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Australian classrooms are among the ‘least favorable’ for discipline in the OECD. Here’s how to improve student behavior


An important international report says the “disciplinary climate” in Australian schools is one of the “least favourable” in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The OECD has a Tuesday profile on education in Australia.

The findings follow headlines about student behavior and a federal parliament enquiry in “increasing classroom disruption in Australian schools”.

How serious is the problem and what can we do about it?

What does the OECD report say

The OECD report looks at many aspects of the Australian education system. And identifies many strengths, such as how Australian students view their teachers positively and teachers have a relatively high level of job satisfaction.

But it also found that the “disciplinary climate” in schools in Australia was one of the least favorable in the OECD, according to student reports.

This is based on a 2018 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) Table of contents, which asked students how common noise and disorder are in the classroom. Australian classrooms scored -0.2 while the OECD average is 0.04.

It also refers to a 2018 TALIS (OECD Teaching and Learning). questionnaire, which found that 37% of Australian lower secondary school principals reported that harassment or bullying among students occurred at least weekly. Australian teachers also reported feeling less prepared for or able to manage disruptive behavior in the classroom than their OECD colleagues.

Findings from the survey suggest Australian students perceive their classrooms as more disruptive than in the past. It also suggests that one of the reasons teachers choose to leave the profession is disruptive behaviour.

In separate studies researchers have found new teachers find it particularly difficult to manage disruptive student behavior.

Read more: A new review of how teachers are trained should recognize that they learn throughout their careers (not just at the start)

Do we have a behavioral crisis?

These are important challenges that need to be addressed. Post-COVID, teachers have reported that student behavior appears to be worsening, with more students distracted and less involved than before the pandemic started.

However, there is currently little data showing how common disruptive behavior is in Australian classrooms, what this behavior looks like and how teachers are currently working to prevent and respond to this behaviour.

It is possible that behavior problems are more prevalent in some areas or in some schools than across the board.

Read more: If Australian schools want to improve student discipline, they need to address these 5 issues

Why do we see bad behavior?

The development of disruptive behaviors can be influenced by a range of biological, social, environmental and educational factors. Here are three main reasons why students may be disruptive at school:

1. Students find schoolwork too difficult

Students with delayed academic skills are more likely exhibit disruptive and challenging behaviour, and students who exhibit disruptive behavior are more likely to fall behind in their studies.

This connection has been found to be strongest between a reading ability of the student and disruptive behaviour. This makes sense because as students progress through primary school, they must demonstrate increasingly advanced language and literacy skills in order to participate and succeed academically in all subjects.

2. Students try to impress their peers

Students are more likely to exhibit disruptive behavior in schools and classrooms where it is accepted. Researchers talk about the “climate in the classroom”. These are the values, beliefs and norms that govern behavior within a classroom.

At school (especially high school) peer approval is one of the most important variables that can influence student behavior.

Being disruptive can seem “cool” in some age groups, and researchers have found that a culture of student disruption.

3. Students copy their parents

Students model and learn the behavior they see. Telling students how to behave well won’t work if the adults in the room are overwhelmed, stressed and out of control of their emotions.

Recent research suggests that teachers and school leaders are confronted increasing threats and hostility from parents. Students can witness these parent-teacher conflicts and behave in similar ways when dealing with conflict in school.

Read more: ‘They call you up at lunch and yell at you’ – why teachers say dealing with parents is the worst part of their job

What can we do about it?

While behavioral issues are complex, there are practical things teachers and school leaders can do to reduce disruption.

Teachers can make practical changes to help improve behavior in their classroom.

This starts with looking at what can be done to support positive student behaviour, rather than focusing on what you can do to reduce disruption.

The means to support improved student behavior are educational, not punitive. They also promote a sense of predictability and security in classrooms. This can be:

Limit distractions

Teachers can their classrooms change to limit distractions and promote positive behavior. For example:

  • rearranging chairs to make it easier for students to see and pay attention to the teacher

  • place felt glides under furniture to reduce the noise level

  • turning off sounds on mobile devices to limit distractions

  • adding environmental cues (such as written instructions and checklists) to remind students of what they should be doing.

School chairs and desks
Rearranging chairs and desks so that all students can see and hear easily can help classroom behavior.

Teach behavioral skills

We cannot assume that students know how to behave well in school. School is a complex environment and can have different expectations than at home.

So that teachers can teach behavioral skills the same way they teach academic skills (and teach them early and often). This means that students receive instruction, practice, feedback and encouragement. Specific behavioral skills to learn might include:

  • respond to your name when called

  • ask for help with difficult tasks

  • calmly enter the classroom and begin a ‘get started’ task

  • show kindness and respect to colleagues and staff.

Teachers should also respond to disruptive behavior or behavioral errors as if they were learning errors provide immediate correction. This includes giving the learner a chance to practice (or show you) the right behavior and giving positive feedback when warranted.

Make time for lots of practice

Researchers have found that for a child to learn something new, it must be repeated an average of eight times.

If a child wants to unlearn old behavior and replace it with new behaviour, the new behavior must be practiced an average of 28 times.
Give lots of compliments

Research shows praising students for positive behavior has a big impact. It is important to make the compliments sincere and link them to a specific behavior.

Involve students

The climate in the classroom can be improved when students take an active role in setting class expectations and hold each other to high standards.

Two students write on a whiteboard.
Encourage students to praise each other in class.

This includes asking students what their standards and expectations should be in the classroom. It can also be:

  • encouraging students to recognize each other for doing the right thing – a practice known as “spinning

  • making it safe for students to both make mistakes and succeed. Create a culture where students can openly discuss and learn from their mistakes, as well as share their successes

  • modeling calm conflict resolution and supporting students to face academic and social challenges.

Read more: Our new study offers a potential breakthrough in school bullying

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