Creating Policy for Student Wellbeing – Behaviour Management
For as long as there have been classrooms one of the significant problems teachers have faced has been the management of students’ disruptive behaviours. Throughout my over 40 years working in NSW Public schools, I have seen a procession of interventions that range from physical punishment to making everyone feel good about themselves! Since the mid-eighties there have been a succession of commercial programs trying to cash in on the problem filling the void left by education bureaucrats and academics. The Education Department has never taken a real interest in this problem leaving it in the ‘too hard’ basket with not much more than platitudes and unrealistic suspension policies.
The latest proposed ‘student welfare policy’ does little more than making schools more responsible to solve the problem without any effective non-commercial training and support. It is time teachers were provided with an accessible, substantiated and effective approach to behaviour management that is part of their training. Instead they rely on those commercial programs that are expensive both on school revenue and teacher’s time!
The history of ‘off-the-shelf’ programs includes the classics like Reality Therapy which morphed into Choice Theory, Assertive Discipline, Restorative Justice, Social-Emotional Learning, Positive Psychology in the form of PBIS and PBL4 and the latest silver bullet Trauma Informed Practice. All have provided useful approaches, the problem is, because they are the property of a private enterprise they need to limit their tactics to make their programs unique. Generally, they insist on in-house training, provide workbooks, recording scaffolds and incident records which increase the workload of the teacher and the school. Of course, training, recording are important but can be done much more efficiently than is required and schools already have the facilities to do this.
I would like to comment on the current front-runners in the choice most schools are acquiring those based on Positive Psychology and more recently Trauma Informed Practice.
Positive Psychology came from attempts to aggregate and rationalise the factors of studies identified as leading to a life of satisfaction. Using empirical data Positive Psychology studied how our activities impacted on our lives at all levels, physical, psycho/social or intellectual. The common conclusion in the field is that to experience the ‘good life’ you must be engaged in meaningful activities. This research underpinned the programs developed from that data. In the current form, that was purchased by the department this approach produces a considerable amount of unnecessary administrative work. I personally have a few of issues, these being:
- Although the focus on feeling positive is attractive it is not a real reflection of human nature. There are many times it is appropriate to feel sad, it is part of a grieving process but more importantly it is fitting that everyone should feel a sense of shame when they ‘do the wrong thing’. This is what I refer to as healthy shame as opposed to toxic shame (see Newsletter 14 – Toxic Shame – 18 August 2020).
- Children who suffer from early childhood trauma and neglect require a good deal of healing before the principles of positive psychology even make sense and in their literature they acknowledge this approach is not effective for extremely disturbed children.
- Any success relies on full school training and commitment and even if you achieve this at the end of every year there will be a change in staff and this requires additional commitment including the full training of the new teachers.
The positive psychology approach has been practiced in schools for a significant amount of time and I would argue that unlike the impact on workload, any influence on the general behaviour of students has not been significant.
The trauma informed approach does attempt to address the problems children with early childhood repeated abuse and neglect bring to the classroom. A prominent program is the Berry Street Education Model and like all other models it provides a commercial package which requires teachers to complete their program.
A problem with dealing with these children with recurring early childhood abuse and neglect, the basis of complex trauma is that any attempt at a therapeutic approach by non-qualified mental health professionals is extremely dangerous and could exacerbate their emotional status. I understand this approach has gained attention since my retirement I have only a superficial understanding of the course content and this appears to be well considered. Of course, those who follow these Newsletters and understand my line of attack there seems to be a great congruence between both approaches.
The strategies of their approach are:
- Expect unexpected responses
- Employ thoughtful interactions
- Be specific about relationship building
- Promote predictability and consistency
- Teach strategies to "change the channel"
- Give supportive feedback to reduce negative thinking
- Create islands of competence
My concern is that there needs to be a strong focus on the boundary limits between the lived history of the student and the presenting environment in order to avoid activating past experiences. Teachers need to be very sure of where their professional responsibility ends and the work of qualified mental health practitioners begins. In my experience it is too easy and tempting for teachers with the noblest intentions to feel ‘qualified’ to cross that line.
Successful teachers have always been Bower Birds when it comes to their work. They collect resources from where ever they can to supplement their lessons. They should be the same about behaviour management, all the programs have something very valuable to add to any teacher’s repertoire when dealing with a disruptive child. However, all the effectual advice should be free and offered in a straightforward manner.
This has been the purpose of our Group. Our three books and the over 180 free Newsletters present advice to help teachers particularly those dealing with very difficult students. The outline of our work is caught in our description of a complete learning environment as shown below. All the parts of the model are important but the most important is the relationships between the student, the teachers, the school and the community.
Our group has never charged for Newsletters and the resources we make available and nor should they be so. Successfully dealing with kids with dysfunctional behaviour is an on-going challenge and being locked into a prescribed program fails to accommodate new approaches.