Controlling your classroom

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Back in November, I warned that disability legislation could soon be used to force progressive teaching practices on teachers and schools. This now seems even more likely. Recently, a UK parliamentary committee aired this argument. Apparently, zero-tolerance behaviour policies used by a number of UK schools, and criticised heavily by progressive educators on social media, could be ‘unlawful’.

Today in The Conversation, there is a related article suggesting that New South Wales may be on the verge of changing its approach to educating students with a disability. Much of this is to be commended and we certainly need to end any abuse of disabled students. But note the call for a change in attitudes on the part of teachers.

I predict we will see more of this argument, and parents and politicians need to be aware that all may not be what it seems. The definition of disability has become elastic, and by signing-up to seemingly apple-pie statements, politicians could hamstring schools and teachers.

For instance, disability legislation in the UK and Australia requires us to make reasonable adjustments for students with disabilities. Nobody would argue against that. If we can install a lift so that a disabled student can reach the science labs then we should. The law in Australia actually goes into some depth about what a reasonable adjustment might look like. For instance, it requires us to consider, “the effect of the proposed adjustment on anyone else affected, including the education provider, staff and other students.”

But this is not necessarily what people mean by a disability or a reasonable adjustment. For instance, Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) is listed in version five of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), and many campaigners consider it to be a disability. When progressive educators invoke disability law, they invariably do so in order to suggest that we make reasonable adjustments for these kinds of disabilities. What are these adjustments supposed to look like? Well, given that the disruptive behaviour of these children is the result of a disability, we should not penalise them for it and should, instead, accommodate it. The effects this would have on staff and other students are ignored.

In one sweep, campaigners seek to make strong behaviour policies unlawful and coerce schools into adopting a more permissive approach.

In fairness, proponents of coercing schools into a more permissive approach have the best of intentions. If only our poorly trained teachers would listen to what the students are trying to communicate to them through their behaviour, they think, teachers would then meet their students’ needs and these behaviours would disappear. But this seems very unlikely given the multiple causes of challenging behaviour. In general, children don’t misbehave in order to inform their teacher that they would prefer a card-sort activity over using the mini-whiteboards. It’s more complicated than that. Even if a child does misbehave as a direct result of the task he or she is asked to complete, there are other factors to weigh. For instance, the task is likely to be more educationally valuable than the one preferred by the child.

The danger for policymakers is that they may think they are signing-up to a policy on disability, only to realise too late that the definition of disability is not what they had imagined. This bait-and-switch is performed at a number of different levels. Nobody, for instance, would condone abusing a disabled child. And yet, what if we start to think of any kind of sanction as abuse? That’s effectively what we have seen in the hyperbolic bouts of school shaming that have periodically erupted on Twitter. People have sought out schools with strong behaviour policies and accused them of abuse.

And at present, the philosophy of progressive educators is not reflected in our criminal justice system. If you are convicted of a criminal act, you will be punished under the law, regardless of whether you have ODD, a conduct disorder or ADHD. Schools are not helping students by making accommodations for them that society at large is not prepared to make.


22 thoughts on “Controlling your classroom

  1. Tom Burkard says:

    Two crucial points:

    First, educators’ fixation with teaching higher-order skills with an airy disregard for the lowest levels of Bloom’s pyramid leaves many children floundering–especially those whose parents lack the education, ability or inclination to make good even the most basic elements of the knowledge deficits thus created. As we reported in our recent paper advocating routine knowledge testing, all pupils respond eagerly when set achievable tasks and are tested weekly. A generation or two ago this was an integral part of teaching and learning. In the school where my co-author is HoD of Science, this has transformed classroom climate and produced dramatic gains in exam results, especially with the least able and SEND pupils.

    Secondly: in most schools, where sanctions are only used to when behaviour threatens to spiral out of control, the process is confrontational and stressful. Hence, teachers don’t understand that minor sanctions for minor infractions are readily accepted by all pupils–even the offenders–and hence creates a cooperative and relaxed climate. As the pupils stressed at one school I visited, “classes are more interesting when they aren’t interrupted and teachers aren’t stressed”. In practice, zero-tolerance schools need to use sanctions far less frequently than others.

  2. This seems to be in part due to sloppy language. I had a problem with a previous commenter suggesting “behavior is communication” is just jargon for behavior sends signals about what is going on inside a persons head. In almost all usage communicate refers to an act where the primary purpose of the act is to send a message. Giving off a signal is what you would say if you wanted to refer to something that sends information without necessarily implying the intention is to send a message. We have enough words in English to mean what we say, misleading jargon is simply bad for everyone.

    There is also the problem here with how to deal with people such as15 year old racists that want to communicate their racist views to everyone with the clear intention of wanting to make the teacher feel bad. Just because someone wants to communicate something doesn’t automatically mean we give them the floor.

    • I went to school where there was a boy who used behavour to communicate. He communicated ‘i want your lunch money’ by thumping his victim until the money was handed over.

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  4. David Zyngier says:

    Greg our students aren’t criminals, our schools aren’t part of the criminal justice system. And bythe way in most Australian states sentencing always takes account of individual circumstances. As it should. But if you’re Indigenous you’re more likely to be found guilty. If you’re middle class and white you’re more likely to be given a lighter sentence.

    Why do you suggest our new teachers are poorly “trained”? We train dogs BTW not teachers. Where is your evidence?

  5. ADR says:

    This is such a wind up… accomodating or adjusting for diabilities including ADHD, ODD etc doe not equate to condoning violence or risk behaviours.. the saftey of children is of paramount concern and importance above all as per the law. What this means is teachers will be better educated and trained to deal with disabilities REDUCING risk to students. This is reminiscent of the rhetoric when it was proposed to give women the vote… still waiting for the sky to fall in.. heres an idea, why dont you go and educate yourself

    • …This is reminiscent of the rhetoric when it was proposed to give women the vote… still waiting for the sky to fall in…

      Oh for crying out loud. Comparing voting with throwing punches (and chairs) in the classroom?

  6. Dacca says:

    Yes, it’s funny how it’s always the non-physical disabilities that come under fire. Making adjustments to the environment or support provided is aimed at minimising these behaviours and thus the impact on other students. I don’t understand how this can be a bad thing. I guess a narrow view usually comes up with a narrow solution that only benefits a few.

    Time for some re-education yourself.

  7. As a parent of a child with ADHD, I find this article to be very dismissive and out of touch with current thinking on behaviour support, which is underpinned by years of rigorous research. It’s an arrogant view that pretends to be an expert one. No research has been cited. They way you characterise behaviour support as ‘permissive’ suggests you misunderstand both the approach and the goal of behaviour support strategies for kids with ADHD, ODD and related neurological disabilities. It is not about being ‘permissive’. It is about choosing the most successful and effective strategies. Punishment and shaming is completely ineffective in this area. This is the 101 you learn when being coached on behaviour support. It is about providing positive inputs that reinforce good patterns of behaviour. The title of the post ‘Controlling Your Classroom’ couldn’t be more reflective of the disciplinarian mindset you offer. I’m sorry, but as a parent I am expert on dealing with a child with ADHD and I can tell you that disciplinarian models are a total failure. You will learn this. Experts across the fields of Peadiatrics, Developmental Psychology and dare I say Education, will also tell you this. Suspending and excluding these children is a total cop out that indicates a failure of the school to grasp the basics of what is needed to support these children. Avoiding suspension and exclusion and other forms of public humilations in favour of adopting other positive support strategies is not ‘permissive’. It’s contractual and mutual and helps the child move towards the goals they need to meet and strengthens intrinsic motivation, which is a much more useful life skill than fear of extrinsic punishment.

  8. I don’t see any mention of disability in that article at all. This is a core issue at hand here, whether it is ok to be suspending children with disabilities due to the support needs associated with their disabilities. My point, which you are not engaging with, is that is about disability support, more so than about ‘discipline’. There is no research in the field of ADHD which suggests that exclusions are beneficial. You can’t run an argument citing your difficulties dealing with kids with ADHD and related disabilities and then cite articles which have nothing to do with these disabilities.

    • I would make two points. Firstly, I am looking at the whole system because advocates are suggesting changes to the whole system eg that no-excuses schools are unlawful. Disability is the reason cited for doing this but the consequences of these changes would affect all students.

      Secondly, you are relying on an underlying assumption about disability. Do you believe ADHD is a disability? I don’t see it listed here:

      • David Roy says:

        Greg, I think you raise some interesting points, but are you focusing on a very specific area such as ODD (which has got diagnostic questions about it – as do the diagnoses of ADHD and Autism) to justify a wider point?

        The larger question the report of the Inquiry noted (which is worth reading) is that many children with a disability are assumed to be intellectually disabled in ways which they may not be, and that they are not always offered access to the curriculum.

        As you do however state, abuse (and this includes instances of restraint) can never be accepted. The attitudinal change the article refers to is the willing condoning of some in the education community to discriminatory practices through their silence or engagement in such activities. This Inquiry, NSW Auditor General report, The NSW Ombudsman report, and two Senate Inquiries (as well as recent, other State and Territory Inquiries) have all stated the same. Attitudinal change is required by systems, leaders, teachers and parents.

        Happy at anytime to have a robust and respectful discussion of these issues with you anytime.

      • Greg, you’ll find it explicitly mentioned as a disability in the NSW Department of Education’s own policy document here (Every Student Every School)

        Click to access project-details-bkgdnotes.pdf

        •90,000 students (12% of the student population) need adjusted learning and support on the basis of disability.

        These students comprise:
        •35,000 students (4.7%) who have a DEC-confirmed disability
        •55,000 students (7.3%) have additional needs relating to difficulties in learning or behaviour including dyslexia, reading or communication delay and a broad range of students with additional learning and support needs are recognised as having a disability within the context of Commonwealth disability discrimination legislation and the Standards.

        This includes students with
        • physical impairment
        •sensory impairment
        •Intellectual disability
        •Brain injury, through accident or illness
        •Neurological/psychiatric/mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety, ODD, ADHD, conduct disorder
        •Learning disability such as dyslexia and language/communication disorders
        •Behaviour that is a symptom or manifestation of the disability.

        That is clear and unambiguous and is a department document. As such, like it or not, you will teach children with these disabilities and take account to the support needs they have and not just put them into a punitive disciplinary framework without reference to best practice guidelines in the management of these disabilities in a school setting.

        As the departments own document confirms, you will find that Section 4 (g) of the Disability Discrimination Act and the related Disability Standards for Education most certainly cover ADHD and related disorders under discrimination law.

        Behaviour support in classrooms is a much more complex situation than you have presented here. Despite you claims otherwise, disability will always be a consideration in developing effective and appropriate responses. It is not the Victorian era and we have a lot of excellent people working in this field who have made some excellent progress on developing methods to support kids well and achieving what we all have as a goal, and that is a quality education for all children and a healthy environment for personal development.

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  11. Sorry to keep going but I just wanted to say that lumping kids with disabilities that affect behaviour into a general discussion about classroom behaviour only perpetuates the underlying problem, which I have been up against as a parent for the whole of my child’s schooling. The problem (that is almost never mentioned) is that departments of education provide completely inadequate support to students with these kinds of disabilities in school and to the teachers who have to make the required adjustments. That should be your target, not the kids themselves. They won’t fund it and therefore schools won’t deal with it. The victims of this situation? The kids who need the support to be successful, many of whom have considerable academic talents and could be extremely valuable contributors to society and dare I say the economy (which seems like the only word the government understands).

    Our to and fro above on ADHD as a disability actually highlights one of the major sub-issues, and that is that ADHD does not qualify a student for funding assistance from the department, unless the family can offer up a bogus or heightened diagnosis that is on the shopping list. It’s not serious enough to qualify for automatic funding, yet the rates of exclusion for these children is a national shame. The solution is to boot them out, as opposed to providing proper support. Principals are given free reign to invoke exclusion with full backing form the department and no accountability, due to the various protections afforded by things like the GIPA act, which prevents families and students from actually seeing the basis upon which the decision to exclude was made. The department culture is around control and the non-provision of information and absolute authority. The private system routinely refuses enrolments to kids with ADHD because they can get away with it. I can tell you first hand, because I am on a number of parent support groups for kids with ADHD, that many of these families are forced to home school their kids because they are just repeatedly suspended and excluded. I’m looking at home schooling a NAPLAN band 6 and above child right now due to this issue. The psychological cost on the children and their families is massively high. No one speaks about this, nor do they speak about the failure to realise academic potential and to assist in the child’s development in cohort based contexts.

    Until this cultural change can take effect (and in my view it needs to take a force of seismic proportions, like a royal commission) then school will only be a place for some, not all and many talented kids will be spat out of the system because its ‘too hard’ to deal with. If we are happy with an education system that looks like that, then carry on. I for one, am not. I am sorry if this sounds like a rant, but I am giving you my insights as the parent of an ADHD child in the education system in NSW.

    • Thank you for taking the time to respond. I do not consider your contributions a rant and I thank you for the discussion. These are important issues.

      If you look through my blog, you will see that I do not advocate for ‘no excuses’ or ‘zero tolerance’. However, I am concerned about the attempt to use disability legislation to effectively get these schools banned. There is evidence from the U.S., for instance, that simply banning suspensions in a top-down manner leads to a decline in classroom climate and safety:

      Given your views on behaviour, I can see why you might interpret my stance as one that is against students with ADHD and other conditions. All I can do is sincerely state that I have their interests, as well as the interests of the students they are educated with, in mind.

      Strong classroom routines and training for teachers, supported by positive rewards and less frequent negative consequences are likely to benefit all children, and particularly those with behavioural difficulties. There is actually a lot of research evidence to support this. If we do not intervene early when issues are relatively minor, then there is a danger that matters escalate to a point where suspensions and exclusions become necessary. I advocate training teachers in robust classroom management techniques and for schools having robust systems. None of this requires teachers to be harsh and unpleasant. Relationships are critical and I always advise against sarcasm, shouting at students etc. Nevertheless, my stance is unfashionable and often caricatured as authoritarian.

      I ask about ADHD because I am genuinely interested in what you think. I haven’t investigated ADHD but I have looked into ODD and I am concerned that the logic of the condition is circular i.e. this child behaves poorly because he has ODD and we know he has ODD because he behaves poorly. It implies that this behaviour is fixed and offers little hope of progress:

      Again, I am concerned on behalf of children who are labelled in this way because I am unsure of the benefit and cautious of potential harm.

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