Helping badly behaved students

Recent reports have exposed the alarming impact badly behaved students have in Australian schools, both on staff, school leaders and other students.

Poorly behaved students have been a part of the schooling scene forever however it seems that the numbers are increasing and the stress and angst it causes is adding to the declining standards of education.

The Federal Minister of Education has stated that the situation will be improved by a “zero tolerance policy of bad behaviour”.


I taught in high schools for around 17 years and I taught in both city and country schools, and met many students who struggled to be model students.

In my day these students were called ‘at risk’. Nowadays many students just struggle due to making poor choices in an environment they find hostile or full of stresses, which they are unable to cope or manage.

Since I was in the classroom the world has changed in so many ways that may be contributing to the increase in students who behave badly.

Today many of our students are struggling with:

  • sensory overload
  • overstimulation
  • technological explosion, especially hand held devices
  • distraction
  • rampant consumerism
  • stress and fears
  • global uncertainty
  • increased violence – in films, video games and in the media
  • lower emotional literacy
  • constant change
  • poorer nutrition
  • contaminated environments
  • fast-paced living with a tendency to strive for perfection
  • overscheduled childhoods
  • less free active play with other children
  • family disconnection and dislocation – digital abandonment
  • increased passivity
  • ‘schoolification’ of early years – pressure for too much too soon.

Students who exhibit poor behaviour that is disrespectful, disruptive and inappropriate do so for so many reasons.

Simply punishing them for behaving poorly rather than exploring what is triggering the behaviour and helping them make better choices will have limited success.

Many of these students have learning challenges like low literacy, poor self-regulation, family conflict especially family violence, lousy diets or are often hungry, have addiction issues and often undiagnosed mental health issues.

Stress is high for these students and they have a really short fuse that is activated really easily. When we add the challenges of adolescence with massive physical, hormonal, brain and emotional changes – it can be obvious that much poor behaviour is, more often than not, a response to stress.

So punishing students who are struggling to cope in a chaotic, overstimulated world full of messages that you are wrong, useless and unsuccessful – while still trying to work out a sense of identity and where you belong – is obviously flawed.

I am not the only one concerned about the focus on punitive measures and how they impact challenging students. Often we add to the anger, frustration and the sense of alienation that many students already struggle with and have struggled with for a long time.

As Associate Professor Anna Sullivan from the University of South Australia writes in this excellent piece at The Conversation:

“Schools need to avoid practices that mistreat, exclude and denigrate students and are based on intimidation, anxiety, threats and retribution.”

A lack of understanding and consideration, when coupled with an unhealthy pursuit of grades, is worrying. A few years ago I was working closely with a family who had a 15-year-old girl who had missed four months of school partly because she had been self-harming badly. We had her returning to school gradually until she was finally back full-time. Her mother called soon after this success in despair. The school had sent a message home expressing concern about her low grades and this was enough to set her back to cutting herself and she stopped attending school again.

We cannot teach students who don’t turn up.

It’s not just those students who are struggling. The more capable students are struggling too.

Many students struggle with the pressure of the pursuit of high grades in secondary school – striving for perfection or as close to perfect as possible. Students are fighting anxiety and depression to achieve the academic results that will supposedly give them the greatest opportunity to have a fabulous life.

When I worked as a counsellor, I worked with so many distressed teens terrified of disappointing their parents and not getting into the university course that everyone thinks will be best for them.

The massive increase in self-harm and mental illness is another sign that we need to make some serious changes to what is happening in our schools. Leaving high school with a mental illness and a predisposition to anxiety is not the sign of a system of education that needs to be valued. Why the hurry? There are many pathways to higher education.

These statistics about 12-25 year olds who are really struggling to shine in our beautiful country need to be considered deeply when we look at what is happening in our schools.

Lucy Clark wrote an excellent book exploring what’s wrong with Australian education called Beautiful Failures: How the Quest for Success is Harming our Kids after her own experience with her daughter. Many of the suggestions she makes are echoed in the suggestions I explore at the end of this blog.

I have heard from many high schools and communities who have multiple deaths from suicide – and many of the students were the high achievers who were academically capable, achieving high standards in sport and the arts.

We must change this relentless pressure for high grades.

So what changes could be made to improve our schools?

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a powerful guide to use to consider what changes may make a positive difference.

There must be a genuine attempt to meet the basic physiological needs of students and many schools have breakfast clubs meeting the needs of hungry students. One high school in remote NSW set up a shared lunch initiative where students helped prepare healthy lunches for other students and staff –and they also could welcome their parents and extended families to join them. Sharing food while building life skills is transformative.

Once these basic needs are considered the next steps are about building safety and then inclusion that nurtures belonging. There are many creative ways that schools can do that!

I am a passionate supporter of the Positive Schools movement, which promotes valuing student wellbeing and sense of belonging BEFORE curriculum. This approach values the “doing with them” rather than the “doing to them” approach and has a better chance of making these students feel they matter – a key to improving how they behave and ultimately how they learn.

Relationships matter and yet many new graduates arrive in our schools with a poor understanding of the importance of this key attribute to exceptional teaching – and therefore no idea of how to build these with respectful, healthy boundaries.

“Happy, calm children learn best.” This quote from Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence holds the key to transforming our schools into place for positive learning for all.


21 ways to improve bad behaviour in schools:

  1. From kindergarten to Year 12 regular calmness and mindfulness habits should be a part of every school day. This will help reduce stress levels for both staff and students by creating habits that promote relaxation. Smiling Mind aims to have mindfulness as a part of the National curriculum in Australia by 2020 and as their ambassador, I am right behind them in this goal.
  2. Determine high positive expectations for all students following Dr Chris Sarra’s model for Indigenous schools – via the Stronger Smarter Institute. Without these expectations, change is impossible.
  3. Build a positive school culture with opportunities for parents, students and staff to have a voice through projects or events that build belonging. Everyone has a voice of some kind within the school community, again it’s about doing with not doing to.
  4. Improve and encourage play in our schools which promotes fun, risk, movement, human interaction and communication from K-12.
  5. Promote emotional and social literacy within the school, especially a commitment to fairness, embracing diversity and the capacity to care for all within the school community. Some excellent programs include DrumbeatKids Matter, Better Buddies Program started by the Alannah and Madeline foundation, Best Programs 4 Kids.
  6. Have exceptional teachers who can connect with troubled students, who have the time and resources to be innovative, and who can re-engage these students.
  7. Support teachers who struggle with student engagement by using mentors to help them learn more effective strategies and to build relationships.
  8. Offer afternoon homework opportunities with afternoon tea for those who have challenges at home to complete work.
  9. Students who struggle need to have a reason to want to be at school – a positive relationship with a ‘lighthouse’ figure, something they enjoy doing like dance, surfing, art or even helping with the school garden, café or helping younger students. Some disadvantaged schools have introduced therapy dogs that have radically improved school attendance for reluctant, disengaged students.
  10. Consider an integrated curriculum where students do mainstream classes every morning and in the afternoon choose options that can build life skills through volunteering, one-off projects like school plays, concerts, charity and fundraising … especially in middle school where most disengagement occurs.
  11. Build a passionate, committed and accessible student services team.
  12. Offer access to allied health services within the school grounds – many students have undiagnosed conditions that need attention and parents are unable to afford treatment. A significant percentage of boys in the juvenile justice system have speech deficits that were never detected in early years, and almost 80% of inmates in our prison systems have low literacy.
  13. Secondary schools need to commit to programs that enrich the journey to adulthood, like those offered by Enlighten Education and the Goodfellas program. Or check out The Making of Men or introduce the Rite Journey as a long-term school project for the challenging Year 9 cohort – a powerful way to guide and teach adolescents about the early confusing stages of the transition to adulthood.
  14. Offer lunchtime and after-school classes to improve wellbeing like yoga, Tai chi, meditation, dancing and personal training.
  15. Teach thinking skills, accelerated learning techniques and memory strategies so that all students can become smarter, not just the bright ones.
  16. Lighten up in schools – have more laughter and fun so that kids can feel connected and that life really is worth living; this is especially beneficial for boys.
  17. Ensure all students have creative pursuits, every year of schooling – increase opportunities for the arts.
  18. Have a significant physical endeavour like a long trek, canoeing adventure or mountain biking adventure that is seen as a ‘rite of passage’ activity in Year 9 or 10 that requires preparation and planning. Outward Bound, True North Expeditions and other adventure companies and can do this for the school.
  19. Run a virtual school market where students have to grow, bake or create a product or recycle something to sell or offer a service like car washing, window cleaning or gardening so they learn some skills for running a business.
  20. Have a significant school fete or fair that celebrates the wonderful things the school is offering, other than an education.
  21. Adopt a charity to support through volunteering or raising much-needed funds.


Passionate committed teachers have always had the potential to change lives for the better but they cannot do that on their own.

It requires the whole school community to stand up and say: “No More”. We need to recognise that many of our children are struggling in today’s world and for those without supportive, caring parents – or whose parents are simply struggling to meet their needs – we need to create opportunities to get those needs met and give these young people a better chance in life.

Punishing them for being unable to make better choices is a sure way to make things worse. Schooling is so much more than grades and we need to tame the beast that put marks above health and wellbeing or we are going to see more kids struggle with stress, depression and more will kill themselves.

Kneeling at the altar of high grades as the sign of success, without recognising and valuing the need to develop the attributes of good character, resilience and a hunger to make the world a better place, needs to be changed.

We can create meaningful learning outcomes and healthier happier students and staff but only if punishment comes last not first on the list of what can be done.


Image credit: ©️ alphaspirit /Adobe Stock –