Enlisting Bourdieu in an exploration of how primary school principals' construct knowledge in support of students with disruptive behaviour

Year: 2012

Author: Wood, Paul, Spandagou, Ilektra, Evans, David

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


This paper draws on a study which used survey research and case study approach to explore principals' knowledge in the support of students with disruptive behaviour in mainstream primary schools. Students with significant disruptive behaviour are regularly reported to be one of the most difficult groups of students to include in regular school settings. Dominant responses to the issue suggest greater use of 'evidence based practices' through school-wide approaches which are underscored by strong, effective leadership. This paper critically explores these claims using Bourdieu's thinking tools; habitus, capital and field. Bourdieu's ideas have been used to critically explore educational leadership (Lingard & Christie, 2003; Eacott, 2010; Thomson, 2001) and this paper adds to this thinking describing the observed tensions and ambiguity within principals' practice as they engage with issues of disruptive behaviour and how to respond in their schools.


Three principals and their schools were nominated as sites of 'effective' practice and formed the basis of the qualitative phase of the mixed methods approach. Semi structured interviews with the principal and their staff, observations and document analysis were employed in week long case studies across the three sites. This was combined with survey data from the Principals and Behaviour Survey (PABS) of 340 NSW primary principals to explore the complexity of principals' work in supporting students with disruptive behaviour. This paper focuses on data from the three case with supplementary support from the survey.


The study affirms that the personal biography of the principal, viewed through Bourdieu's habitus plays a significant role in shaping of meaning making within schools, a consideration that is somewhat underplayed in mainstream leadership theories. Analysis highlights the issue of disruptive behaviour as representing an intersection of multiple competing discourses including special education, leadership, curriculum, gender, poverty and social class. Approaches to managing student behaviour given legitimacy in local structures as well as the effects of welfare, enrolment and disability funding policies provide a complex interplay of within or cross-field effects. The results of such complexity and ambiguity in schooling practice means that whilst the principals in the study shared a social justice ideology as part of their habitus contributing to more inclusive practices, schooling structures and policy shape the habitus in ways that work against the conscious intent of principals. Making both the conscious and unconscious actions of the three principals in this study visible, opens up the possibilities for greater transformative agency of principals.