Challenging behaviour in schools under the microscope after boy-in-cage affair

, Chief Assembly reporter for The Canberra Times.

In the wake of the boy-in-a-cage affair, ACT Education Minister Joy Burch has announced a wide review of how schools deal with children with challenging behaviour, from violence to classroom disruption.

The review will also look at students "complex needs" and at the use of "exclusionary withdrawal".

Emeritus Professor Anthony Shaddock will head the review into a problem he believes could involve as many as 20 per cent of school students, and said he would hold public meetings, and speak with challenging students, other students who felt threatened in schools, experts, families and anyone with a view to offer.

Complex needs: Professor Tony Shaddock will lead the review.

Complex needs: Professor Tony Shaddock will lead the review.Photo: Lyn Mills

"As a former teacher, any behaviour that disrupts the good order of a classroom or a school and your ability to deliver, that's challenging, particularly if it might lead to some sort of contagion in a class, some sort of spread and a loss of control," Professor Shaddock said.

"As a young teacher, I remember feeling terrified at times when that sort of incident occurred. As you get older most teachers get better at dealing with it, but even so, experienced teachers are stressed by certain behaviours which are perhaps unpredictable, violent, extreme, damaging of property, damaging of the kids' own personal safety."

While the review was sparked by revelations in April that a Canberra primary school had built a cage-like structure in a classroom to contain a boy with autism, Professor Shaddock said it was not about people with particular diagnoses, but about problem behaviour . He would look at the treatment of the autistic boy in detail, but also look far wider, not only at children whose complex needs or challenging behaviour was related to a disability, but triggered by trauma, abuse, neglect or other issues.

"We shouldn't get hung up on diagnoses and labels, we should be looking at behaviour," he said.

"How do schools reasonably respond to that? Are there ways we can do that more proactively, more efficiently - ways that look after the competing rights of other students, the teachers?"

Ms Burch said the review would include private as well as public schools, and pay "particular attention to responses such as exclusionary withdrawal". After news of the cage, reports emerged of students being locked in time-out rooms and physically restrained .

She was looking to ensure students and teachers were supported.

"Within our school communities there are students of all ages, across all classes, across all suburbs that come to school and are challenging for teachers and for that school community. We've got to continue the good work we do, but look to what else we can add."

Last month, Ms Burch also ordered an internal investigation into how the primary school came to build a cage for an autistic boy. She said the investigation had been more complex than expected, with human resources issues, but should be completed in a couple of weeks. Meantime, the principal was still on administrative duties in the education department and the child was attending school.

"This was a one off incident that still to this day I cannot understand how a series of decisions resulted in that," she said.

Professor Shaddock, a psychologist and educator, is emeritus professor at the University of Canberra. Also on the panel are pediatrician Sue Packer, and ACT Children and Young People Commissioner Alasdair Roy, with the option to co-opt consultants and set up reference groups. They will report in October. Professor Shaddock said that while he hadn't worked out the detail of how he would conduct the review, his aim was "to keep consulting with people until you're not getting one new idea".

ACT secretary of the Australian Education Union Glenn Fowler said the review had an "ambitious agenda", but the union welcomed "any attempt to examine the cause of disruptive behaviour".

Medical advances and mainstreaming meant more students than ever before with complex needs, he said.

He urged the reviewers to look at the number of mental health professionals in schools, with the union pushing a ratio of one pyschologist for 500 students, compared with the current rate in the ACT of one per 900.

"School chaplaincy programs to us is the wrong direction, we need health professionals as the priority," he said. 

He accused Mr Burch of tainting the separate investigation into the cage by her public comments blaming "extreme poor decision making".


see also 

Editorial: We have to ask "Is it appropriate that Prof. Shaddock review the results of his own advice/recommendations on special education in the ACT?" Unfortunaely, his review, published in 2009, is no longer found on the ACT education website (though you can download it here).

The ASD community is concerned that this latest review will yet again fail to recognise the distinct and diverse needs of students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Students with ASD, those in the category that sparked this Inquiry, make up only a minority 10% of the students at risk of "challenging behaviour" based on the article above. Once again, the Inquiry and the ACT Minister for Education (and Disability) will be able yet again to ignore the specific needs of students with ASD. 

Note that the ACT Government's Taskforce on Students with Learning Difficulties (2013) did not contact or consult with SOfASD, the grassroots autism advocates/stakeholders in the ACT, in relation to its review. The massive adverse publicity for the ACT associated with the "boy-in-cage affair" is a forseeable consequence of typically poor consultation.