NSW Education Minister, Sarah Mitchell commented in the Sydney Morning Herald on 31st July, that she is aware of a disproportionate number of students with disabilities in school suspension figures and that reducing the length and number of suspensions via discipline policy reform, will resolve the problem of exclusion and disengagement from education. She hopes to achieve this via the NSW Behaviour Strategy that is finally approved for roll out by the NSW Teacher’s Federation. Whilst her intent is admirable and well meaning, parents of these students know, a sinister problem remains and is waiting in the wings:
Students with disabilities, in particular, neurodivergent students, are excluded from school regularly. It is not always a formal suspension that sends them packing though. Families report a plethora of techniques that educators use to exclude challenging students, pushing them out of education.
It doesn’t take long for many vulnerable students to make their presence known in a classroom. The behaviours they exhibit are often called “unlucky” by Collaborative Proactive Solutions founder, world renown child psychologist, Dr Ross Greene. Due to lagging skills, they cannot meet the expectations place on them. Well-meaning teachers relying on the behaviourist techniques they’ve been taught themselves, interpret these behaviours as oppositional, defiant and disrespectful, and so begins the Push Out.
It often starts with a phone call to mum, “Please collect Harry early today. He’s not having a good afternoon” and progresses to “Unfortunately the school cannot accommodate Harry’s needs. He may only attend school for two hours each day until he can demonstrate that he deserves to be in the classroom for longer”. Other methods of punishment include a placement in a special school or “School for the Emotionally Disturbed”, some kids are secluded in isolation rooms or cupboards, some kids are held to the ground in a physical restraint and some are just put on detention or sent out of the classroom.
Taking a step back, sometimes, the “unlucky” students are not allowed to enrol at school at all and that is called gatekeeping. It’s in breach of disability legislation in Australia, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening regularly.
The result? A significant cohort of Australian school students so traumatised, distressed and mentally unwell from their attempts to simply go to school, just like all the other kids. Home schooling is on the rise. Parent support groups for kids phobic of school are bursting at the seams. These are innocent children. Vulnerable kids. Neurodivergent and disabled kids. Different kids. Also known as the square pegs desperately trying, unsuccessfully to fit in to the round hole of the education system. Reducing suspensions will not resolve the problem of Push Out.
So, what’s the solution? Clearly, it’s not as simple as just reducing the number of suspensions dished out. Power and control are ineffective, so are rewards and punishments. Adults imposing operant conditioning, behaviourist models such as Positive Behaviour for Learning (PBL) clearly doesn’t work. A paradigm shift is required. Behaviourism must be replaced with affirming, inclusive and compassionate methods.
What if we could proactively solve the problems that lead to the unwanted behaviour, involving the child along the way? Collaborative and Proactive Solutions (CPS) holds the key to reaching these students, building trust and solving problems together.
Dr Ross Greene, CPS founder, child psychologist and New York Times best selling author has offered to guide Australian Education. He is providing virtual training later this year (via Illume Learning) for educators and parents and he has already met with the NSW Department of Education to discuss the implementation of CPS in NSW schools.
Please sign the petition to bring CPS to Australian Schools here.
As a parent advocate and having experienced parenting two neurodivergent sons, it is my hope that the Australian education system will stop punishing and pushing kids like my boys out of school and wake up to the fact that there are other more effective but systemic changes that are required and a strong leadership from governments is the only way to progress.
Until CPS is embedded in Australian education, reducing school suspensions is just a band aid.