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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.

Posted by: AT 10:19 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, September 06 2021

Student Discipline - What About Welfare?

NSW Department of Education is currently reviewing its Welfare and Discipline Policy and the proposed change reflect the Department’s preoccupation with providing flattering statistics rather than a focus on the students who need support.  The proposed policies are designed to reduce the statistics of suspensions etc. without providing schools with any functional alternative consequence to help those students whose behaviour interferes with their learning, their cohort’s learning and the teacher’s ability to present their planned lesson.


This trend of weakening the teacher’s and school’s ability to deliver effective interventions that address a student’s dysfunctional behaviour has persisted for years.  I believe this is in response to the vocal protests of the parents of these children and the condescending attitude of academics who propose ‘alternative’ interventions.  The latter make the assumption that these kids can be ‘controlled’ and more naively the resources required to implement the programs they recommend are provided.  It is this failure of the Department to provide the adequate resources for schools to actually deliver effective welfare interventions that perpetuates the persistent problems severe behaviours present.  It is shameful, but not unexpected that the department ignores or even acknowledges their dereliction of responsibility but continues to place the accountability on to schools!  


This essay examines the role of discipline and welfare, with particular emphasis on the extreme end of the dysfunctional, behaviour scale.  Apart from those few, unfortunate children who suffer from real psychotic illness, the vast majority of students that fall in this category do so because of their aberrant, early childhood development (see Newsletters - The Impact of Neglect – 12 September 2017 and The Characteristics of the Abused Child – 26 September 2017).   Estimates of the numbers of these children with severe, dysfunctional behaviour range from between 3% to 11 % (however, this figure varies according to the socio-economic profile of the school). For most of the school population it only requires minimal use of discipline and welfare but even so some kids are a bit naughtier than others.  It should be no surprise that teenagers in particular do get into a bit of trouble.  It really is part of their responsibility to test boundaries to gain independence but most of these are easily dealt with.  It is at the last two levels where the strength of a school’s program is tested.  The ideal Discipline and Welfare Policy can be summarised in the diagram below.




Integrated Discipline and Welfare Program



It has to be acknowledged that the use of time out is the only practical consequence for disruptive and damaging behaviours and it is this cohort that will be subjected to the more severe form of time out, suspension.   Suspensions are never imposed easily, in some research I conducted it takes on average two hours of the school executive’s time to make use of this action; of course in some cases the amount of time is much more and this comes from the school’s existing budget of personnel.  Over the last twenty years or more there has been a progressive erosion about the application of all forms of time out.   

I have written extensively about the application of Time Out, (see Newsletter - Time Out– 17 July 2017) and I have included a full chapter from my book Insights into the Modern Classroom devoted to that subject (see Resources page - Frew Consultants Group).  These sources outline the practice of using this form of consequence for dysfunctional behaviour.  I am not going to discuss this here except to point out that Time Out is the only discipline tool schools have to deal with these extreme kids and not to use it discounts the value it affords to the school and more importantly the offending student.


Let’s take the example of a student with severe, antisocial behaviours that manifests as physical and/or psychological violence to their class mates or the staff.  No matter how the Department tries to hide the existence of these kids the statistics confirm their existence and most public schools experience this type of behaviour on an all too regular basis. 


As mentioned above, in some areas the numbers are much higher than others.  In the research I cited previously the number of long-term suspensions in a district in Western NSW was 5.8 per 100 children, that is for a school with say 500 students there would have been 29 long-term suspensions while in another district in North Sydney had 0.5 long-term suspensions per 100 students which translated into 2.5 long-term suspensions.  The workload the behavioural problems generated varies immensely yet the department demands the same overall compliance for both districts.  In the latest expulsion statistics I could get (2016) over three hundred students were expelled from the system, this would only occur after multiple suspensions.


We have to accept a couple of facts:

  1. That the behaviour of these most damaged kids can not function in regular school until they have learned to socialise in a manner that allows them to join in and to be accepted by their class mates and the school
  2. School staff neither has the training nor the time to implement any effective interventions
  3. School counsellors would need specialist training, particularly in dealing with early childhood trauma however, even with such training they would not have the time

The only way to effectively address the needs of these children is in specialist settings.


I can already hear the outcry from those who resist such exclusion and I would happily support their position if schools were provided with the appropriate number of extra staff suitably trained in mental health issues along with the capital resources needed to accommodate these.  However, without such support forcing these students to remain at a school exacerbates the suffering for the student and the schools.  As this is the situation across NSW schools, and I expect the rest of Australia the reality is that the current conditions are abusive for the student and the rest of the school community and the Department is responsible for this abuse.


There is no disputing the fact that dysfunctional behaviour continues to be the major impediment to learning outcomes in public schools.  The Department continues to ignore this fact and places it’s faith in ‘compulsory’ training in being a ‘quality teacher’ or more recently a ‘leader’, neither will have any impact on the problems caused by these most difficult kids yet somehow the leadership feel they are making a difference.


A less charitable person than myself would point to the fact that parents have identified the problem caused by these students and have migrated their kids to the private system where these students are either never enrolled or they are ‘expelled’ at the first sign of trouble.  The result is we are left with two different education systems and no prizes for identifying the system available for those in the low, socio-economic communities. 


In no way do we blame the students who display these severe behaviours, the whole approach of our service is to support these kids who deserve our compassion.  It is outrageous that the government’s response, through the department is to continue to ignore the problem while progressively increasing public funding to private schools.  The result is a social residualisation of our comprehensive public schools and a dislocation of our community!

Posted by: AT 08:05 pm   |  Permalink   |  1 Comment  |  Email
Thursday, September 02 2021

The Failure of Modern Leadership

I have long been of the opinion that modern leadership of organisations is flawed.   The contemporary approach taken by management is disconnected from the purpose of the enterprise.  Modern leaders, in true top-down style impose their strategies on an organisation assuming they understand the conditions at the work place.  This is a departure from the time-honoured approach where problems were solved where they occurred and management existed to support those solutions.  The current disorder in NSW’s schools is an excellent example of this failure.


In NSW public schools, the working conditions have created a crisis across the state with many schools unable to provide teachers for their students.  In May, there was 1,148 teaching positions vacant with too many schools having ten or more unfilled.  For example, in the troubled Walgett Community College there are 12 vacancies for a student population of 117.  This deficit is repeated across the state and these raw statistics ignore the lack of availability of casual teachers who traditionally cover for those on leave.


This shortage is directly linked to the growing and intensifying administrative demands on teachers and these are a result of the managerial style of the Department’s senior leadership.  Teachers’ focus is no longer solely in the classroom but dealing with prescribed compliance hours of training to meet the Teaching Standards, assessment of the School Excellence Framework and unreasonable workloads.  As a result, teachers are leaving in droves; 40% - 50% are leaving within the first five years in the job, up to half those who start a teaching degree leave before completion.  Over-worked teachers’ mental health is in crisis, 58% of teachers suffer what they describe as ‘quite a bit’ of stress with workloads that require 10 – 20 hours of unpaid labour just to get their work done.  


The current conditions are the culmination of changes that began in the late 60’s and early ‘70’s.  These changes resulted from the application of the scientific model of the physical world being applied to the social world.  Academics in the teaching subjects like psychology, economics, etc. longed to be accepted as scientists.   The resulting changes were shaped by two of the giants in the philosophy of science, Karl Popper who believed that theory was legitimised by data and Thomas Kuhn who supposed that theoretical paradigms are discarded when they no longer predict events.  Together, their reliance on data made way to the scientific, physical or social approach was dependent on measurement – if you can’t measure it it’s not worth doing.


With this new approach those ‘social’ faculties in universities, who had long suffered the barely concealed contempt from the pure physical sciences embraced this new approach.  Amongst the most successful was the Business School at Harvard University who scrutinised and ‘measured’ business practices to produce their celebrated Master of Business Administration.  The attractiveness of their course was based on the principles of leadership that focused on data, on costs and profits - more bang for your bucks, value added practices - more from less and marketing.  This approach paid early dividends in the market economy and business enthusiastically embraced the idea of ‘the manager’ who controls everything. This is classic ‘top down’ management.


The adoption of this ‘administrative’ approach swept through the public service and soon ‘would be leaders’ adopted this methodology to run their departments.  The education bureaucracy enthusiastically embraced it with leaders being appointed because of their understanding of administration principles.  This was in direct contrast to the past practice where leaders were promoted from the ranks because of their understanding of that portfolio and the problems faced by those who functioned within that structure.  The focus shifted diametrically from bottom-up practices where those in the classrooms and schools ‘solved’ problems and leadership supported their approach to top-down where leadership defined the problems and directed those below to implement their ‘managed’ solutions.


The emergence of this top down model coincided with the time when politicians began to take an interest in education.  They realised that they could influence what was taught and so how it should be taught.  In education, more than other portfolios Ministers had a sense of familiarity: they had all attended school.  This direct action started with Cavalier, followed by Metherell and they really embraced this new-found power.


An example of their self-importance saw Metherell, on a whim mandated that every child should be bi-lingual and so a whole new department was founded just to implement his idea.  This became known as LOTE (language other than English).  Programs were written, resources developed and mandated hours of instruction imposed on each school. Teachers in classrooms across the state wasted hours teaching those mandated hours, students at best learned to count to ten in a variety of languages.  It was a misuse of money that took years to eventually ‘disappear’. 

A more expensive example was the introduction of the Learning Management and Business Reform, the famous LMBR that wasted well over $750 million tax payer’s money.  Schools were pushed through probably the most incompetent and expensive reform I ever witnessed and it made no secret of its purpose, to replace the existing finance, human resources, payroll and student administration systems that had emerged across the state’s 2208 public schools; this lust for control from the top has preoccupied the department since 2006.

The decisive move to take an active role in the education portfolio coincided with the developing practice where the Minister appointed their Departmental Head, their Secretary.  The qualities of that appointment was not necessarily or not even preferably from the education field.  Candidates impressed the Minister with their administrative abilities.  Successful Secretaries are not thoughtless, they understood if you want the job and want to keep the job you serve the Minister above all others.  The most convenient way to impress the Minister was embedded in all the trappings of the MBA, cost-based approach, more bang for the bucks and appeal to the ‘market’; this is music to any politician’s ears.


As the Secretary owed their position to the Minister it was not long before the Senior Executive were appointed by the Secretary and the same loyalty to those above is mandatory.  In theory, these positions are designed to be the link between the classroom and the leadership.  They are specialty portfolios where they apply their ‘administration’ techniques, directly to those below and report how those orders are implemented to those above.


As a result of this insulated approach to senior management, exchanges between these levels of the Department became an echo chamber with each reinforcing the beliefs of the other.  They are almost completely unaware of the problems at the school level. 


In the study of top down leadership by Sidney Yoshida entitled ‘The Iceberg of Ignorance’ he concluded that:

  • Front line workers knew 100% of the problems they faced
  • Supervisors were aware of only 74%
  • Middle managers were aware of just 9%
  • Executives were only aware of 4% of the problems

Like a lot of these studies, the actual percentages are arbitrary but they do provide a metaphor that describe the executives’ severely limited understanding of what is wrong within the company.  This incompetence is easily applied to the Department of Education.


In reality, the Minister is completely in the hands of the Secretary and the Senior Executive.  The Secretary soon ‘educates’ the Minister drawing on their 4% of what they know about the problems and before long the Minister becomes an ‘expert’ believing they understand the prepared speeches they read at conferences and in the parliament.


In more recent times, when problems become too obvious to ignore a new and increasing phenomena has been appropriated and that is the use of professional consultancy firms


This brings us to the last desperate effort of the leadership to solve the problems caused by their top down approach and ironically that is to go up to the world of consultancy. 


Millions of public-school funding is now being gifted by the NSW Department of Education to high cost global consultancy firms such as KPMG, PwC, McKinseys, BCG and others.  As the Department uses the top-down approach to management, the use of consultants that sit atop of the Minister and Secretary; puts these firms one more step further away from the problem.  Yet, despite having no prior knowledge about schools they fabricate the most sophisticated analytical tools to investigate any problem.  In reality their investigations are directed by what they know and that is less than the 4% understood by the Secretary.  The fact that they are one step further away from the problem doesn’t seem to matter, they create glossy reports, produce fancy graphs and come to conclusions palatable to the Department leadership. 


In the current situation it is obvious what they, the leadership are doing is not working.  Unfortunately, those at the top have no insight about the cause of this failure.  They conclude that failure is not in their planning but in the implementation of those plans by the schools and teachers, it is the teachers’ fault.  To address what they believe is perceived ‘failure’ bureaucrats have initiated a two-pronged attack to make the them succeed, to get their solution to work.  They have introduced compulsory training particularly in more focused administration and compliance checking of all teachers to make sure they are implementing the dictated solutions.  This has resulted in a substantial increase on the demands on teachers’ time, the very thing that has pushed the teacher’s real professionalism and loyalty over the edge.  With no sense of introspection or irony the current ‘solution’ is to focus on leadership training for all teachers.  They conclude that if the teachers are like them then their problems will be solved.  


The sad thing is the answers to our problems lie at the chalkface, with the teachers and their students.  Teachers see problems first and, if their professional training and experience is trusted they apply solutions and if those solutions don’t work they can be quickly discarded and another approach tried until something works.  This emergence of an organisation is how evolution works, what we currently have is ‘intelligent design’ an approach that embraces theory based on unsubstantiated beliefs requires blind faith.  Schools need more than this.


Posted by: AT 02:00 am   |  Permalink   |  3 Comments  |  Email
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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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