Are your problem students bad or just struggling?

Here in Australia, there has been quite a bit of media focus on the alarming impact that badly behaved students have in our schools, on staff, school leaders and other students.

Poorly behaved students are nothing new. However it seems the numbers are increasing — so is the stress and angst this problem causes and one has to wonder if it is adding to the declining standards of education.

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

Really? Now I am not suggesting for a moment that we tolerate acts of violence, psychological torment and other forms of bullying. These things DO require a very firm stance from schools — but given the statistics, the broader problem of problem behaviour may require more than that.

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.

From sensory overload, huge distraction from technology, rampant consumerism, global uncertainty to poor nutrition and sedentary lifestyles to the schoolification of early years — all these things impact our adolescents.


‘Bad’ or struggling?

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, or they may have poor self-regulation, especially neurodivergent students and those impacted by trauma like family conflict especially family violence, lousy diets (or are often hungry), or they may have addiction issues and often undiagnosed mental health issues.

Stress is high for these students and they have a short fuse that is activated 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.

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

We must change reduce 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.

First there must be a genuine attempt to meet the basic physiological needs of students. Many schools have breakfast clubs meeting the needs of hungry students.

One school set up a shared lunch initiative where students helped prepare healthy lunches for other students and staff, parents and extended families. Sharing food while building life skills is transformative.

Once basic needs are considered the next steps are about building safety and then inclusion that nurtures belonging.

There are many creative ways schools can do that.

I am also 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 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.


21 ways to improve bad behaviour in schools:

  1. From kindergarten to Year 12 calmness and mindfulness habits should be a part of every school day. 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.This is number 1 for a reason: Research in schools using Smiling Mind found the schools experienced: improved concentration, less bullying, better behaviour in the classroom, and both teachers and students found they were sleeping better and had a greater ability to manage their emotions.
  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.
  4. Improve and encourage play in schools promoting fun, risk, movement, human interaction and communication from K-12.
  5. Promote emotional and social literacy, especially a commitment to fairness, embracing diversity and the capacity to care for all within the school community. Some excellent programs are Drumbeat, Kids 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 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 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 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 all students can become smarter.
  16. Lighten up in schools – have more laughter and fun so kids can feel connected and that life really is worth living (especially for boys).
  17. Ensure all students have creative pursuits, every year of schooling – increase arts opportunities.
  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. Programs like Outward Bound, True North Expeditions, The Making of Men might be able to help with this.
  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 carwashing, 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.

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.


This article was originally published in Teachers Matter magazine.

Image credit: ©️ alphaspirit /Adobe Stock –