Fact Check: Using Force to Correct Behaviour

It’s attitudes that are lagging, not action.

It’s a long time since it’s been ok to use physical force to try to correct a child’s behaviour, at home, at school or in an early childhood education centre.

Not just because it’s against the law, but because it’s fundamentally wrong to set an example that violence is acceptable. By anyone, against anyone.

But recent comments in the media about cases where teachers have been disciplined for using force unreasonably and without justification show there is still work to do to change attitudes. What some people call “common sense” or “old school discipline” is actually abusive, illegal and dangerous.

Just because it was once acceptable doesn’t make it right.

Let’s be honest, though: it's not straightforward or easy for teachers. They have a tough time guiding behaviour so their learners can learn, especially when some of the behaviour they deal with can be enormously challenging.*

And whatever setting they work in or the age of their learners, teachers are people with the same issues, worries and difficulties as the rest of us. If you think running a boardroom is impressive, you should try running a classroom or early education space.

We hear regularly from teachers and parents how strongly they feel about the appropriate use of physical contact in educational settings, particularly when situations involve health-related behavioural issues, rather than deliberately disruptive or dangerous behaviour.

For the agencies who support teachers, it’s complex too – how do you balance clear, explicit guidelines with the messy reality of our early childhood education centres and classrooms? There’s a tricky mix to find between prevention, protection and pragmatism.

The good news is that our teachers are, in the overwhelming majority, highly-skilled and motivated people who are committed to safe and high-quality teaching, learning and leadership. They know what inspires children to learn and how to role model the behaviour we want to see in society.

And of course, there are times when physical contact is a positive thing – we’re social animals, not robots.

Sometimes, though, teachers get it wrong, for all sorts of reasons; sometimes through lack of thought in the heat of the moment, sometimes because of a gap in expertise, but rarely through a lack of care for children, and much less through deliberate cruelty.

Since we came into existence in July 2015 – established as the professional body for teachers – we’ve  done what we can to respond in a way that separates those who have made a genuine mistake from those who are unsuited to teaching, and should be removed from that environment.

Quite rightly, society places a high expectation on teachers, and in this respect our mandate covers both their competence and conduct; in other words, a teacher’s skills and their behaviour as a person.  

In terms of competence issues, our approach is about improvement, because we believe teachers are always striving to become better. So, when it’s necessary and appropriate, we work with them to help lift their skills and understanding; this manages the immediate issue and acts as a ‘reset’ for the future. For this reason, the steps we take in this area are confidential.

From a conduct perspective, our primary concern is the safety of learners; where we have serious concern we aim to secure an “undertaking not to teach” while our investigations take place, separating the teacher from the learning environment as soon as possible.

Investigations conducted by our Complaints Assessment Committee may lead to an open hearing with the NZ Teachers’ Disciplinary Tribunal. Its decisions are published online (and widely reported), and the public Teachers’ Register that we maintain is annotated to show potential employers there have been conduct issues. Ultimately, some individuals lose their right to teach in Aotearoa New Zealand.

To put this into perspective, from a profession of around 101,000, just 22 teachers had their registration cancelled by the Tribunal in 2016. That’s about 0.02%.

The Code of Professional Responsibility | Ngā Tikanga Matatika provides the whole teaching profession with guidelines for the expectations of conduct and integrity that both teachers and society shares. It enshrines our commitments as teachers.

Regardless of whether the cases we look into are conduct or competence, our processes involve experienced teachers making assessments, conducting investigations, hearing evidence and making decisions. It’s the profession managing the profession.  

So, next time you read a story about a teacher in New Zealand who has been disciplined by the Disciplinary Tribunal for their conduct, please remember that using unreasonable and unjustified force against children is always unacceptable. The circumstances are rarely as clear cut as journalists have written them.

Remember too, that for every bad story you read, there are thousands and thousands of great stories that go untold. Every day.

Most of all, remember that our teachers seek to educate children, not to “teach them a lesson.”

We all owe teachers our gratitude; we’d be nothing and nowhere without them.

Do you have any thoughts about restraint that you'd like to share? Email us at letstalk@educationcouncil.org.nz

* You might also want to check out what we said about the issue of ‘restraint’ in our submission on the Education Amendment Bill (now Act). We submitted that the proposed definition of physical restraint was too broad and the threshold for using physical restraint was too high. You can read our submission here.