Poor behaviour in NZ schools at critical levels: research

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A 6-year-old with a Taser and primary school pupils addicted to vaping are among the increasingly challenging behaviours New Zealand schools are dealing with, a recently retired Otago teacher says.

Behaviour in New Zealand classrooms has been among the worst in the OECD for the past 20 years, but new research by the Education Review Office (ERO) has found it has now reached critical levels.

ERO Education Evaluation Centre head Ruth Shinoda said disruptive behaviour in the country’s classrooms was a rapidly growing problem, and was getting in the way of learning.

"We know that disruptive classroom behaviour is a significant and persistent issue in New Zealand.

"Over the last 20 years, our classroom behaviour has been amongst the worst in the OECD.

"But we also know it is getting worse, with over half of teachers saying all types of disruptive behaviour had become worse in the last two years.

"ERO is extremely concerned that a quarter of principals told us they are seeing students physically harm others, and damage or take property at least every day."

Recently retired Dunedin principal Steve Hayward said he had taught at various schools around Otago during his 42-year career, and agreed pupil behaviour was becoming increasingly extreme.

"Behaviour that we once saw in 14-year-olds, we’re now seeing in 8-year-olds.

"Over my time, there’s been a huge increase in children having access to pornography, inappropriate fights online, and I’ve seen a principal take a taser off a 6-year-old.

"We’ve also got 6-year-olds that are now addicted to vaping.

"There have always been children with challenging behaviours, but I think one of the things that we’re seeing now is a whole lot of adults with challenging behaviour, and children are seeing this playing out on social media — or anti-social media, as I like to call it.

"It’s no surprise that the role models that children have got, are often letting themselves down and the kids are following them."

He said children were coming from much more challenging environments now, too.

"In the 1970s, we had soup kitchens in different parts of the world.

"Well, now schools play such an important part for children to get breakfast and lunch — if you haven’t got a good environment around you and schools are the best place you’ve got ...

"In my time, I’ve had children die from cancer and road accidents, but an increasing number are being murdered by their own family members."

Mr Hayward said parents needed to step up.

"They can’t be their child’s best friend. They need to give their children less of what they want, and more of what they need.

"If you’re a parent, that’s your job. Too often, it’s being left to schools to provide that behaviour management."

Ms Shinoda said three-quarters of teachers reported disruptive behaviour was badly impacting on pupils’ progress, and pupils in better-behaved classes had higher achievement.

It was also preventing schools improving attendance because it was having a large impact on pupils’ enjoyment of school.

"We also know that we need to do all we can to prevent and tackle behaviour problems early," she said.

"Students who are stood down, suspended or excluded are at greater risk of not succeeding in education and having worse outcomes as an adult."

Disruptive behaviour was also badly affecting teachers, she said.

Half of teachers said classroom behaviour had a large impact on their intention to stay teaching.

Fewer than half of new teachers said they could manage behaviours in the classroom, and when teachers and principals sought support and expert advice, it was difficult to access.

"To support schools, ERO has produced an evidence-based good practice guide with practical actions schools can take and which captures the great approaches teachers are already adopting.

"But schools can’t do this alone, they need support and parents play a key role too.

"We need a national approach to how we manage behaviour in our schools so our kids can get the best out of their education.

"We need to increase support for teachers, alongside setting clear expectations from all of us about what good behaviour looks like, so we can prevent and respond to this challenge effectively."