Avatar photo Mark Dowley 6 min READ December 14th, 2023

Unruly Behaviour in Classrooms – the alarming truth about boys and our education crisis


By Dr Mark Dowley

Boys contribute disproportionately to our behaviour crisis, but blaming them won’t fix it. Understanding the research can. 

Student behavior in Australian schools has been a topic of concern in recent weeks (Behind our worsening schools discipline crisis, – SMH 21/10/23, expert calls for more classroom discipline – The Australian, 12/11/23; Boys still falling through the cracks -The weekend Australian, 25/11/2023). 

This sits within the context of reviews on behaviour from the Centre of Independent Studies which found that Australian classrooms are among the most disruptive in the world and the initial teacher education review (brief key finding). It is fair to be concerned by deteriorating educational standards, both in behaviour and achievement. However, these reports have largely sought to blame, rather than look for solutions to the problem of behaviour in schools. Left unchallenged, the unruly behaviour in our classrooms across the country will only add to teacher burnout, student disengagement and diminishing educational outcomes.

The facts are stark: In a 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study of 15-year-olds, 43% of students surveyed said that they were in classrooms that were noisy and disruptive. This is consistent with Australian research that found approximately 40% of students were unproductive in classes (Angus et. al, 2009). When we look more closely at the data, we find that boys are responsible for at least 80% of these disruptions.  The short-term impact is that students in these classes lose valuable learning time, contributing to our declining performance in literacy and numeracy compared to other nations. On a deeper level, the long-term impact of this behaviour is that we have a generation of boys who, not only struggle to read and write to the required standard, but who are being conditioned to see aberrant behaviour as ‘normal’. In other words, they simply aren’t being socialised to behave in ways that benefit themselves or society. As they become disengaged from their education, they look for belonging elsewhere, resulting in too many uneducated, disconnected young men in society. This is a concern and has lifelong repercussions. Young men report low levels of social support, purpose in life, and optimism (State of American Men, 2023) and they are less likely to be employed, to participate in further education and training, and are over represented in the criminal justice system. I’ll hazard a guess that it’s this group who are more likely to access undesirable online content from the likes of Andrew Tate.

Compounding this is the impact on teachers. The profession is facing a chronic shortage of good teachers with some research suggesting that the number of teachers leaving the profession within the first five years is as high as 40-50%. The primary reason cited is teacher workload, but when the concept of workload is explored, the main factors are invariably the time and emotional energy teachers expend on student behaviour. This leads to teacher burnout and resignation. Financial incentives and clever marketing to induce people to enter teaching will not have an impact if we don’t first address the culture of the classrooms these new teachers will be walking into.

Fortunately, we know what is required for boys to grown into healthy men. A recent research paper published in Health Promotion International suggests a framework to help boys thrive – it consists of connectedness, authenticity and motivation.

Many young men are feeling isolated, alienated and disconnected. The connectedness of students with each other and their educators profoundly impacts the school environment. Unfortunately, teachers are not trained in specific tools and routines that build these connections. They are left with vague principles including ‘create a safe and effective learning environment’. Seeing connection as a skill that can be taught and practiced shifts the viewpoint. American Professor Matt Englar-Carlson describes the concept beautifully as ‘social fitness’. Just like physical fitness requires learning targeted skills and continued attention, so does the social fitness of these boys. Many boys simply don’t know they are supposed to behave. There has been a dismantling of traditional social structures as well technological advances that are destroying their ability to pay attention. This has left many boys floundering in school.

To improve behaviour in class, boys also need to be taught how to understand and express their authentic selves, by teachers who are trained to do this effectively as part of the curriculum. Traditional ‘masculine’ expectations of stoicism, toughness and aggression often hinder the emotional expression of young people. Research from the CIS and ITTE reports have found that behaviour is a curriculum that needs to be taught. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough genuine, evidence informed, research based behavioural experts in schools and other institutions to support the large teaching profession. Boys will flourish in an environment where they are celebrated for their kindness, creativity, patience and work ethic. These environments provide an alternative narrative to the toxic online narratives of masculinity.

Finally, many boys misbehave due to a lack of motivation for education. To be motivated, boys need to have some success in their classrooms. When students experience high quality instruction and can see themselves learning, their motivation increases. Schools also need to provide positive role models for boys, be it older students, past students or teachers. This need to be supported by an ecosystem where boys have clarity around learning outcomes, structures for goal setting, helping boys to understand their strengths and weaknesses, better careers counselling so they can understand where their education is leading. This could include more focus on non-traditional vocations, explicitly taught skills to help with executive functioning so that they can organise themselves better and think about long term as well as short term goals.

Most importantly, blaming any one stakeholder in education, be it teachers, universities, parents or students is unfair and wrong. We need a systematic approach to improving behaviour that includes improved teacher training by master teachers, ongoing behaviour support in schools by instructional coaches, support for parents and school leaders and wider cultural promotion of positive role models in society.

Having good men in society benefits everyone. Our students need to be engaged in schools so they become the kind, wise, husbands, brothers, fathers and sons that our society needs. We know how to do it, we just need to work together. So, let’s get started.

This article appeared on the Educator online