Karen Peel

‘Zero tolerance’ is the wrong approach to classroom behaviour management

The Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, has demanded a zero tolerance approach to students’ bad behaviour in Australian classrooms. He was reponding to key findings from the latest PISA report which found Australia scored “significantly lower than the OECD average” for classroom discipline levels. From the perspectives of the students surveyed, Australian classroom environments were not “consistently conducive to effective learning”. In part the results “indicated a poor climate of classroom discipline”.

We can only wish a simple solution such as a zero tolerance approach would fix the problem. However from my teaching experience, and as is recognised in research evidence, control and quick fixes more often exacerbate behaviour problems in schools. As I see it, the Minister’s response appears to be aimed at punishing students’ non-compliance where a proactive response, such as focusing on practices to increase student engagement in learning, has the potential to be much more effective.

Student behaviour in contemporary schools can be a contentious political issue for policy-makers. Regular negative media coverage creates concerns for politicians, principals, teachers, parents and students.

For teachers, the prevalence of low-level disruptive behaviours can be especially difficult and frustrating to manage. Indeed, a disruptive classroom climate can hinder the learning process and lower the achievement of the entire class. As such, reducing disruptive behaviours in the classroom has a positive effect on students’ learning.

However, it is unlikely that students will flourish as learners in classrooms that are narrowed to obedience and sheer compliance.

I would much rather see students taught to self-regulate their learning and behaviour within productive and supportive learning environments. This is an alternative to teachers viewing classroom behaviour management as the use of tools, tricks or interventions to control students’ behaviour.

The emphasis on controlling student behaviour

Historically, classroom behaviour management has been viewed with an emphasis on controlling students’ behaviour. Behaviour management is usually focused on actions taken by teachers to establish order, elicit students’ cooperation and engage them in learning.

In both the UK and the US there are moves to give teacher control of student behavior more emphasis in teacher education. In the UK the talk is about “expectations of compliance and effort” and the “3Rs of the behaviour curriculum”: Routines, Relationships and Response strategies. Similarly, in the US, five key strategies for effective classroom management were identified that include rules, routines, praise, consequences for misbehaviour and active student engagement.

I argue that there is a serious omission here. There is a fourth R: teaching students to take Responsibility for their learning. The ideals of students sharing the responsibility for their learning are not included as a future priority for effective classroom behaviour management in either of these strategies.

Also there is the added layer of complexity in that teachers might think about instruction as teacher- and student-centred, and then view classroom behaviour management only through the teacher-centred lens.

Approaches matter

I believe the approaches teachers choose to take to manage classrooms and behaviours impact on students, now and into the future. And yes indeed teachers do have an overall responsibility for providing all of their students with access to high-quality schooling.

However when teachers try to seek compliance by administering rewards and consequences, students have limited opportunities to regulate their own learning. Hence, a vicious cycle can be established and perpetuated through excessive teacher control, with the potential to compromise a conducive learning environment. For instance, it is possible that students’ compliance reduces when opportunities to regulate their learning are not met, which in turn increases the likelihood that the teachers’ quest for compliance will continue through implementing control, or worse an arsenal of punishment for non-compliance.

Also it should be noted that students who are compliant can be quietly disengaged from learning.

Self-regulated learning

Providing opportunities for students to engage actively to self-regulate their learning, shifts the aim of classroom behaviour management beyond the function of maintaining order in the classroom to a focus on learning, being responsible and having fun.

Self-regulated learning integrated into classroom management can empower students to take control of their own learning and can empower teachers to share the responsibility for creating positive classroom cultures. As opposed to a teacher reflecting on “how well did I manage the students’ behaviour in the classroom?” the emphasis is on whether the teacher provided opportunities for the students to regulate their learning within a social environment. After all, no one has control over the students’ behaviour and learning success more than the students themselves.

The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) has developed the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (APST) to provide a clear vision of what teachers are expected to know and be able to do today. These call for an approach to creating environments for learning that can inspire students as self-regulated and lifelong learners to connect with a learning desire. This goes beyond the teacher just maintaining acceptable standards of behaviour. For teachers in contemporary classrooms, this shift in thinking considers the needs of all their students to feel responsible and respected.

I believe understanding and valuing the development of students’ self-regulatory capabilities can lead to an approach to classroom behaviour management that offers a pathway for fostering lifelong learning skills.

When teachers provide their students with opportunities to set goals, monitor progress and reflect on their learning within supportive social communities, the approach to classroom behaviour management moves away from thinking that students are not capable of controlling their own behaviour and what becomes important is teachers knowing their students and how they learn.

This shift in thinking requires the policy makers and the teaching profession to recognise the value of a proactive approach for “improving student learning as opposed to controlling behaviour”. The challenge is for those involved in education to understand the classroom as a social system for learning and to see beyond the immediate behaviour of students with the aim of knowing who they are and how to engage them in learning.


Karen Peel has extensive experience as a classroom teacher.  She shares her expertise in making the connections between practice and theory as an initial teacher educator within the field of classroom behaviour management at the University of Southern Queensland.  Karen’s current research is situated in the primary to junior-secondary school transition years and focuses on exploring teachers’ proactive pedagogical approaches that empower young adolescent students to take control and responsibility to self-regulate their learning.

Karen will be presenting at The Learner conference in July in Hawaii- The Learner Research Network: “A Pedagogical Model for Self-Regulated Learning: Why aim for behavioural compliance when we can inspire learning?