Behavioral Sciences

The education practice feeding suspensions and teacher burnout

*Press release produced and distributed by our partners at MCERA, Australia.*

Universities teach it to future educators, consultants claim to impart new methods in it, and there are regular panics that it’s not being done well enough.

Concern with “behaviour management” in schools is ubiquitous. But an expert in education psychology and learning difficulties says that the idea of “managing” children’s behaviour is fundamentally flawed.

In a recent paper published in the International Journal of Inclusive Education, Dr David Armstrong from Flinders University said that there is little evidence behaviour management works as intended. Not only is it harmful to students and stressful for teachers; it generally has the opposite of the desired effect.

He said the main problem is that the “manage and discipline” model is based on flawed but “deeply-rooted” assumptions about child psychology and development, such as the idea that children’s behaviour can be understood and controlled in isolation from its broader context.

The model is especially ineffective, said Dr Armstrong, for students with learning or mental health difficulties.

“Emphasis on discipline and behaviour is likely to be inappropriate at best for students with significant mental health difficulties; in many of these cases a punitive response to student behaviour often leads to a spiral of escalation, prompting suspension, exclusion or simply withdrawal from school.”

Dr Armstrong said that teacher stress, challenging behaviours, and a “manage and discipline” approach can form a destructive feedback loop for teachers as well: as teachers become emotionally exhausted, they find it harder to respond to students’ needs, and resort to using more punitive approaches.

This, in turn, leads to worse student behaviour, creating further stress, emotional exhaustion, and, at worst, teacher burnout.

Dr Armstrong puts forward several steps towards a solution. Firstly, teachers need training in adopt evidence-based approaches that allow them to understand and respond to children’s motivation for difficult behaviours.

“Teachers need to abandon the old-fashioned classroom management model, and they need to adopt modern, research-based approaches from behavioural science,” he said.

Secondly, he said, it is helpful for teachers to recognise that children are not acting in isolation, but as part of a dynamic: teachers’ own stress and emotional responses also affect those of their students. In contrast, by bringing calm to the classroom, teachers can help foster a calm and safe environment for students.

This gives all the more reason, said Dr Armstrong, to ensure that teachers are supported by management and colleagues when they are emotionally exhausted, and encouraged to take a break without negative consequences: both for their own sake, and to ensure a healthy learning environment for their students. “There need to be evidence-informed programs on a state and national level to reduce teacher stress,” he said.

Part of the problem, said Dr Armstrong, is a tendency for the public and policy-makers to respond to panic rather than the best available evidence, making the behaviour management model difficult to dislodge.

“Policy-making in Australia and in England particularly seems to be responsive to periodic moral panics about behaviour in schools rather than reliant upon careful, research-informed consideration of how and what might be effective and ethical in practice.”