The Size of the Problem
The previous Newsletters have outlined the problems and possible solutions for dealing with out-of-control classrooms. Like most work on this topic there is a level of generalisation across the system as if all schools are the same. This is such an obvious mistake especially in the public sectors. Yet when it comes to providing support to deal with dysfunctional classrooms there is a ‘one size fits all’ approach from the Department. For example, for counsellor support is based on a student ratio!
In recent years there has been a drift from public schools to the cheaper private schools especially for families who have the resources and opportunity to take their kids out of classrooms where disruptive behaviours impact on the learning of their children. Like their rich counterparts, these private schools don’t take students whose behaviours are relatively uncontrollable. This has resulted in a residualisation of public schools and unfortunately a concentration of these students.
To add to this disparity the socioeconomic areas schools service directly influence the distribution of dysfunctional behaviours. The most common cause for students with these behaviours is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder resulting from childhood abuse. It is estimated that between 1% and 11% of the population will suffer PTSD as a result of childhood trauma but in some poor areas the proportion can be up to 26%. These students invariably attend their local, under-resourced school!
Suspension data is a fairly strong indicator of the behavioural environment. Using the 2021 data (2022 data was heavily influenced by the COVID pandemic and not considered) this difference can be identified. As a percentage Sydney-North had 0.6% of their students experiencing a short suspension while North-West NSW had 5.3%, that is 530 students compared to 3,434! Long term suspensions reflected this difference. To ask teachers to deal with behaviours on a systematic scale in the same way, with the same resources is unfair but it is what is expected!
The following information is our attempt to provide some more specific advice for these schools.
Take the time to identify and understand the nature of the challenge your school and therefore your classroom faces. By careful analysis you can identify significant factors that will influence the student’s behaviour. In the first instance you should scrutinise the community’s strengths and weaknesses. You will undoubtedly be dealing with the parents and understand their expectations, real or imagined. Then analyse the school, how does it deal with severe behaviours and are these strategies effective?
If you are a classroom teacher your level of influence on these external factors will vary depending on your personal power within the school and community. However, in the classroom you are the seat of power and you need to understand the students you are dealing with.
An analysis should identify:
- Are the students you are working with proficient in English. A significant proportion of the population in low socioeconomic areas come from new migration or refugees. Their lack of English proficiency will make it difficult for you to communicate instructions. This lack of understanding excludes them from participation and may lead to disruptive behaviours.
- Catering to the diverse needs of students with learning disabilities, particularly early childhood PTSD and attention deficit disorders or other special needs require differentiated approaches to instruction and behavior management. The application of consistency and persistency in your management style takes on another level of significance.
- The impact of poverty, unstable home environments, or community violence has a profound effect on a students' behavior, emotional well-being, and eventually their academic performance.
- Many of your students will arrive at school already hungry because there was no food in the house or their parents were not ‘awake’ when they left for school. Ohers might not have slept during the night, maybe they spent their time walking the streets or maybe they couldn’t sleep because they were witnessing high levels of domestic violence.
- These students will have complex needs that must be addressed before they can learn. Although this is your responsibility it is difficult to make a difference unless you have additional support. If this is not coming, try to provide that support, it is what we do!
- Managing classrooms with students from diverse cultural backgrounds, where norms, values, and expectations may vary, requires sensitivity, understanding, and effective communication strategies. Particularly the children from first generation migration will live in two cultural worlds. At school they will inevitably absorb the prevailing culture of the community, this just happens but often the parents object to this and put pressure on their children to conform to their cultural norms. The most visible of these are dress codes where girls are expected to wear hijabs or Hindu boys turbans. It is important that the other students accept this and the particular students feel comfortable.
- All too often you will be dealing with parents or guardians who will have minimal and/or inconsistent support and involvement. This might not be a bad thing in the short term but this can hinder the reinforcement of classroom procedures and discipline. The physical and psychological abuse directed at school principals is at unprecedented levels but little protection is offered from the Department.
Based on the insights gained through your analysis you can consider how to move forward to address the specific challenges and obstacles you are facing. Take the following steps:
- Reach out to colleagues, administrators, or other professionals who can provide guidance and support. Share the challenges you are facing and seek their support and advice. Listening to experienced teachers or supervisors can show you other ways to deal with these problems.
- Modify the existing procedures to suit the class. This is not to water-down the expectations you require but another way to communicate and reinforce them! Consider procedural adjustments that may better address the specific challenges and obstacles you are facing and be open to trying new strategies and approaches that have the potential to yield positive results.
- Clearly communicate any changes or adaptations to the procedures to your students. Explain the reasons behind the modifications and how they will benefit the learning environment. Ensure students understand the expectations and the rationale for the adjustments. Students appreciate being included in solving the problems.
- Identify students who may require additional support. In some cases this may require you to go beyond the school’s resources. In these cases it should be the principal that seeks that assistance. Within the school support staff, such as counsellors, special educators, or social workers can help to develop individualised plans or interventions that can help address their needs.
- After any modification of a procedure you are obliged to monitor its effectiveness. Not all change makes things better. Collect data, observe student behavior, and seek feedback from students and colleagues to gauge the effectiveness of the modifications. Make adjustments if things are still not working!
It is a popular truism that the most predictive influence on a child’s future success lies in the family into which they are born. I believe this is blatantly unfair; a child’s future should not be determined by their parent’s resources, not that I’m advocating that all parents should not want to and do provide every opportunity for their kids, they should. But it falls to the schools to even out the playing field so all kids, especially those who have been abused and neglected by their parents are given a second chance. It takes a brave teacher to accept this challenge and fortunately we have these in abundance!