As a primary school teacher who has taught a range of year levels at a number of schools, I can confirm what is frequently claimed by educators, the media and politicians: student behaviour is one of the biggest challenges in providing kids with a good education.
Most teachers will have experienced the frustration of feeling like 75 per cent of their teaching time is devoted to managing one or two students, while the majority of students who are doing the right thing receive far less than their fair share of attention. This feeling keeps teachers up at night — as does the feeling of being unable to adequately meet the learning needs of the challenging students. I’ve lost countless hours of sleep thinking about how to handle tricky situations in my classrooms.
When the issue of student behaviour is raised in the media it is usually met with the same old common-sense cries of "better discipline", "zero tolerance" and "back in my day …", but such simplistic nonsense overlooks the fact that every child — no matter their circumstances, needs or ability to behave — deserves the best possible education that the school can provide them. And just as the "good" kids have a right to an ideal learning environment, the "bad" kids have a right to the best education we can deliver, too.
Last week the Victorian Principals Association (VPA) called on the Brumby Government to introduce "student development centres" staffed by specialist teachers and support personnel in which violent or disruptive students could be isolated from mainstream classes (with parental consent). As justification, the VPA notes a 150 per cent increase in school assaults since 2005 along with a steady rise in student suspensions, and says that if unruly behaviour is apparent as early as year one or two then something should be done at the time rather than later down the track.
Without making this a debate about public versus private education, the simple fact is that student behaviour is more frequently an issue in the public sector than in the private. In a state school classroom you will usually find a broader range of personalities, temperaments, academic aptitudes, socio-economic statuses, ethnic backgrounds, life experiences, abilities and disabilities than in a non-public classroom. For this reason, along with many dozens of others, the delivery of quality public education is challenging.
However, while the VPA’s proposal for isolation units is probably an ideal solution for the most extreme cases of violent and dangerous behaviour to be found in state schools, it is my strong opinion that students should remain in mainstream classrooms for as long as possible and that extra support should be provided for the teachers and students in question, before we consider removing difficult students to a separate learning environment.
"Mainstreaming" is an important and effective strategy for dealing with students who have specific difficulties or needs because it avoids the added stigma of marginalisation. Separation from the "normal" kids — plus the labelling that goes with it — has serious effects on students’ self-esteem and confidence, which in turn affects their learning. The benefits of mainstreaming are also bidirectional — stigmas around physical and mental disabilities are lifted, everyone experiences the reality of a range of personalities and coping mechanisms, and with the right support from integration aides and support staff all students’ academic needs are catered to. Keeping students with behaviour or social difficulties in mainstream classrooms replicates the real world and helps to teach students how to interact and communicate with a range of people.
The key to the mainstreaming of students with specific needs is support, ideally from integration aides who work one-on-one with students needing assistance. For instance, many disruptive students have trouble concentrating and engaging, and having an adult sitting beside them keeping their focus on the work can be infinitely valuable. Over time that aide, in collaboration with the teacher, can also assist the student in developing and practising strategies for working better in the classroom, gradually building the student’s independence.
A lot of students with diagnosable intellectual disabilities receive funding for a part-time or full-time integration aide, but most students with less-diagnosable behaviour issues do not. The budget for integration support is extremely tight, as any parent who has fought to secure funding for their child can tell you, and many students who obviously need the support go without.
Crucially, there needs to be an increase in the funding available for integration aides to work with students who, for whatever reason, require a significantly greater slice of their teacher’s attention than is fair to the other students. One strategy might be to give principals or regional managers a pool of discretionary funds to be dynamically allocated to schools and classrooms as situations develop or change, complementing rather than replacing the present system of formally assessing students and approving their ongoing funding.
Of course, no matter how much money is spent on integration support there will always be cases where a conflict develops between the best interests of each individual student and the needs of the collective. Some students are simply so disruptive and dangerous to others that the safety and wellbeing of the group must take priority over the rights of the individual. In these cases a dedicated teaching unit is a far better solution than an endless string of suspensions and expulsions — but this should only be considered after all other options have been exhausted. And if the students who attend this teaching unit receive the sort of intensive support that enables them to eventually rejoin mainstream classes, then even better.
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