Student behaviour and classroom discipline are increasingly identified as drivers of academic achievement for Australian children and reports of ‘bad behaviour’ in schools often result in calls for stronger discipline. However, it is often not that simple.
In many cases, children labelled ‘badly behaved’ have underlying conditions of emotional dysregulation or developmental delays, which may be expressed through challenging behaviours. Harsh discipline does not necessarily work to improve behaviour of emotionally dysregulated children. Dysregulation can impair cognitive pathways that enable children to link behaviour and consequences, so a dysregulated child is effectively unable to change his or her behaviour if discipline is the only tool used.
Justin (not his real name) is a 13-year-old high school boy in a regional school. He has had behavioural issues throughout his school life, with repeated detentions, suspensions and threats of expulsion. Labelled a ‘naughty’ student, he was placed on restricted or partial attendance by his school (attending only half the day) in a final effort to manage his behaviour. He would attend only morning classes, and was prevented from participating in lunch time play activities and his most enjoyed elective subjects. Justin had little or no desire to re-engage with school, and felt he would never be trusted by his teachers again.
When he was eight years-old Justin was referred to Royal Far West (RFW) for assessment. RFW identified a background of childhood trauma (Justin has been in the care of relatives from an early age, due to parental drug and alcohol abuse) and diagnosed Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD), anxiety and major depression. Justin also experiences learning difficulties.
RFW worked with Justin’s family and school to implement positive strategies to support his regulation and reduce his behavioural outbursts. Last year, Justin participated in a RFW photography training and mentoring project and his work was chosen for public exhibition. Since working with RFW, and particularly following the photography exhibition, there has been a marked change in Justin’s behaviour both at school and at home.
Justin’s emotional dysregulation, related to his complex developmental background, is a major contributing factor to his ‘bad’ behaviour. Harsh discipline and punitive approaches, although well intentioned, have not improved his behaviour as they feed into a negative cycle that reinforces Justin’s beliefs that he is a ‘bad kid’.
Helping to support Justin’s regulation, facilitating positive relationships with trusted individuals, and providing him with opportunities for success, such as with photography, has made the most significant impact on his behaviour.
Emotional dysregulation and developmental delays are linked to socio-economic disadvantage. We see significantly higher rates of developmental vulnerability in rural and remote communities and a greater concentration of disadvantage in rural and remote schools, with 65 per cent in the lowest socio-economic status quartiles.
Using the right approach early can lead to productive classrooms, in even the most challenging circumstances. A coordinated approach from schools and allied health professionals is one way to give teachers the knowledge and confidence to create safe relationships and environments that support learning and inclusion.
In rural areas, where health workforce shortages are prevalent, technology can help to connect schools and teachers with the right student supports. For example, RFW’s telecare model has successfully connected psychologists, occupational and speech therapists with almost 1,500 children in over 100 rural and remote classrooms to support students and help teachers with strategies for regulated, productive classrooms.
Rather than blaming teachers and parents for a ‘lack of discipline’, we need to see more investment and focus on supporting childhood development for all children.
For more information about RFW Telecare Services in schools, contact Jessica Staniland at firstname.lastname@example.org.