Who's the boss?

Teacher has chunk of flesh bitten from leg. Pupil stabs teacher. Boy smashes teacher’s head into wall. These headlines are all too familiar. It’s true that the majority of teachers…

Teacher has chunk of flesh bitten from leg. Pupil stabs teacher. Boy smashes teacher’s head into wall. These headlines are all too familiar. It’s true that the majority of teachers spend far too much time on the recalcitrant minority to the detriment of other children.

There is good news, however. The headline grabbing cases mask the many initiatives both formal and informal being taken in New Zealand schools in behaviour management. Some with impressive results. What’s more, fewer schools are expelling than a decade ago as they look for new ways to deal with problem students.


Cornwell Primary School Principal Wendy Brooks


Education Aotearoa went looking for examples of schools taking the bull by the horns with their behaviour management programmes.

One such school is Cromwell Primary School in Central Otago, where principal Wendy Brooks has been making waves in her part of the country with a restorative justice programme.

Brooks was invited to a training session with international restorative justice expert Margaret Thorsborne and followed up with a two-week trip to Adelaide in South Australia to experience schools that modelled Thorsborne’s programme.

She also visited Cavan Youth Detention Centre”, which also uses the programme, and met with one offender who had traumatised victims of his armed robbery” one of whom a Sudanese refugee who had been the victim of appalling violence in his own country. “(The offender) talked to me about how restorative justice had changed his life. It made me realise how important it is to have younger children exposed to restorative justice in schools.”

Brooks says the training and her Australian visit turned her whole thinking about behaviour management on its head. She now talks of personal responsibility, not behaviour management.

Restorative justice chats follow a set question line and chat cards can be used to guide the conversation. Children are invited to reflect on the behaviour, repair by deciding on action and reconnect the relationship. It can feel artificial, but works say teachers who have tried the approach. An example would be:

  1. Tell me what happened?
  2. What went through your head?
  3. Who has this affected?
  4. How will you fix this?

The “why” question is never used because that escalates the behaviour into an incident.

“We talk to the person who has made the wrong decision and we say: ‘what were you thinking when you did that or how were you feeling when you did that’,” she says.

Brooks’ decile 8 school didn’t have large behavioural problems. Even so the new restorative justice programme has been hugely successful.

On the other hand, just because a school is in a low decile area it doesn’t mean that bad behaviour has to rule the classes, says NZEI president Frances Nelson. “I’m in a low decile school,” says Nelson. “We work with children from violent backgrounds, whose parents drink and who come to school hungry. We say ‘we know’ but you are at school now and we do things differently.”

Rhode Street School in Hamilton is another classic example of a low decile school manages behaviour well. It has almost obliterated ongoing behaviour problems in classrooms.

The main thrust of the Rhode Street School’s highly successful behaviour management programme is its relationship with its parent community, says principal Shane Ngatai.

In fact Ngatai doesn’t even call it “behaviour management”. It’s “relationship management”. He follows Massey University-based educator Joseph Driessen’s philosophies that “focus on building the positives”.

When Ngatai took over Rhode Street Primary, which has a large transient student population and parents that include gang members and P-addicts, the school had a long way to go. Ngatai meant business and following a lot of soul searching he rebranded the school as “Hamilton’s Family School”.

When a child first joins the school the teacher builds bridges with the parent so that they know they will not be fobbed off or ignored, says Ngatai.

Every teacher is supplied with a cell phone (sponsored by Vodafone) and sends at least two messages a week to each child’s parents reporting good behaviour. The teachers make 400 calls a week.

“If the child has done well in learning we phone the parents at work or at home and tell them,” says Ngatai. When the child gets home the parent can reinforce the message from school by talking about it. The children, says Ngatai are incredibly proud when they’re allowed to phone home. “We have a saying at Rhode Street School: ‘it’s worth phoning home about’. The kids ask ‘can I phone home’?”

The school has an arsenal when it comes to connecting with parents. One key weapon is regular student led conferences lasting 25-30 minutes in which students are invited to share their learning journey with their parents.  These conferences have replaced parent-teacher interviews.

Other initiatives include:

  • Holding school-wide events such as a hangi held earlier this year to celebrate Matariki.
  • Regular Mad Butcher sponsored 7am Kia Kaha Wahine breakfasts with girls and their mothers, and Mana Tane boys’ versions of the same event.
  • An annual Kai Festival, which attracts 2000 people, where the potatoes, vegetables, and chickens are all tended by the children and the Harley-riding principal goes pig hunting to provide the pork.

Having a positive relationship with the parents makes the “challenging stuff” a whole lot easier, says Ngatai.

Challenging is something that the staff at Halswell College in Christchurch know all about. That’s because it’s a residential school for year 7-10 adolescent males with behavioural problems. Most have “syndromes” which affect their behaviour such as foetal alcohol syndrome or aspergers.


Hallswell College Principal Paul Kennedy

They may be tough kids, but principal Paul Kennedy is the man for the job. Trained as a teacher, he left the profession for 14 years in the police force, before returning to teach at a school for youth offenders. Kennedy went on to complete a master’s degree with a research project in behaviour management before taking the role at Halswell.

At Halswell, Kennedy became interested in the United States-based Safe Crisis Management programme of prevention and de-escalation. Kennedy took the US programme and adapted it to New Zealand conditions. He provides workshops to New Zealand teachers though Pack Education.

Halswell’s programme is based on a set of underlying principles that involve the 5Rs: rights, responsibilities, rules, relationships and routines.  The school believes that learning occurs most effectively through the application of positive means such as rewarding desired behaviour and uses a non-confrontational focus.

Other keys to the schools approach include:

  • Working around principles of aroha (understanding, warmth), pono (truth & integrity) and tika (fairness).
  • An emphasis on behaviour as a choice and on behaviour ownership.
  • Use of the principle least to most intrusive intervention.
  • Use of logical and natural consequences.
  • Positive corrective styles.
  • Teaching and modelling new behaviours.
  • Use of coping plans and utilising time out and cool off time.
  • Antecedent management strategies to ensure the behaviour is avoided.

All teachers in the school are trained in Safe Crisis Management and only as a last resort (and within the law) do teachers physically intervene, says Kennedy. Just how successful the programme has been was immediately measureable because all incidents are recorded. “We have seen a dramatic down turn in extreme behaviours. He says the reduction of incidents of extreme behaviour were reduced by 41% in a year.”

The Government’s Plan

The Budget in May brought with it a $45m funding programme” much of it from re-purposing existing spending – for behaviour management programmes.

Plans for how the money will be spent are set out in the Positive Behaviour for Learning Action Plan for 2010 to 2014, which can be read on the Ministry of Education’s website. The idea is that already successful programmes will be rolled out to communities and schools in response to priorities agreed by the Taumata Whanonga summit held in May 2009.

The funding will be rolled out gradually over the next five years and include a mix of initiatives for parents and teachers, whole-of-school programmes, improved behaviour crisis support for schools and improved intensive programmes for individual students with severe behaviour problems.

These programmes cover six themes:

  • providing early support” especially for children aged 5-8
  • using proven programmes that work
  • improving teacher education and professional development
  • developing support for programmes, including evaluation and continual improvement
  • getting it right for Maori
  • improving interagency collaboration for the most challenging students.

The plan includes parenting programmes for 12,000 parents, specific training for 5,000 teachers of children aged 3-8 and long term help programmes for 400 secondary and intermediate schools with the worst behaviour problems.

The government’s move which has had a very mixed response.  Nelson, for example, says that on one hand it is fraught because it is shuffling money one initiative to another.  On the other hand “the government initiative is great in that it starts to deal at a much lower level with the issues that become major further up the school,” says Nelson.

New Teachers

Good classroom management is at the heart of teachers winning students over to learning. But schools and new teachers in particular aren’t necessarily well equipped to cope, says Nelson: “If you can’t manage kids you can’t teach them.”

Yet few newly trained teachers say they get sufficient theoretical training in behaviour management, let alone hands on practical experience.

“We teach you about pedagogy, without realising behaviour management is part of pedagogy,” says Nelson. “We know newly trained teachers will not be as good. But you can’t teach behaviour management unless you have a context in which to do it.”

There is big mis match between what schools need and what students come out with, says Nelson. “It is not their fault. They are victims of poor alignment. The group most at risk of missing out are the one year graduates. They don’t have time to do it.”

On the other hand, says Nelson if new teachers came out of college with a theoretical framework, schools can build on that,” she says.

Even once they hit the classroom new teachers don’t necessarily get the assistance or training they need to help manage behaviour. “The reality,” says Nelson, “is that the assistance for teachers is patchy and variable.”

Young teachers can learn by taking workshops, shadowing more senior teachers, reading books and following discussions on websites.

RTLB teacher Anna Lee has a number of recommendations for new teachers:


RTLB Anna Lee

  • Join the Young Members Network of the NZEI. ” Members of the network have a rich knowledge of support needed, problems experienced and ways of finding solutions when all is not going well for BTs. YMN can provide wonderful support for others who are involved in the very challenging job of becoming a class teacher. It is always good to know that others have experienced the challenges you are successfully made it through.”
  • Read education consultant Bill Rogers’ books which include Cracking the Hard Class : Strategies for Managing the Harder Than Average Class and Behaviour Recovery Practical programs for challenging behaviour.
  • Accept and encourage support from colleagues, family and friends, as the first few years of teaching are very challenging.
  • Remember “the behaviour/learning attended to the behaviour/learning reinforced”. This is wise guiding ideal, says Lee, when making the many split second decisions needed to provide feed-forward to students regarding academic or behavioural learning.

Finally, Kennedy says his top tip for new teachers is: “Get to know your kids and really understand where they are coming from. Kids behave the way they do for a reason. The reality is until we deal with these behaviours there is no point in trying to teach indepth knowledge.”


Supporting positive behaviours
PPTA: violence and bullying in schools
Keeping the peace
Intervention Central
Hands On Scotland Toolkit
The Center for Effective Collaboration and Support
Screts Model
The Incredible Years
The Peace Foundation
Rogers Education Consultancy
TES Forums