Australia is high on the list of chaotic classrooms according to a recent OECD report on classroom behaviour management. There is also evidence that teachers are increasingly leaving the profession. These two facts constitute a slow-motion disaster for our children’s learning, their future, our teachers’ well-being, and a waste of our country’s resources. Something must be done urgently to improve the management of disruptive behaviours in our schools.

Three factors must be considered when managing behaviour in a classroom: the group’s needs, the individual’s needs, and what to do when these come into conflict.

What works for the group comes first. The teacher is responsible for class functioning, and their needs must be met if they are to effectively provide leadership. Anything that undermines a teacher’s authority is ruinous, as responsibility without authority is a sure recipe for stress.

From a position of authority, teachers clarify the moral values in their classroom, provide rules for when values are not met, and predictably enforce the costs of broken rules. When disruptions occur, the experience of boundaries implemented is important for the moral development of the students, helping them move away from the self-focused motivation “what’s in it for me” towards “what is good for us”.

Unfortunately, teachers can be unprepared or uncomfortable when authority is required of them. This increasing discomfort about leadership is understandable. Our culture and media are cynical about authority figures. Rather than being respected, leaders are doubted and suspected. Some teachers hold to a notion that ‘authority = hierarchy = exploitation = evil’ and are uncomfortable exerting control, seeing it as uncompassionate and harmful. Others may struggle with authority because they have experienced excessive authority that caused personal harm. But whatever the cause, this hesitancy and lack of confidence around leadership is seriously problematic.

Because just as excessive authority is wrong, insufficient authority is also wrong.

Without adequate authority there will be a lack of safety, security, trust, and order in the classroom.  Without authority’s calm and confident restraint, chaos ensues as immature children use unrestrained immature behaviours to solve their problems. When costs are not imposed on those who break values and rules, hope for justice is lost, others question why they should follow the rules, and respect for the teacher diminishes. The decrease in authority is a major factor in what is disrupting our classrooms today.

It is imperative that each teacher is provided with a strong foundation in how to manage group dynamics, has confidence in the moral basis of their leadership, and has the solid backing of their school leadership to prioritise their own needs and those of the class.

Once the group is running well, the teacher then has time and energy to think about the second factor: helping the individual.

Teachers spend significant time and energy reacting to disruptive behaviours. But working with teachers over the past 20 years I discovered that many had not been provided with the knowledge of what they can do to make change happen for an individual. Understanding attachment theory, the causes of disappointment, basic neuroscience, and moral development assists teachers to make sense of their students and change their patterns. These ideas and their associated strategies can be learnt in just a few hours.

Considering that between ten (and up to fifty) percent of a teacher’s time is taken up by behaviour management and that disruptive behaviour is a high cause of stress and leaving the profession, behaviour management training should urgently be prioritised at university for teachers in training, and provided to schools where disruptive behaviour is problematic.

This brings us to the third factor: the balancing act required when an individual student’s needs come into direct conflict with the needs of the group. A student showing disruptive behaviours benefits from being understood and flexibly assisted…but it cannot be at the expense of the group’s functioning.

Teachers need back-up to prioritise the general needs of the class as there will always be strong pressure to prioritise the specific needs of the suffering individual. Support from and accountability to leadership is required while they hone their behaviour management balancing skills.

The increasing diversity in the classroom over the last 20 years has increased the complexity and burden of the work that teachers must deal with, and made the group approach to the classroom much more challenging. Understanding and implementing individual learning plans and individualised approaches to students with diverse needs takes time and energy. Teachers cannot keep taking on more and more individualised approaches if they are also expected to keep providing the group approach that is so important to social learning and moral development. If you overwhelm a teacher with a multitude of complex tasks, they will eventually become overwhelmed.

Group expectations of learning and behaviour that are consistently explained and enforced are essential to improving class-wide behaviour management. From this position of calm authority, the individual student’s needs can be better balanced and assisted. Even the most expert individual approaches will fail in a chaotic classroom.

Finally, let’s not forget the parents’ role in all this, as they the most influence on a student’s behaviour. The school leadership team needs to be having ongoing general and targeted conversations with parents around values, rules and costs at their school, and the requirement that parents play their part in backing up the behaviour management plans of the school and its teachers.

For our children’s sake, let’s all work together to support our teachers improve behaviour management in our classrooms.

Dr Andrew Wake is a child and adolescent psychiatrist, and the author of the teacher resource “When You’re The Adult In The Room”, and “The Good Enough Parent”.