Dr David Armstrong and the Disability Royal Commission

Australia is currently conducting a Royal Commission into violence, abuse, neglect and the exploitation of people with disability. As part of this process, the commissioners are examining what happens in schools. One aspect of school life that affects children with a disability is the management of behaviour and so this has been the subject of inquiry.

I have tried to keep up-to-date with this, but the commission generates a lot of material. However, I have managed to review an interesting section where Dr David Armstrong provides evidence. The video is available here*.

One of the issues that immediately strikes you about commissions of this kind is that they are focused on collecting testimony from activists and campaigners. This is not a surprise, given that many teachers are not free to discuss the issue of behaviour in schools and, even if they were, may not be keen to do so. Instead, the discussion is dominated by those who think the current system is unjust and needs fixing.

I find it hard to disagree with much in Armstrong’s opening statement. He paints a picture of teachers underprepared for dealing with challenging student behaviour who then have to work out what to do on the job. He links these difficulties to teachers leaving the profession early. However, he describes the ad hoc systems that teachers build as a ‘manage and discipline’ model which is clearly meant pejoratively. In my view, the most effective systems manage students and inculcate a sense of discipline. The difference is that there is a school-wide approach where appropriate behaviours are taught, where classes are operating to the same principles and where school leaders understand their duty in supporting staff. There is nothing inherently wrong with seeking to manage students. The difficulty comes in using broken systems to try to achieve this.

Nevertheless, my major difference with Armstrong comes when he outlines his alternatives to the default every-teacher-for-themselves approach. He describes his alternative as ‘modern’ and ‘evidence-based’, although I am not entirely sure that it is. It is hard to tell because I cannot get hold of the written depositions the witnesses have made but the case Armstrong makes is not entirely convincing, as we shall see. He discusses functional behavioural analysis and gives the example of a child who keeps sharpening his or her pencil. If we look beyond the behaviour to the reasons why a child may be doing this, we may conclude that they are trying to avoid work. Who knew?

Armstrong embeds this discussion in the old trope that, ‘All behaviour is communication’. I have written about this before because it seems to be a favourite platitude of people who like to comment on school behaviour from the outside. Read as, ‘All behaviour is intended to communicate something’ it is clearly false. Read as, ‘All behaviour gives possible indicative information as to the internal state of an individual’ it is trivially true. If the latter is the intended meaning of the trope then I wonder why people feel the need to constantly reiterate it. Teachers know behaviours have causes. That’s not enough. We need to know how to manage those behaviours in classrooms of 25-30 children where the opportunity for a one-to-one discussion is minimal.

Interestingly, Armstrong seems to reinforce the behaviour-as-communication take, insisting that teachers, “don’t actually require special skills, but do require tolerance and empathy and compassion and realism.” Simple. If only we just thought of the children. And apparently, this approach costs nothing. What politician could fail to be impressed?

And as you may expect, vague allusions to differentiation also form part of Armstrong’s preferred solution, despite differentiation stubbornly and persistently refusing to be evidence-based.

Then something interesting happens. The world of the educationalist suddenly collides with the world of the legal profession.

Ronald Sackville, the chair of the commission, asks, “And where is an example where this has been tried and worked”? (4.15:03).

Armstrong is initially lost for words. After a few ‘er’s and ‘erm’s, he asks Sackville, “what would you like, research or…?”

Sackville replies, “I’d be interested to see where it’s actually worked.”

Armstrong collects himself and refers to something he apparently wrote about in his deposition – Project X from South Australia. This is a three-day-per-week withdrawal programme. Students were placed on this program to receive ‘nurture group training’ where they were taught how to have positive relationships with adults. He discusses the case of ‘Adam’ who was allowed to rest on a beanbag because he arrived late after a poor night’s sleep. Apparently, schools would have gone straight to disciplinary measures to deal with Adam. I am not so sure about this.

Nevertheless, how exactly is this evidence of a zero cost approach that consists of simply changing the attitudes of regular teachers? A withdrawal program of this kind would probably have been quite expensive, particularly if class sizes were low. And if class sizes were low, it doesn’t really provide much of a proof of concept for work in regular schools.

I suspect the commission will keep spinning its wheels like this, particularly if they don’t talk to many teachers. They will hear one passionate, well-meaning and deeply ideological take after another, but little of practical significance.

And I would probably leave it there if it weren’t for Quaden Bayles. Quaden is a young man with dwarfism whose mother, Yarraka Bayles, appeared at the commission and who appeared himself in a pre-recorded video. His story is one of appalling bullying.

It is this kind of bullying that schools need the tools to deal with. The issues teachers face are not really about kids who sharpen their pencils too much, they are about the harm students can and will do to each other if we do not assume our responsibilities as adults and prevent it. Some of this is about education, some is about analysing the causes of this behaviour. However, even though Yarraka Bayles generously suggests that, “I don’t want to get kids expelled or suspended because that doesn’t help,” I would respectfully point out that, in my experience, there is a still a need for the option to suspend and exclude students. I cannot see an anti-bullying programme being effective if this last resort is taken away.

It is, I am afraid, magical thinking to suggest that teachers simply need to empathise more. If it were that simple, it would have occurred to us by now and we would be making it work. This is a complex area. It is an emotive area. Rather than platitudes, it deserves serious-minded research into practical solutions.

*I don’t know how to provide a direct link to the relevant section of video. Instead, you will need to click on “Event Posts” in the top right-hand corner of the video embedded on the website and select “Public Hearing 7 Brisbane – Day 1”. From there, you will need to navigate to 4.01:28 to see the start of Armstrong’s testimony.


One thought on “Dr David Armstrong and the Disability Royal Commission

  1. Chester Draws says:

    We need to know how to manage those behaviours in classrooms of 25-30 children where the opportunity for a one-to-one discussion is minimal.

    My experience is that getting one-on-one discussions with students is not a problem. You can talk to them after class or in form time. You can refer them to counselors. You can call their parents.

    There simply are students who refuse to respond to reasonable suggestions of how they might improve. They know that they are not learning to their best, and disturbing others on the way. And they simply don’t care.

    I have had plenty of students who would not work for me even if it were just me and them in the classroom — they knew I couldn’t make them. Or who could not focus for more than five minutes, even with my direct attention. Personal attention and small class sizes is not the panacea a lot think. That comes from assuming children are merely small adults.

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