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FREW Consultants Group        
Monday, September 13 2021

Dealing with Students with Severely Dysfunctional Behaviours

Integrate or Special Placement

Previously I discussed the issues that need to be addressed regarding the discipline and welfare practices within schools (see Newsletter - Student Discipline – What About Welfare – 7 September 2021).  This is relevant considering the current review on student discipline, being conducted by the Education Department.  The draft proposal makes a series of vague recommendations that promises increased support but imposes diminished access to consequences that would be targeted at specific students with highly disruptive behaviours. 


The document discusses behaviour in general terms and would be acceptable for the vast majority of students.  However, it fails to address the difficulty schools confront dealing with those students whose behaviour is outrageous and threatens not only their own safety and security but also endangers all other members of the school community.  It must be noted that these students are most in need of support and more importantly compassion from everyone in the community but their offensive behaviour repels such management.  


The foundations of the dysfunctional behaviours that clash with that which is acceptable in a school community is varied and as always, I do not include those students who have a psychotic or biological disorder.  Regardless, the beginnings of this dislocation occurs in the early years of their development.  I identify three fundamental causes which I will now describe briefly but for a more detailed account I have posted Chapter 2 of my book Neuroscience and Teaching Very Difficult Kids (Austin Macauley, London 2021) in the resources of our webpage Frew Consultants Group. 


The causes are:

  • Abuse – this includes physical, sexual, emotional/social and the less acknowledged intellectual and spiritual.  When children are abused the elevated stress levels inflicts real physical damage to the brain with decreases in those areas that assist cognition, the hippocampus, prefrontal lobes, the cerebellum and the corpus collosum along with an increase in the size of the amygdala.  The result is these students struggle to comprehend the messages coming from their environment and becoming super-sensitive to perceived external threats. 
  • Neglect – children need to learn how to behave and this learning is a result of being exposed to situations that threaten their security.  They either learn by trial and error to behave in ways that restores their equilibrium or are taught by a parent or carer how to behave.  There are two ways this process can undermine normal development: 
    • The first is that the parent/carer provides an environment that is at odds with what is considered ‘normal’.  If, for instance a child wants its mother’s attention it may be that the only way to achieve this is to scream loudly and hit out at the mother.  If this works then the child has acquired the behaviour for getting attention.  However, later, at school when the child is excluded and becomes desperate for acceptance they will employ those behaviours that worked in their childhood but these are ‘dysfunctional’ in the classroom!
    • The second is when children are not stimulated enough.  The brain develops throughout life but will never be as active as in the first three years.  To develop, it requires the stimulus so the appropriate behaviours can be learned.  For many behaviours there are critical periods of time when the conditions in particular parts of the brain are primed for this development.  The most cited is for sight – a child born with cataracts is blind they will not receive light as a stimulus and so will not learn to see.  In the real world, children who have experienced this and have not had the cataracts removed by about the eighth month will not be able to interpret sight even when the cataracts are removed despite there being nothing wrong with the neurological circuitry for sight.  It is just that when the opportunity to learn to see is past, the brain removes the neurological matter for the sake of efficiency.  A less dramatic but more common is the absence of appropriate attachment to others in the first years.  This results in relationship problems later in life. 


All too often, these children are the casualties of both abuse and neglect and it is vital that we understand this damage has been done to these kids, they are victims and should attract our compassion, However, their actions challenges those who are subjected to their threatening, dysfunctional behaviour.


Although these behaviours that arise from their malicious environment they manifest in various ways.  The result of the behaviours is that they can’t effectively interact with their peers in a way that benefits themselves and their contemporaries.  As an aside, the best thing, in fact the main task of a parent is to teach their child how to interrelate with their friends and their parents by about age three.  After this, it is the quality of the contact with others that determines their sense of self.  Using this understanding, the most helpful thing we can do for these damaged kids is teach them to re-engage with their classmates in a way that nurtures all parties.  The question is how do we do this?


This has resulted in a clash of tactics between those who believe in dealing with the problem while maintaining the child’s presence in the school against those who advocate the removal for a period of time until the student ‘learns’ how to behave in a manner that allows them to return to school where they, and their peers can access their lessons; inclusion versus exclusion!


Almost exclusively, academics and bureaucrats support a policy of inclusion.   Academics are extremely vocal in their advocacy for full integration and it is difficult to argue with their reasons for supporting this approach.  However, they are naive about the reality that exists in public schools particularly in poor socio-economic areas.  To implement their models would require a significant increase in resources that don’t exist in any public school.  The current proposal from the department promises increased support without releasing details.


The department has made similar guarantees and allocated extra funding in the past but to paraphrase a former, leading consultant and principal ‘the promised support for schools in the 1990s that was provided rarely, if ever made it beyond District and Regional Offices.  The increased necessary workload for teachers involving reports from specialist, doctors, counsellors, year advisors and teachers (repeated annually for each child) was a total inefficient use of resources.  District and Regional personnel had to be employed to review all the material with schools receiving the pittance left over after all their salaries had been paid.  Their role seemed to deteriorate into periodically telling teachers how they were getting it wrong’!  Experience suggests they will not deliver the support required at the school level and, as always imposing the responsibility for dealing with these kids back onto the school. 


The bureaucracy cites the position of the academics for their support of inclusion, but I would contend the cost of providing alternate settings for these students is prohibitive compared with any cost of support in an existing facility.  The cynic in me suspects they also cater for the parents who fervently challenge any suspension, let alone exclusion. 


Neither the academics nor the bureaucrats consider the damaging effect the extreme behaviours have on the teaching and learning of the other members of the classroom.  This population that has always been disregarded but it is these students who also suffer from the presence of these students.  It has been established that students with extreme behaviours and the chaotic classrooms that are a product of those behaviours is a significant retardant to learning outcomes not to mention the potential psychological and/or physical damage classroom members could suffer.  Authorities continue to look at the damage these children inflict on a school in an abstract manner, for teaching practitioners their presence presents a serious challenge they can’t ignore. 


Before we continue this discussion, it is important to seriously examine what is best for the student involved.   The key questions that are never really forensically addressed are presented below:


  • What is best for the child – these severely dysfunctional students require intensive therapeutic interventions to help them deal with their mental health issues.  Where can these be best delivered?
  • What is best for their peers – the presence of these students in a class presents a significant barrier to all learning outcomes regardless of the motivation of the remaining students. 
  • What is best for the teachers and the school community – in the existing state of affairs all concerns are on the offending student with equity being put forward as the reason they should be retained.  I would contend that equity applies to everyone in a community and the presence of any child with a disability should be provided with the required support where ever that can best be delivered so that everyone can reach their potential.

I would argue that these are questions never really considered by those who are responsible for the policy.


I would strongly note that the position I advocate is primarily to give these damaged students the most effective support, the whole purpose of our Group is to provide resources to teachers to help them achieve this.


As pointed out in the previous Newsletter, schools can have as many as six children who would attract a diagnosis of severe dysfunctional behaviour, such as conduct disorder for every 100 students.  The absolute minimum requirement to affectively deal with even one of these students would be:

  • One support officer – someone who is always available to look after the child when the inevitable ‘melt-down’ occurs.  Allocating a certain number of hours may appear to be supportive but the timing of any outburst rarely matches with the presence of that support officer
  • A qualified mental health professional appointed to every secondary and large primary school to deliver appropriate, ongoing therapy for these students.  An important point must be acknowledged around the provision of suitable mental health interventions.  Most existing programs refer to providing ‘trauma informed practice’.  This catch-all label is meaningless unless you understand what this practice refers to.  In all my research the only effective intervention to deal with complex trauma, and these kids are inevitably in this category is long term intense one on one therapy.  This is just not available in public schools and in damaged, remote areas the presence of any qualified psychologist/psychiatrist, never mind in sufficient numbers is improbable
  • Intensive training and development for all teaching staff – teachers are barely trained in adequate techniques for dealing with the expected disruptive behaviours in any classroom but there is no effective and appropriate training I have seen.  As mentioned in the point made above, there are some courses offered to teachers that advocate ‘trauma informed practices’ but I strongly maintain that teachers should never get involved in any form of therapeutic interventions with these students.  There is a real potential to make matters worse; I advocate training in providing an effective learning environment that presents structure and expectations while retaining a professional relationship (see Newsletter – Competence and Warmth - 31 August 2021)
  • An on-site pleasant and secure setting where the student can be located when they are inevitably psychologically overwhelmed


The number of resources outlined as being required is not an exaggeration, these kids are extremely damaged and to deal with the potential numbers in a large secondary school in poor socio-economic areas is being quoted as high as twenty-six per 100 students.  These extra resources, that would be required would be extremely significant.  There is nowhere near any effective support in the current administration and I would argue they will never be provided. 


The provision of off-site settings for these students to attend has always been the reluctant compromise for addressing this problem.  The drawback is that these special facilities require buildings, fully trained staff and effective programs.  The current programs offered by existing settings are ad hoc and at best a reflection of the opinion of existing staff, particularly the principal. 


Regarding these facilities, apart from the requirements outlined above other current issues would need to be addressed.  These are:

  • The lack of sufficient places – schools are desperate to find a suitable place for these students and all would have a substantial waiting list.
  • There is an inability to access such placements in rural and remote areas.
  • Inconsistent access to programs.  Staff who are not school based and know the students control the Placement Panels
  • Special training and development for all staff appointed to these setting.  There is no such training available and teachers appointed are just expected to manage these most difficult students
  • Integration is variable.  For example, the 4:1 Model, that is four days at the setting and one day at the referring school is very unpopular with schools and are extremely difficult to justify for all students.  Integration should only occur when the student has gained the skills to form real friendships.  A strong case could be made for that integration not to occur at the referring school, their history will bring unfair challenges from staff and students they have previously damaged.
  • There is no recognition of the skills and experiences of the personnel in these school and is not seen as a ‘good career move’


This is a time when the department is inviting comments on their proposed Discipline Policy.  I would suggest that the critique presented here should form the foundation of that policy, the draft promises much in the way of support but unless that is spelled out and reflects the bare minimum outlined above, history would suggest the ‘promises’ will not materialise while the reduction in schools’ abilities to provide meaningful interventions, that is time out is reduced.  Real investment into effectively dealing with this problem may incur a short-term cost but the long term benefit for the student and their community lasts a life time.

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John R Frew
Marcia J Vallance

ABN 64 372 518 772


The principals of the company have had long careers in education with a combined total of eighty-one years service.  After starting as mainstream teachers they both moved into careers in providing support for students with severe behaviours.

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