Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Faculty of Education


This thesis investigates how preservice teachers understand ‘challenging behaviour’ and how this knowledge informs their teaching practice. Challenging behaviour is problematised as a knowledge referent and the epistemic tensions that preservice teachers experience in coming to ‘know’ about challenging behaviour are explored. This is an in-depth, qualitative study that focuses on the experiences, knowledge and knowledge-change of five final-year preservice primary teachers before, during and after their final Professional Experience (PEx). Data was gathered via interviews, focus groups, concept maps, document analysis and classroom observations. Foucault’s theories of knowledge comprised the theoretical framework of the study and discourse analysis was used for data analysis.

Major conclusions reached were threefold. Firstly, this study embraced the ambiguity and complexity of ‘challenging behaviour’ by avoiding the definitional debate and instead identifying and positing three discourses of challenging behaviour. This approach was found helpful in understanding preservice teachers’ knowledge of the topic. Secondly, it was found that the preservice teachers’ knowledge of challenging behaviour was, at best, ‘confused’ insofar as it was rarely discursively consistent. Thirdly, the types of epistemic processes through which the preservice teachers reconstructed their discursively inconsistent knowledge were theorised as either ‘matching’ or ‘squishing’ (via oscillations and/or negotiations). These epistemic processes were cast as problematic. Both ‘matching’ and ‘squishing’ demonstrated potential to maintain epistemic equilibrium and so limit possibilities for knowledge expansion and reflective practice. Moreover, in the case of ‘squishing’, this epistemic process was found to generate confusions, which were at times unsupportive of pedagogical decision-making.

Two major implications of the research concern teacher education. Firstly, because the preservice teachers’ confusions, pedagogical distress and quandaries around challenging behaviour seemed to stem from discursively inconsistent knowledge, there is a call for teacher education programs to more clearly delineate multiple knowledges of challenging behaviour. Secondly, the preservice teachers’ epistemology was characterised by an overwhelming propensity to perceive a theory/practice divide in their professional knowledge. However, for these preservice teachers, there was not such a polarity to be bridged regarding challenging behaviour. Recasting the theory/practice problem in terms of knowledge showed the preservice teachers were doing a good deal of complex epistemological work ‘in the middle’ of theory and practice. Theory was not considered irrelevant, it was mobilised to make specific pedagogical decisions during practicum. However, understandings of these ‘practical theories’ were fraught with the incoherence and confusions associated with the epistemic practice of ‘squishing’. Thus, although the preservice teachers’ knowledge indicated they were ‘working in the middle’ of theory and practice, they were not doing so with great accuracy or effectiveness. It then is necessary to offer preservice teachers more comprehensive tools to work with and understand ‘knowledge’, rather than ‘theory/practice’.