission statements on their websites. These values also need to be reflected in their policies. “Base your discipline policy on your values and that will help to build and develop healthy relationships,” says Vinegrad.

Developing this policy framework, however, requires considerable time and effort. Schools need leaders who are prepared to dedicate the time and resources to this process, and find the confidence to proceed with the many difficult conversations required to set out their vision for the school.

Build relationships

So, what might a contemporary discipline policy entail? According to Vinegrad, once a school has worked at building relationships, it then needs to establish what effective consequences are based on its values.

Policies also need to be flexible – and this has been tested recently with students returning to schools after extended periods of lockdown.

“Some schools have tried to use their prohibitive or retributive approaches when their students who have forgotten how to ‘do people’ and have disrupted the return to the classroom,” says Vinegrad.

He fears schools that focus too much on a return to curriculum instead of a return to relationships will manage the balance of academic outcomes with mental wellbeing less successfully. This is not a “soft-headed notion of ice breakers and kum-ba-ya moments, but re-establishing the non-negotiables, boundaries and limits, routines and procedures and remembering how we need to treat each other”, he says.

Many schools, Vinegrad explains, have implemented approaches including restorative practices, school-wide positive behaviour support, positive education, zones of regulation, and trauma informed approaches, all of which support and advise a move away from ineffective punitive consequences to responses that educate and teach young people how to be successful in the complex social settings that are classrooms and playgrounds.

“If a student is performing poorly in tennis, do we send them to a tennis detention or a tennis clinic?” asks Vinegrad. “We are educators, not law-enforcement officers and the failure to apply learning theory to managing behaviour means many schools don’t walk their talk.”

Adults working in schools would never tolerate being treated the way some discipline policies treat students. Why, Vinegrad observes, is it so hard to shift the lens?

If a student is performing poorly in tennis, do we send them to a tennis detention or a tennis clinic? We are educators, not law-enforcement officers

Attention not detention

Contemporary education is about teaching young people to be self-disciplined and able to self-regulate. When this succeeds, we maximise mental health outcomes not only for students but teachers as well.

If discipline is guided by deeply held beliefs about punishment (making someone suffer) and compliance, then we need to rethink how we integrate best practice not only into teaching, learning and wellbeing but also into behaviour management policy. It comes down to “Does your definition of discipline mean one thing, yet you do the other?” Vinegard says.

Linking research to discipline policy just as schools have done with teaching, learning and wellbeing across school communities is crucial in discussing the mental wellbeing of students and teachers. It also requires committed school leaders to dedicate the resources needed to shift school cultures where required.

Vinegrad offers the example of Sally, a Year 3 student who is running around the playground slapping and hitting other children from her class. What would the research indicate about her needs being met by her behaviour? Is your policy up to scratch to educate Sally about how we need to treat each other? As a teacher, what would you say and do to achieve outcomes aligned to your school’s vision mission and values? What would be an effective consequence?

This incident had a happy outcome, with support staff spending a few hours with Sally teaching her how to interact in more appropriate and friendly ways with her classmates. What would a stern warning or detention have taught Sally?