Behaviour management Q&A: The theory to practice gaps

Research shows that school principals feel graduate teachers are ill-prepared for dealing with difficult student behaviour. Dr Sue O'Neill is a Lecturer in Special Education at UNSW Sydney and she has a keen interest in the theory to practice gap in classroom and behaviour management for preservice, beginning, and experienced teachers. In today's Q&A, she discusses the research she's conducted in this area, and offers practical advice for educators.

Rebecca Vukovic: We're here today to talk about the research to practice gaps in classroom and behaviour management for preservice, beginning and experienced teachers. To start off, could you expand on this a little and explain to me the theory to practice gaps you've identified in your research?

Sue O'Neill: …The first issue I identified in the preservice beginning teacher preparation courses (from my research in 2014 and 2015) was that there was what I considered to be a lack of depth of evidence-based practices that have been proven to be effective from conducting well designed and rigorous research. And realistically there's over 30 years of really good research that's been conducted into what effective teachers do and in particular what classroom management practices are effective as well. I mean, we've got meta-analyses that research too on the topic, even conducted back in the early 2000s by [Robert] Marzano and their colleagues back in the US, but also locally John Hattie from the University of Melbourne has done some great work there too on his Visible Learning. So we actually have a base of rigorous research that we can draw upon and really this ought to form the bulk of what we're imparting in our initial teacher education.

So although that's not the only thing that we can put in our courses, it really should form the basis. There's certainly other research that's been conducted which is highlighting that there are promising practices, but there's just not a sufficient depth of research yet to move them into that gold standard which we call ‘evidence-based practices'. And, to be honest, I understand full well why there's not more research being done in classroom management and real classrooms. That sort of research is incredibly messy and very, very difficult, and, like I said, it's really difficult sometimes to be able to partition out certain things you're looking at and really prove effectively through the data you collect that the strategies are efficacious, so that's something to keep in mind as well.

RV: Your research also discusses the fact that preservice teachers have long felt ill-prepared to manage poor behaviour in the classroom. So I was wondering, what are the gaps they experience between the content they're learning as part of their coursework, and the reality of the classroom while they're on practicum?

SO: I guess part of the problem is that … there certainly was in a number of courses that I looked at a preponderance of delivering what I call ‘theoretical approaches to management' – the likes of [William] Glasser that was developed back in the 1970s, and some of these theorists were not even from an educational background. The problem that we've got with a lot of these theoretical models of management is they've lacked really good research to prove that they're effective and yet they were what was forming the basis of a lot of what I was seeing in some courses in some programs. What was happening is they were being offered virtually a different model of management each week in their coursework, which really wasn't allowing a great depth of time to really pull apart, analyse and really understand what each model was about. Look, certainly those models had some evidence-based practices that were part of them but, as a unified approach, they hadn't really been tested in classrooms all that well.

And I guess another problem was that, when you look at some of the texts that were being used in these courses, some of the advice was that pretty much, ‘look here are all these theoretical approaches' – it was almost like a smorgasbord on offer and it was up to you to decide what you would pick and choose from. But the problem is that some of these approaches are quite philosophically, diametrically opposed and if you didn't have an understanding of where they fit, whether they were teacher-centred or student-centred, you might well be cherry picking strategies that really don't go together terribly well.

So, for me, that was a real problem. There really needed to be more time for students to spend time on foundation skills, learning about those effective practices and knowing how they work, why they work and when to apply them; and that's really important. And also, starting from ‘what are the proactive strategies that minimise the chance of problems occurring in the first place' and then move on to looking at ‘what are the reactive strategies – what do you do when behaviour occurs that you don't want?'.

RV: Your research also says that beginning teachers are concerned about the management of disruptive and non-compliant behaviours in the inclusive classroom. So, where do you suggest they seek out support for those concerns?

SO: It's a really interesting topic and it really doesn't matter whether we're talking about beginning teachers or even more experienced teachers. Realistically, when you're talking about students in particular, remember it's really a small number of students who cause the most disruption. And it really doesn't matter whether you're a beginning or a more experienced teacher, when you come across these students who do have challenging behaviours, it's really important that teachers feel that they can turn to their executive within schools for support.

There's also a need, I guess, for teachers to also stay in touch with some of the research that's going on there; that they feel like they know where to go to get some good, sound advice – not just from their peers, not just from their executive but also know to look to the research. We also know that teachers tend to distrust research, so I guess, as researchers, we really need to do a better job of translating our research into practitioner articles that are easier to access, that give teachers those steps of: how do you actually do what you need to do to make the strategy work in your classroom?

There are also peer networks that can work really well for beginning teachers but again these meetings that we put together for these young people, or inexperienced teachers I guess, we need to have more experienced teachers that are acting as mentors but also that can steer those conversations more towards problem solving and critical discussions, rather than a venting of ‘what happened in my class last week', ‘what disaster occurred'. So I think that's more important, that we really make those conversation one that get beginning teachers to reflect on their practice and actively problem solve too.

RV: For more experienced teachers, what are the unique challenges that they face when it comes to behaviour management?

SO: Good question! From my experience of the experienced teachers that I certainly know of, if you're good at what you do you'll probably be asked to take some of the more interesting classes. That's probably not the most helpful thing that can occur, but there's an expectation that ‘okay you're experienced, you know what you're doing and you should to be able to cope with this', and that you shouldn't need all that much support. I guess, I believe, that's a flawed strategy in that I believe all teachers ought to be supported by their executive. If you've got some challenging students in your class, they ought to be a school-wide problem, not just your problem so to speak.

And teachers really do need to feel like they can ask for support. Now, whether that's a buddy teacher where they can send that student to if they need to. If all of the steps they've taken in their classroom to manage that behaviour on their own in that situation in the classroom are failing to bring a cessation to that disruption in the classroom, they really need to feel like it's okay to send that student out of the room to a buddy teacher, or to executive if its required. So, really having that sense of that you have whole school support in your management is incredibly important for experienced teachers.

RV: And the impact on students, I wanted to talk a little bit more about that. What impact does poor behaviour management have on student wellbeing, but also their academic achievement?

SO: I'm actually going to approach this from what impact good classroom management has, because that's really what we want to be looking at. And, for me, I also want to preface that I really do believe that education is more than just getting good grades. It really is about developing resilience and caring young people.

I'll hark back to some of that work that's been done by John Hattie and Robert Marzano and colleagues, and they tell us that when we're using effective classroom management strategies – such as well-designed rules and procedures, and we respond to minor disruptions swiftly with the least intrusive methods, when we actually spend time building rapport with our students – we know that academic achievement and wellbeing actually increase in our young people.

And as far as how measurable is that? I guess some of that early work done by Marzano shows that we can actually have academic achievement scores increase by 20 percentile points and engagement scores go up by 23 percentile points, higher in classrooms where effective management techniques are being employed.

So, it really does make a difference to young people, how they engage and what they learn. And if we understand how this works – if you think about it, if you're in a classroom where you feel psychologically and physically safe and secure because your teacher is doing a great job of leading and developing a space that you feel like you're prepared to have a go and participate, take risks, because we need that to occur in learning. They can learn more deeply as well if they're also not being impacted upon by repeated disruptions from, again, those small number of students that might be in your classroom.

So those things matter, but we also need to keep in mind that this is more than just about classroom management. Teachers need to understand that they have to be designing and imparting engaging activities that come from well-designed curriculum. Classroom management alone doesn't increase academic achievement or wellbeing – it's just one part of the puzzle.

RV: And finally, what strategies can teachers use – regardless of the stage of career they're at – to better manage poor or disruptive behaviour in the classroom, so as to avoid things like burnout, attrition and intention to leave the profession entirely?

SO: Well that's a great question. The figures of what sort of numbers are leaving, just in general, and this applies in Australia as well as other western countries … we're looking at one in three teachers leaving within the first three years and up to 50 per cent in the first five – so we're talking about big collateral damage in some ways on our teachers. So, we need to keep this in mind.

Something which I think is really helpful to point out to teachers is that I don't believe that it's really helpful for you to think about that it's your job to control the students in your classroom. That's not realistic.

I always point out to my [teacher] students that students need to learn to self-regulate their behaviour and as teachers we need to help youngsters develop self-regulation from kindergarten all the way through into the high school years. So that's something that's really important to point out.

How can we achieve some of this? By setting age appropriate boundaries, setting expectations, communicating how the classroom learning environment is going to be with you as their leader. Teachers need to learn simple techniques such as settling their classrooms in the hallway, you need to be able to manage that movement into your classroom, give clear directions. They need also to be prepared to have the class practise the basics such as that orderly entrance to the classroom until they can do it well.

The other thing you really need to do is communicate what your role is and what theirs is in the classroom and that really harks back to some of the work that Bill Rogers has done. It's your role as a teacher to teach and it's theirs to learn, and establishing rights and responsibilities is really vital. Students need to buy into that process too and the whole idea is if we're developing young people as active citizens in a democracy, then we really need to model that in our approaches.

The other strategies which I guess research can tell us that work really well are things like seating plans – having a plan for where people are going to sit in your classroom, taking into consideration what their needs are, what their personalities and what their behaviours are like.

Other than that, we know that clearly stated and well developed routines and procedures for admin, for resources and those wonderful devices called mobile phones are really, really important in the 21st Century classroom. Doing simple things like having advanced organisers, a schedule of activities on the board, projected, that clearly state ‘where are we going in this lesson?', why do they need to know about it, and this is particularly important for the adolescents that we teach.

How do you avoid burnout? (which can certainly be an issue in some of the more challenging places that our teachers find themselves working). My advice is seek assistance, use that line management in your school and it should exist in every school. Having that buddy teacher, having that sense that if you really need the support of your head teacher or your executive, you can get that and it's not seen as ‘you're a failure as a teacher' or that ‘you're not doing a good job'.

The other thing that I would suggest is you look after your own mental health – make sure you have a good diet, exercise and sleep – healthy habits rather than destructive habits are really important for teachers who find themselves in stressful teaching situations.


O'Neill, S. (2015). Preparing Preservice Teachers for Inclusive Classrooms: Does Completing Coursework on Managing Challenging Behaviours Increase Their Classroom Management Sense of Efficacy? Australasian Journal of Special Education, 40(2), 117-140. doi:10.1017/jse.2015.10

O'Neill, S. C., & Stephenson, J. (2014). Evidence-Based Classroom and Behaviour Management Content in Australian Pre-service Primary Teachers' Coursework: Wherefore Art Thou?. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 39(4).

One of the simple techniques Dr Sue O’Neill recommends teachers learn is how to manage movement into the classroom. Think about transition times during your own school day: Are students settled and ready to learn when they enter the classroom? Do they understand what’s expected? How do you communicate those expectations?

As a school leader, what support networks do you have in place for teachers in relation to behaviour management? Are these networks in place for all teachers – whatever their experience or career stage?

As a more experienced teacher, how can you use your expertise to mentor and actively problem solve with staff who are new to the profession?