Creating behaviour policies in multicultural settings

The array of cultural backgrounds of people who meet and mingle in international schools can make creating behaviour policies that everyone can follow tough – but it has to be done. Dan Worth finds out how

Dan Worth

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In Thailand, a student may avoid eye contact when being told off by a teacher as a sign of respect.

In some West African nations, a thumbs up is a rude gesture.

In other nations, a child speaking to an adult before being spoken to is considered impolite.

Such differences in cultures may be fascinating from an anthropological view but, for international schools, the various ways in which different behaviours are interpreted, what “good” behaviour looks like and what is deemed a suitable punishment, can make creating coherent behaviour policies tough.

This is a point made clear by Iain Sallis, campus principal of Tenby Schools Setia Eco Park in Malaysia: When we have 32 nationalities families’ interpretation of this [our behaviour policy], it can cause issues – particularly for those that do not speak English as first language.”

It’s not just among pupils that this can be hard – agreeing common principles on behaviour can be tough among teachers with different backgrounds, too, as this experienced teacher outlines: “British and American staff are culturally quite different in their views on behaviour policies. For example, American staff may not necessarily view enforcing uniform policies as of as much importance as other rules, since uniform isn’t required in US.”

They add that sometimes words that are deemed swear words to some teachers are seen as harmless to others, again causing issues in how consistently policies are applied.  

But difficult as this may be, international schools must overcome the obstacles to draw up policies that create a strong learning environment in which teachers and pupils can thrive.

So, how is this done best?


Research into creating multi-cultural behavioural policies in international settings is surprisingly thin on the ground, with the specific-context-facing international schools mostly overlooked to date.

However, Professor David Gillborn, from the School of Education at the University of Birmingham – who has carried out extensive research around race and behaviour policies – says a key thing schools can do is to get pupils actively engaged in creating the behaviour policies they have to adhere to.

“My general advice would be the same in all settings; talk with the students about what good behaviour would look like; why people might find it hard, and how it would be fairest and most useful to move ahead,” he explains.

This “can be invaluable in giving students a sense of ownership of the rules. The discussion demonstrates that they have a voice and can also help teachers to be sensitive to any possible misunderstandings”.

Sarah Ford, an International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme (PYP) educator and former PYP coordinator and principal at an international school in Europe, says this approach is one she has used in order to try to overcome the wide range of  behavioural norms among a diverse cohort.

“There is a large discrepancy within Europe as to what is or is not acceptable.

"We have found that the best way to deal with it is to create a strong school and class culture whereby we discuss the differences but set some ground rules for school,” she says.

“We use the terminology of essential agreements – looking at the positive expectations rather than negative rules – ie, we walk in the corridors rather than ‘do not run’, we use quiet voices inside rather than ‘do not shout inside’.”

This approach is certainly sensible and the idea of including students in the creation of policies in order to achieve buy-in to behaviour rules is one that is becoming well understood in many settings.

Not a one-size-fits-all model

However, the international sector has the added complication that often, its schools are part of large organisations. As such, it would be easy to imagine a situation where a top-line behaviour policy is written "at the centre" and then schools are expected to implement it.

However, Oanh Crouch, group education director at Globeducate, says her company recognises that to create truly effective policies, schools have to able to create their own policies specific to their setting.

“A behaviour policy is not a one-size-fits-all model. It needs to reflect the context, situation and culture of the learning environment,” she says.

“An effective behaviour policy needs to reflect that. Including perspectives from the host country is crucial.”

Mark Orrow-Whiting, director of curriculum and student performance at Nord Anglia Education, says his company takes a similar stance: “Individual schools within Nord Anglia develop and set their own behaviour policies, which are aligned with the group’s values,” he says.

“This is more effective and efficient, given that international schools are typically culturally diverse places, so policies need to be sensitive and broadly in harmony with the norms and expectations of different groups.”

This sort of autonomy for headteachers is no doubt welcome, given that, as the reference to “different groups” alludes, international schools operate in a context where there will be myriad different cultural views on what “good behaviour” looks like and how “bad behaviour” should be punished.

As such, the freedom to create policies that suit the context is key.

Rethinking policies for international audiences 

The experience of the Taipei European School exemplifies this well – not least because it has three international schools on its campus: British, German and French, all populated by a mix of local students and those from these three nations, as well as a number from Northern European countries, the USA, Canada and Australia.

Because of this diversity, head of the British section at the school, Sonya Papps, says there are huge variations in how behaviour is viewed.

“We’ve had incidents where infractions that are to be expected in a secondary school setting in Europe can been seen very differently within our community. For example, any matter involving alcohol, smoking or vaping can be particularly controversial, with calls for very strong sanctions that may go above and beyond what’s stipulated in our policies,” she explains.

“It is our job to listen to these views and then educate our community on our approach, which is legally compliant and focuses on a restorative and educational response to the situation at hand.”

Conversely, she explains, there was a situation where a child was sanctioned for arguing with a teacher and the parents complained that was unfair: “The parent said that was her right to express an opinion and she is equal to the teacher.”

Papps is keen to point out that, in both situations, the parents’ views were listened to and engaged with but that they underline the challenges that can come when creating behaviour rules.

In fact, this is something the school has recently addressed head on as part of a complete overhaul of its behaviour policies.

“We brought in stakeholder groups from all three sections and we gave all parts of the schools a voice,” says Papps, echoing the stance endorsed by Professor Gillborn.

“We went with a values-first behaviour policy. So, rather than a list of rules, we talk about the behaviours we want to see.”

Addressing cultural differences 

She says this included discussions around things such as “what does it mean to be respectful?”, “what does it mean to be show responsibility?”, “what are the pro-social behaviours we want to see around the school?” and so on.

However, cultural issues are still encountered, says Papps. “We want children to say good morning to [teachers] at the gate when they come in [but], in some other cultures, speaking to an adult before you’ve been spoken to is not appropriate,  nor is being seen as ‘question’ a teacher.”

She says this is where engagement with parents is important so that children understand there may be different expectations in school to at home or wider society.

“Little things like that we need to clarify with parents, or that it’s important your child raises their hand and makes themselves known in the classroom and asks questions – that’s a positive here, not a negative.”

She adds: “I think the more information you can provide to the family, the more successful behaviour policy is because they don’t always know what we’re looking for.”             

Sallis agrees that ensuring policies are clearly communicated – from the expectations to the sanctions that can be used – is vital.

“Schools need to have clear polices and these must be shared with all stakeholders.”

To prevent misunderstandings taking place, these policies “need to be consolidated and reiterated constantly to all staff, students and parents”, he says.

Clear expectations and outcomes 

Of course, there will be times when robust conversations need to be had but, as long as this is discussed fairly and openly, it can be worked through.

“You are never going to be able to get all to understand first time and you also must accept conflict between the behaviour policy and families at times, but we are always trying to keep this to a minimum and any conflict is resolved quickly.”

Ford agrees that providing parents with a clear insight on the rules and the consequences that exist up front can avoid awkward conversations later on.

“We have a matrix of these, which is available to parents and which we refer to. It has examples at each level,” she says, although she notes that it needs some flexibility and to be used “with caution, depending on the age of the student, and language ability or special needs”.

This “matrix”-type approach is something that an international headteacher who used to work in Italy tried as well, although it did not have quite the same positive impact as Ford experienced.

“Our solution [to cross-cultural behaviour challenges] was to include a very detailed matrix that laid out almost every conceivable action and the attendant consequences. This came through several protracted discussions and consultations with teachers from both cohorts.

“It definitely brought the two systems [UK and Italian] more in line with each other and provided more consistency, but I don't know that any one was entirely happy with the results, as everyone had to give a little and the matrix was pretty unwieldy.” 

Indeed, they add that teachers often also used to try to circumvent the matrix when they felt there was good reason for it – such as a usually good student just having a bad day – and justify to a line manager why a punishment wasn’t needed.

The vital role of teachers 

These issues underline another key point about how well a behaviour policy works – or does not – in an international school: the role of teachers. This is key in all settings, of course, but in an international school, the cultural background of teachers can have a huge impact, as our former headteacher in Italy explains.

“There were several examples [in Italy] of the ‘boys will be boys’ mindset when faced with student issues. Shoving and hurting someone during a football match? But, of course, it’s football. Repeatedly shouting out and talking over the teacher? He’s passionate, that’s all.”  

It was by no means ubiquitous, “but it was a trend with Italian teachers overall, showing much more inclination to forgive seemingly quite serious incidents. No doubt the Italian staff saw the British as excessively punitive and unforgiving.”

Given this, Papps says this is an area that can’t be overlooked: “We do a lot of work with the teachers around consistency and expectations. I think that’s where most of the challenges come from – having teachers, especially those new to the school, who can adopt that consistent practice.”

She notes, for example, that there was a tension in the past where some staff used detentions for arbitrary punishments such as writing lines or cleaning the classroom – something that often did not sit well with parents or students, not for being punished, but the pointlessness of the sanction.

“Detentions were a little bit loose in the school and it was up to individual teachers to issue them and they were really inconsistently applied,” she says.

As such she says the policy refresh gave the opportunity to change this and bring in more structure.

“We were very clear that a detention is a chance to reflect, to have a coaching conversation with an adult who can help walk through what the situation was, and how we're going to move forward.

Learning and growing

This change underlines the importance of ensuring teachers understand that working in an international school will mean that behaviour issues can’t always be handled in the same way as at home, and that simply moving an old way of working to a new school does not always translate.

Most teachers who embark on a teaching career overseas are probably well aware of this but it can still be a challenge.

This is perhaps seen most strongly when cultural norms of a host country enter the classroom and pose a direct challenge to an attempt to enforce behavioural expectations – as this teacher explains with an example from their own experiences.

“Male students who may be raised in traditional Islamic households may have traditional views around women in the workplace and view them as primarily maternal figures rather than professionals,” they say.

“As a result, they can struggle to take direction or follow requests made by female teaching staff. This can impact behaviour management, as a student can react completely differently to instruction from a male teacher than they would from a female one.”

This is perhaps at the sharp end of the international teaching experience but it is also very much the reality that can be faced. It underlines why having a behaviour policy is one thing but it stands or falls by how able teachers are to enforce it – and the support they get from those around them.

This is where schools and the group that support them have to step up to help. Orrow-Whiting says his organisation does this by ensuring that staff can access training on its online development platform.

“This includes courses on cultural awareness, diversity and inclusion, and unconscious bias, among others, to help school leaders develop cultural knowledge to understand how it might impact students’ learning and behaviour in the classroom,” he says.

Meanwhile, Crouch says that within Globeducate, there is a focus on helping new teachers learn the cultural norms and expectations of a school and the country on arrival from those already in-country.

“We encourage our schools to ensure that pupil diversity and cultural awareness is an important element and included as part of the induction and staff recruitment process and programme,” she says.

“Buddying teachers up with those teachers who have lived in the country as an expat and/or as a resident of that country can provide perspective and contextual based examples of dos and don’ts, too.”

Enjoying the differences 

And, of course, for many, it’s simply about spending time in the unique environs of an international school and the diverse array of pupils, parents and other staff

“I’ve been teaching in international schools for most of my career. It’s something that has naturally become part of my classroom management strategy,” says international school teacher David Keating.

I’m now used to having different cultures in my class and can generally gauge how to best interact with students from different backgrounds and avoid the common pitfalls.”

And, as a final point, which many others alluded to as well during conversations around this issue, while there are “many challenges of managing behaviour in multicultural environments”, the positives far outweigh this, he says. 

“In terms of rich discussion, variety of opinions and cultural references to draw upon, the benefits for students and teachers working in multicultural classrooms far outweigh the challenges.”

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Dan Worth

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