Exploring how principals construct knowledge in support of students with disruptive behaviour in NSW government primary schools

Paul Wood

PhD thesis, conferred 2015

In New South Wales (NSW), as in many other parts of the world, there is a growing anxiety about disruptive student behaviour in schools. As such, behaviour remains a dominant discourse adding to the complexity of schools. At the same time, policy attention has turned to school leadership as a solution to raising educational standards (Wilkinson & Eacott, 2013b). In particular, attention continues to be directed to the role that leadership of, and by, the principal plays in creating effective schools. At the centre of calls for effective leadership and greater use of evidence-based practices in managing disruption sits the school principal who is charged with the responsibility to make schools safe and orderly in order to promote learning.

This thesis explores the ways school principals construct knowledge that is supportive (or not) of students with disruptive behaviour in NSW government primary schools. The study employs mixed methods and uses quantitative data from 341 NSW principals collected through the Principals and Behaviour Survey (PABS) alongside qualitative data collected through three case studies of primary principals nominated as effective in supporting students with disruptive behaviour. Analysed through a critical lens, the thesis challenges the linear rational view of knowledge as simply the translation of theory into practice. Employing Bourdieu's 'thinking tools' of field, capital and habitus, the study develops a theory of knowledge as practice, of and by the principal, who embodies and is embedded within dominant discourses of behaviour, educational leadership and the 'good school'.

The thesis contends that principals' practice can be both reproductive and transformative. In schools, dominant discourses 'collide and collude' and reproduce practices that lead to rising exclusions of students with disruptive behaviour, often misrecognising exclusion as a result of different definitions of inclusion. Uncovering reproduction enables transformation to occur by identifying the moments where a principal's habitus can disrupt dominant ways of thinking and create conditions that challenge exclusions.'

Supervisors: Associate Professor David Evans and Dr Ilektra Spandagou