assessment of the Expert Panel's report (2015) and the ACT Government's response

Bob Buckley, SOfASD Chair

Following is SOfASD's view of the Schools for all Children and Young People: Report of the Expert Panel on Students with Complex Needs and Challenging Behaviour (The Report) and the ACT Government's response (available at

The Report's Terms of Reference, the Expert Panel's report itself and the ACT Government's response to The Report all omit any mention of the “cage” affair that was the catalyst for the appointment of the Expert Panel. The Report is unclear about why the ACT Government convened the Expert Panel: key aspects of the recent context relating in challenging behaviour in schools are absent.

The Terms of Reference describe both “complex needs” and “challenging behaviour”.The Expert Panel's report, in Section 2.2, redefines them; its interpretation of the combined phrase “complex needs and challenging behaviours” is unnecessary. In relation ACT schools and their access to resources, the prospect or presence of unwanted, problem or “challenging” behaviour basically means the student has “complex needs” since the needs cannot be met from in-school resources. Unwanted, problem or challenging behaviour does not need to be “pervasive” as The Report suggests; in some/many instances a behaviour of concern is limited to a specific setting, for example either school or home.

The Report is quite long (270+ pages). Frankly, we don't have the time, nor do we see any reason, to go through The Report and critique each line or paragraph in detail. We offer below a few specific observation and general comments.

The Report provides about 50 recommendations, and in its response the Government accepts, fully or partly, all of them. To SOfASD, the Report looks like what the Minister wanted. Mostly, the Report says “do what's been done/tried before but expect (or hope for) different outcomes”.

The Expert Panel's report uses its early Chapters 3 to 8 to describe and justify the ACT's existing education system. Note that the members of the Expert Panel are principal architects of the ACT's education system, a system that clearly fails many students who risk developing challenging behaviours. SOfASD identified the roles of panel members as a risk when the Minister chose her the Expert Panel.

The Report has limited basic quantitive information; for example it does not say how many students have existing or may develop challenging behaviour. Or how many currently receive behaviour support in schools.

The Reports says:

It is currently estimated that ASD affects 1% of children in Australia …

Currently, over 2% of Australian children are diagnosed autistic (see 

We are not sure what “affects” means in this case. If it means “diagnosed”, this is closer to reality than the ACT Government's recent motion in the Assembly that declared 1 in 160 children have autism (see here). Without accurate data, the ACT Government is clearly unable to plan effectively to meet the needs of students with challenging behaviour.

In June 2015, 1 in 49 Australian (1 in 70 ACT) children aged 5-15 years had a confirmed formal autism diagnosis from a recognised health or allied health professional.

The ETD certainly missed the opportunity to showcase its initial contribution to the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data on School Students with Disability (the national data collection). If the data that the ETD collected for its 2015 contribution isn't useful for this report, one is left wondering what use is the data that they collected?

The report says:

A small number of students appear to be caught in a cycle of suspensions, transfers between schools and reduced school hours, where mainstream schools are not adequately meeting their behavioural support needs.

We could not find recommendations in the report relating to “reduced school hours”. We cannot be confident that reduced reporting of suspensions mentioned in the report is an actual decrease in suspension, or just reduced reporting. We are aware of “transfers between schools” where the transfer out of one school is well known but the transfer into another school is alleged but actually non-existent.

The opportunities through this report to tackle the behavioural needs of students is the ACT have been largely missed.

The “boy-in-the-cage” is just the tip of the iceberg. Since the story appeared in the media, SOfASD has been approached by students and families in the ACT with their own stories of restraint and/or trauma (often leading to school refusal). Apparently, submission to the Expert Panel also tell this story. Clearly, the autism community lacks confidence in the Minister for Education who claimed the incident that the media focussed on was “an isolated incident”.

Chapter 3 of the report is 5 pages claiming to outline the legislative context. It omits that the international law says primary and secondary education should be free.

It claims that “human rights are not merely aspirational, but are woven into our legislative framework”. The reality is that even when unpicked from out legislation, the rights of autistic students, especially those who are or may be affected by problem or challenging behaviour, simply do not exist.

The report makes claims about children's rights to education that are clearly contrary to case law in Australia and the ACT. Specifically:

  • Commonwealth law allows any and every school to exclude any student they suspect may have “unwanted behaviour”. This was established in the High Court through Purvis vs NSW and repeated in Walker vs Victoria.

  • ACT case law, in Woodbury vs ACT, says that the ACT legal system does not recognise as discrimination the failure/refusal of both ACT Education or ACT Health to offer or provide an appropriate education or treatment (respectively) for a child's autism when they clearly provide education and treatment (respectively) for other children including children with other disabilities. Further, even if the legal system did recognise this selective approach to service availability/provision as discrimination, there are numerous ways that Commonwealth and ACT law protect such discrimination. The fact that the cases took 10 years to complete is a complete denial of justice for children seeking appropriate education and treatment.

The goals of international law, that the report describes, are not legal reality in the ACT. The Expert Panel's report somehow missed the legal fundamentals: it omits what happens on the ground.

Clearly, the legal framework in Australia and the ACT does not deliver children with disability, especially children with autism, any actual right to effective/appropriate education. The reality is that the Government funded Human Rights agencies in Australia are there to protect the status quo and help avoid having to develop actual human rights for vulnerable people in Australia.

This matter of Australian law should be addresses at the Commonwealth level, but the Commonwealth Government says it doesn't like being lectured to by the United Nations on human rights issues … and the federal opposition apparently shares that view. There is no prospect for change there.

Bullying is a major issue for autistic students and often leads to problem and challenging behaviours. Chapter 4 mentions bullying in the text but there are no specific recommendations relating to bullying. 

Chapter 5 Student-Centred Schools is confusing. Autistic students need person-centred services including their education services, not student-centred schools. Most of them will be NDIS participants and as such there is recognition that the person-centred service model may result in better services. Autistic students need their transitions between schools better managed and their services better coordinated between agencies. Linking autistic students, especially those with challenging behaviours, to a school and its services does not help.

The claim that “There is no doubt that ACT schools perform well on a wide array of performance indicators” may be true generally, but it is irrelevant. This report is meant to be about challenging behaviours … this report is being written because the ACT education system did not perform well for autistic students. Nationally, education systems perform abysmally for autistic students with 86% of autistic students have “difficulty” at school. The report provides no evidence that things are different in the ACT.

The Chapter documents the Expert Panel's view that:

4. Serious challenging behaviour may reflect: a lack of behavioural skills; an emotional impact of disrupted family life; economic and social impacts on the child or family; psychological factors such as trauma, depression and other mental health issues; neuro-medical issues such as disability, and chronic health conditions. ...

The Expert Panel fail to recognise that autistic students develop challenging behaviour from things like stress and anxiety arising from bullying (by both staff and students), and from frustration with school staff failing/refusing to recognise and respect choices/preferences that autistic students communicate via their behaviour. Autistic students may also be distressed over the injustice that they feel whenever they are not believed, ignored or misinterpreted.


8. School leaders, teachers and support staff should have the skills and resources to meet the learning and behavioural needs of children and young people with complex needs and challenging behaviour.

The Expert Panel do not make the case for school staff to be expected to have clinical skills in the area of behaviour ahead of other clinical skills. In fact, they describe the need for “specialised expertise” in Principle 9. They do not describe how this would happen or how to ensure it happens effectively. It's more likely that the Expert Panel does not understand what is needed to meet the behavioural needs in these cases. Perhaps the Expert Panel isn't as “expert” on this subject as the Minister expects/believes? In this regard, Principles 9 & 10 should precede Principle 8.

Notice that “wrap-around supports” (Principle 9) and “whole-of-government” approaches (Principle 12) extend beyond school-based approaches.

Similarly with Chapter 6, the issue is Directorate culture, not school culture. The failures in school culture that were reported to the Expert Panel will not be addressed successfully at school level. The ACT needs strong cultural leadership across the whole education directorate.

Note that for years, the Positive Partnerships program has been part of the Commonwealth Government's Helping Children with Autism package. And for years, parents have been saying school culture remains the problem. Again, the only prospect for improvement depends on strong leadership at the Directorate level.

If the ACT Government is serious about changing, it should engage real expertise in organisational change.

Chapter 11 says:

… However, a small minority of students sometimes display very challenging behaviour ...

Really! “Sometimes” is not a word usually associated with “pervasive” behaviour. In relation to autistic students with challenging behaviour, “sometimes” is the wrong word: autistic students who develop “challenging behaviour” often do so progressively, and their behaviour often becomes consistent.

The Expert Panels claims:

ETD has undertaken significant work in this area by developing the Safe and Supportive Schools Behaviour Support Guide.3 This policy document provides schools with detailed guidance on a comprehensive range of strategies for meeting students’ needs, supporting them to behave in a positive way, and promoting their learning outcomes. This is a useful resource for ACT Public Schools but also provides guidance that may be helpful to Independent and Catholic schools.

3. ACT Government Education and Training Directorate, (2014) Safe and Supportive Schools: Behaviour Support Guide.

However, a Google search produces Figure 3 (we have not checked all the references in the Report).

We did find some relevant policies on the ETD website, but clearly policies relevant to restraints or restrictive practices are not well known and too often unimplemented/ignored.

The positive aspect to the report is that it suggests responses to recent events that appear palatable to a large degree to the Minister and her Government, and that may improve the education of students who have or are at risk of developing challenging behaviour in schools.

The key finding, out of 50 recommendation is:

Recommendation 9.1: That ETD, CE, and each Independent School, (a) endorse School‐Wide Positive Behavioural Support; (b) resource and support schools to implement the program for a minimum of three years; and (c) evaluate the success of the program.

The following might help if it applies to collecting and analysing outcomes generally, rather than being limited/restricted to the NSET program.

Recommendation 10.6: That ETD collect and analyse data on student outcomes, and school, student and parent/carer satisfaction, with respect to the NSET program, and that this data be used to monitor and improve the effectiveness of ETD’s overall strategy with respect to students with complex needs and challenging behaviour.

What is “Positive Behaviour Support”?

The ACT Government's Expert Panel suggests and expects Positive Behaviour Support (PBS) will go a long way towards fixing challenging behaviour in its schools. But we've not heard much about PBS before so perhaps it would help people better understand if we knew what it is.

It seems that the Education Directorate wasn't doing much with PBS either (see Figure 2).

The Expert Panel's report has a short section that attempts to explain. Mainly, there is a quote that says:

Functional assessment of behaviour; redesigning the setting to promote appropriate behaviour; teaching the necessary pro-social skills; reducing the natural rewards associated with misbehaviour; reinforcing pro-social behaviour (especially new pro-social behaviours); and maintaining organisational support for the approach through good communication, policy, data, time for planning and support).*

* Glen Dunlap, et al, ‘A comment on the term “Positive Behavior Support”’, (2014) 16(3) Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 133, 136.

Dunlap's abstract starts out saying “The use of the term “positive behavior support” has been associated with some confusion, ...”. Frankly, this confusion obligates anyone using the term in anything like this report to explain clearly what they mean by PBS. But this report fails to do that, and the ACT Government's response does not show what they understand PBS to mean either.

Dunlap also says “Positive Behavioral Support” (with the trailing -al) is “the term that was first adopted” and:

The term is now less preferred because a distinctive feature is that “behavioral” is used as a modifier for support. It explicitly associates PBS with a particular conceptual and procedural orientation. Although this association is credible in that PBS is, in fact, primarily derived from behavioral traditions (e.g., ABA), it carries the potential disadvantage of being perceived as excluding contributions from other scientific disciplines and traditions (such as medicine, biology, developmental psychology, systems theory, etc.). An important characteristic of PBS, as articulated by Carr and colleagues (2002), is an openness to empirically validated procedures from a variety of conceptual and methodological orientations.

The research literature finds it difficult or impossible to distinguish PBS from ABA. The problem is that the Minister and many of her staff loath ABA … without showing much understanding of what ABA is and how it is usually practiced professionally today. The Minister's position on this particular matter has stymied advocacy for autistic people in the ACT for years.

Interestingly, the more credible part of the PBS community ...

Over the past 20 years, PBS has become increasingly visible through an international organization (the Association for Positive Behavior Support), a quarterly journal (the Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions), federal legislation, extensive research, and a set of professional standards (see

Note that APBS's home page ( says:

APBS is an international organization dedicated to promoting research-based strategies that combine applied behavior analysis and biomedical science with person-centered values and systems change to increase quality of life and decrease problem behaviors.

It is not clear how PBS combines ABA and biomedical science: does it require one person to be qualified in all the relevant professions, or does it involve teams of professionals working together? Or can people (or their employers) declare themselves PBS practitioners after attending a few hours of training?

The Expert Panel report in section 9.5 Implementation, has the heading “Procedural integrity and treatment fidelity”. It says “Currently there is no formal oversight of the integrity with which Positive Behaviour Support is implemented in ACT schools”. The report omits any reference to the APBS and its standards, or to BACB and it's training and accreditation processes.

Teachers and their employers have unrealistic expectation of their ability. Too often, they believe that with a few hours of professional development they can provide an equivalent or better service than other professionals who spent years in training. What next: will teachers be providing other specialist services such as dentistry, surgery, etc. in their classrooms? We won't need children's hospitals!

Clearly, the ACT's existing TQI standards do not ensure education staff recognise when they should call in relevant professionals and clinicians with specialist knowledge. In relation to teaching students with disability, employers in the education sector routinely expect teachers to operate beyond their training and knowledge. This in not professional conduct.

The report refers to PBIS websites, and Dunlap says, the term “Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports” (PBIS), was used to distinguish the copyrighted use of PBS to mean “Public Broadcast Service” and ...

“[PBIS] was introduced in the 1997 amendments of IDEA. PBIS has come to refer to the application of PBS approaches in school contexts and, especially, in relation to school-wide applications.”

Why choose PBS or SWPBS?

Recommendation 9.1 in the report calls for everyone to “endorse School‐Wide Positive Behavioural Support” (SWPBS). It seems SWPBS is meant to be PBS for the whole school … so it's in the playground, sports events, etc. – it's not just there in a few classrooms.

It's not clear why it should be “school-wide”, when PBS needs to pervade the whole Directorate, not just the school. The intention seems to be to locate ETD's PBS expertise in the NSET … which are not school-based resources.

Recommendation 11.3: That the ACT Government implement a whole‐of‐government approach, and develop a legislative framework, to regulate the use and independent oversight of restrictive practices in all ACT schools, and other relevant settings.

Finally, children with disability and challenging behaviour need a person-centred approach that extends beyond the school. The real need is for a person-centred model.

Notably, the Reports says:

As effective as approaches such as Positive Behaviour Support are, they will not be successful with every student on every occasion.

The Expert Panel is making excuses from the outset and setting an unacceptably low expectation. The point of PBS's trans-disciplinary nature is that there is no need to expect occasional failure.

Since the Expert Panel's report became available, the Report of the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs into Violence, abuse and neglect against people with disability in institutional and residential settings, including the gender and age related dimensions, and the particular situation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability, and culturally and linguistically diverse people with disability was release 25/11/2015 (see The report discusses “Box 4.2: School child restrained in cage at an ACT school” … and states that it is not an isolated case (contrary to claims from the ACT Minister for Education & Disability).

The Senate Committee's report does not even mention the pervasive restraint of autistic students in purpose-built enclosures in ACT schools, similar to Image 4.2: A fenced seclusion area visible from the school playground from a Victorian school. This restraint of autistic students is established and routine practice at autism specific learning support units in the ACT, especially for autistic students who are considered at risk of absconding, elopement or wandering.

Paragraphs 4.130 to 4.137 state the Committee's view on restrictive practice in education. It includes the following:

4.136 It is the committee's view that proven positive behavioural management tools such as Applied Behavioural Analysis need to take the place of restrictive practices and need to be properly funded and professionally supported.

The Senate Committee's views, especially its “zero-tolerance approach to restrictive practice in a schools context”, contrast to the Expert Panel and the ACT Government. The “professionally supported” aspect is at odds to that ACT Minister for Education & Disability, who has a deep aversion to clinical/professional behavioural methods.

The Senate Committee says:

Recommendation 18

10.58 The committee recommends the Australian Government work with state and territory governments to implement a national zero-tolerance approach to eliminate restrictive practice in all service delivery contexts. This would entail:

• ensuring the national framework is properly implemented across all jurisdictions, as a mandatory, reviewable and enforceable scheme, with 279 oversight by a qualified senior practitioner and with a mandatory element of positive behaviour support;

• a scheme that is not limited to the disability sector, but applies to all places where restrictive practice is used against people with disability; and

• imposing requirements for the use of positive behaviour management tools. These policies and guidelines would be guided by the following principles:

• Policies and advice need to be available to the general public and linked in with behaviour and discipline policy.

• The preferred substitution of positive behavioural management tools such as Applied Behavioural Analysis for 'restrictive practices'.

Recommendation 19

10.59 The committee believes that the use of restrictive practice against children must be eliminated as a national priority. The committee recommends the Australian Government work with state and territory governments to implement a zero-tolerance approach to restrictive practice in a schools context, which should include:

• the principle that restrictive practice must not form a part of a behaviour management plan;

• written behaviour management plans must be agreed to by the student, their parents, the school and a Principal Practice Leader or Senior Practitioner (or similar position) within the state education department;

• that parents must be notified should there be an instance of emergency restrictive practice being used;

• specialist support be made available by the state education department to guide and support teachers, students and families through the understanding and implementation of these new policies; and

• a compulsory unit of training should be developed and delivered to all principals, teachers and teachers' aides to ensure that these new policies are clearly understood and implemented. This training should be made available to interested students and families.

SOfASD welcomes the Senate Committee's recommendations, including those relating specifically to restrictive practices and schools.

The ACT Minister appointed an “Expert Panel” to report on students with complex needs and challenging behaviour. For some reason, her Expert Panel failed to even mention Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) or Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), clinical methods that are generally regarded as highly relevant to problem and challenging behaviour.

Note that all clinical practices need professional oversight. The report and its recommendations seem to have omitted this crucial component of services and supports for students with problem/challenging behaviours.

And surely a comprehensive report would discuss ABA as an option at least, even if it concludes that PBS (or PBIS) is the superior and most appropriate approach for use in the ACT's education systems.

Closing remarks

The Expert Panel did not demonstrate expertise in the relevant law, organisational change or professional practice for challenging behaviour. It's all very “Yes Minister”.

Complex needs and challenging behaviours are not new in education. Clearly, education research and best practice has been aware of ABA and PBS for some time, but not ACT schools. The community deserves answers to questions like:

  • Why did it take so long? Why was PBS (or ABA) awareness not taught already in the ACT to trainee and practicing teachers?

  • Why does the ACT's TQI scheme not already require teachers to demonstrate a clear knowledge and understanding of when they should call in external professionals to prevent or address challenging behaviour?

Clearly, the ACT's existing education system for students with disability, put in place largely on the advice of the members of the Expert Panel, was simply not up to the job. The Report creates an unacceptably low expectation for outcomes relating to challenging behaviour. Teacher training, professional conduct, clinical standards and a plethora of other matters need substantial improvement.

These matters are not covered in the report. Nor are they addressed in the ACT Government's response.

It seems that the ACT Government and its Expert Panel want to minimise publicity and perceptions around problem and challenging behaviour. They do not explain why the Panel's recommendations and the ACT Government's response are sufficient, adequate and appropriate. They do not explain why their recommendations differ from the recent Senate Committee's response (see above) to restrictive practices and schools.

Dear Mr Barr MLA,
For your interest, an assessment of the Expert Panel's report and the ACT Government's response is available at:


Bob Buckley

10/12/2015 1:03pm

Dear Mr Buckley

Thank you for the information.

Karen Schembri | Office of the Chief Minister

10/12/2015 1:18pm