'Outdated' disciplinary models hinder inclusive education

Many students with disabilities are missing out on quality education because of outdated class management methods, a behaviour and disability expert has revealed.

Speaking at a Disability Royal Commission, mental health education expert Dr David Armstrong of RMIT University said the “manage-and-discipline” model used in most Australian schools was not effective in managing children’s behaviour and students with disabilities were taking the brunt of its impact.

“The risk of disengagement becomes particularly acute when the model is used on students with disabilities… and is one reason for their over-representation in programs for disengaged or educationally excluded young people,” he said.

Dr Armstrong also said that another issue for some children with disabilities was that they might not be able to process certain instructions as quickly as their peers.

“This means that when the teacher sanctions them for not following those instructions, using the ‘manage-and discipline’ approach, it can demotivate that child because they do not understand why they are being sanctioned or might even welcome the negative attention,” he said.

Dr Armstrong said the method’s poor efficacy could also demotivate teachers and lead to “teacher drop out.”

He said the model needed to be replaced with evidence-based strategies that provide positive behavioural support for students with disabilities who were perceived to be creating behavioural difficulties.

“As behaviour is often a symptom of psychological distress or mental health difficulties, all future teachers should gain knowledge of how to notice behaviours that indicate mental health difficulties and understand principles for best practice approaches,” Dr Armstrong said.

Suspension, expulsion not the answer

Dr Armstrong said schools should end the use of suspensions, exclusions, and expulsions to discipline children, especially those with disabilities, as these often serve as barriers to inclusive education.

“Students who have a disability, experience poor mental health, or are from Aboriginal or Torres Strait backgrounds are disproportionately suspended, excluded and expelled from schools because of behaviour,” he said. “Many never return, foiling efforts at greater inclusion in our education system.”

He said suspension should only be considered in exceptional cases such as when the child’s safety or that of their peers is endangered.

“If adopted, they should only be a pause to establish what happened and a plan of action and should be for a maximum of two working days,” he said.

Dr Armstrong said behavioural concerns should also not be used as a pretext for recommending that children attend special schools or specialist settings.

He added that state governments should provide greater oversight on how schools employ disciplinary approaches.

“Only by addressing the wicked problem of behaviour in our schools, will we ensue a modern, effective and inclusive education system that serves the needs of all children,” Dr Armstrong said.