Challenges related to discipline and behaviour management

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Families who contact us raise a number of questions or concerns about how their child’s school is responding to challenging behaviours.

On this page:

1. Challenges related to your child’s behaviour at school and school responses.

2. Challenges related to school’s behaviour management approaches.

3. Challenges if your child is facing suspension or expulsion.

4. Challenges related to school refusal or school attendance.

Introduction

Below we raise some common challenges related to discipline and behaviour management and offer some suggestions for dealing with them. However, individual children’s needs and situations vary, and families take different approaches to advocating for their child.

Some general tips on raising a concern with school are:

  • You have the right to raise any concern you have with school or with your child’s education.
  • Understanding your child’s rights will help you to feel confident that your requests are reasonable.
  • Try to focus on one issue at a time. It’s worth taking time to gather all the information you can about the issue, to work out how express your concerns clearly and calmly, and to focus on the outcome you want for your child.
  • You always have the right to a support person or advocate in your dealings with school.

Follow these links for more about how to effectively raise a concern with school:

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Discipline and behaviour management in a Catholic or independent school

Most of the content on this page relates most directly to discrimination and behaviour management in a government school. However, many of the tips are also relevant to Catholic or independent schools, and all of the links offered also cover information relevant to all three school sectors.

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  1. Challenges related to your child’s behaviour at school and school responses.

The Victorian government uses the language of ‘student engagement’ to talk about the way that your child takes part in – and feels a part of – what happens in their school. Student who are ‘disengaged’ from school, or ‘at risk of disengagement’ will show this in a range of ways, including school refusal, not participating in learning activities, or through challenging behaviours. If your child is facing these issues, it is worth learning these terms, and about how DET expects school to support students who are at risk of disengagement. This will help you to speak up for your child at school, including if your child is facing suspension or expulsion.

The government requires schools to respond to students at risk of disengagement in supportive ways, that:

  • Encourage your child to stay at school and not ‘disengage’ further (e.g. suspension or expulsion is not allowed except as a very last resort, and only under particular conditions for students with disabilities)
  • Explore and address the underlying reasons for their behaviour, including by with you and developing a plan to support your child to behave positively in future. This should feed into your child’s Individual Learning Plan.
  • Consider changes to the environment, teaching approaches or other supports
  • Offer support to your child and family such as student welfare or referral to community agencies

School are also allowed to ‘discipline’ students, but only according to strict guidelines, and only provided that the school has addressed the underlying issues, including providing adjustments that meet a student’s needs. For example the school might provide additional support to help the student understand expected behaviour, a quiet space the student can retreat to if they are overwhelmed, or other adjustments that meet their individual needs.

If your child has a disability, the school is not allowed to suspend or expel them unless the school has made all ‘reasonable adjustments’ to support the student to manage their behaviours, where this is related to their disability. This rule is not limited to students who are on the PSD, but applies to all students with a disability (see below for more on suspension and expulsion).

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  1. Challenges related to school’s behaviour management approaches.

Government policy requires schools to have consistent expectations about student behaviour in and outside class, and to communicate these clearly, along with the disciplinary measures it will take in response to particular behaviours. Government policy is that schools should focus on promoting positive behaviour and supporting students, rather than ‘punishing’ challenging behaviours (see above). It also recognises that supports and adjustments for students with disabilities must include support for them to understand and meet these expectations.

Any disciplinary measures used by school must be ‘proportionate to’ (match) the behaviour being addressed. Victorian government schools are explicitly prohibited from using corporal punishment (e.g. hitting or ‘the strap’), under the Education and Training Reform Act 2006.

The DET website explains the types of measures that schools are allowed use, which include withdrawing privileges, withdrawal from class (this must be temporary, the student must be supervised and the family informed) and detention. There are strict limits on detention periods, and schools are expected to inform parents or carers in advance about after-school detention.

It is important that you, your child and the teacher have a shared understanding of the difference between withdrawal from class as a disciplinary measure, and support strategies that might help your child, such a quiet space they can go to if they are feeling overwhelmed, for example by a noisy classroom or playground. Indeed, there should be a whole-of-school approach to these issues for all students.

Your child’s teacher should discuss strategies for supporting your child and promoting positive behaviour in your child’s Student Support Group meeting, and have a discussion with you if they believe that the use of measures such as withdrawal from class might benefit your child. Any of use of such measures should be discussed in the SSG meeting, in the context of all of the strategies and supports used to support your child.

Under both Australian and Victorian law and Victorian government policy, staff must not respond to challenging behaviours by using ‘restrictive’ interventions, such as physical restraint or seclusion (such as putting a student in a locked room). The only exception is in an emergency situation, if a student’s behaviour is a risk to their own or another person’s safety; in this case, proportionate physical restraint is allowed (that is, only the level of restraint required to ensure safety, and no more).

Under law, no restrictive measures can ever be used regularly, for example for behaviour control.

If there is an emergency situation where your child was physically restrained because their own or another’s safety was threatened, you must be notified, and the school must meet with you urgently to discuss strategies and supports to ensure such a situation does not arise again, along with any disciplinary measures the school might see as appropriate.

If you are concerned about the use of restrictive interventions at your child’s school, talk to the principal or welfare staff, or contact the regional DET office. You can also contact ACD or another advocacy organization for support.

If you are concerned that your child is at risk of or being subjected to any form of violence or abuse at school, this is a matter for the police. In an emergency you should always telephone 000. Or you can contact your regional Victoria Police SOCA (Sexual Offences and Child Abuse) Unit.

It might sometimes be very difficult for school staff to know how to respond, if a student seems to have extreme or consistently challenging behaviours. In the experience of many families who contact ACD’s support staff, however, behaviour by students with disabilities may be misinterpreted as deliberate misbehaviour, when in fact it better understood as the child or young person’s response to actions taken by staff without a proper understanding for the student’s support needs (for example, to be told about what will happen, or the expectations of their behaviour).

The solution in this case will not be to ‘discipline’ the student, but to support staff to gain a better understanding of the student’s needs, and of the supports needed to prevent the ‘meltdown’ or similar behaviour from happening again. This issue and some of the key resources for staff learning are explored in the relevant pages of Education and your child’s rights.

You can raise your concern at an SSG meeting, and suggest that the school seek advice from a DET specialist staff member with appropriate expertise, or from an external specialist – perhaps a therapist who knows your child.

  • You can ACD Support for advice if you are concerned about restrictive measures or discipline at your child’s school. We can give information and support, but we cannot give legal advice.
  • You can raise a concern or make a complaint through the complaints system. It is a good idea to get support from an advocacy service to do so. Find out more about making a complaint in the section A guide to the complaints system, and about how to do so effectively, and how an advocate can help, in the section Raising a concern with school.

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  1. Challenges if your child is facing suspension or expulsion.

If your child is facing suspension or expulsion, you need to understand the process and your child’s rights. It’s also a good idea to seek support early, for example from an advocacy organisation like ACD.

The department’s policies in relation to discipline emphasises that students should be supported to re-engage with their learning, and – as much as possible – not be removed from the classroom or learning environment (see above and the pages on student engagement and discipline in Education and your child’s rights).

Under the Victorian Government’s Student Engagement Policy (see our Tools and resources section for links), a student must not be suspended or expelled from school except in the most extreme cases, and only if the school has tried every other way of dealing with the student’s behaviour.

If your child has a disability, the school is not allowed to suspend or expel them unless the school has made all ‘reasonable adjustments’ to support the student to manage their behaviours, where this is related to their disability. This rule is not limited to students who are on the PSD, but applies to all students with a disability.

The processes for suspension and expulsion of a student are set out very clearly in the Student Engagement Policy (see our Tools and resources section for links), and summarised in the relevant pages in Education and your child’s rights. Its important to know that you have the right to be informed in advance if your child is at risk of suspension or expulsion (except in emergencies involving a risk to safety), and to be involved in meetings and other processes to investigate the reasons for the suspension or expulsion, the decide whether it will go ahead, and to support your child’s return to school or (in extreme cases if your child is expelled) their transition to a new school.

In our experience, the main issues for parents and carers are being given adequate information about the process and their role in it, and that the process set out in the policy is not always followed – including what must be considered in relation to students with a disability or additional needs who are facing suspension or expulsion. For these reasons, it’s a good idea to be informed about what the process should be, and to get advice and advocacy support as soon as possible.

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  1. Challenges related to school refusal or school attendance.

Sometimes families might find it hard to get a reluctant child or young person to go to school, perhaps because they are having issues with other children or in class. Regular school attendance is important to help children feel connected with their classmates and school community, and to stay engaged with their learning. Schools are required to offer support to students who are at risk of disengaging from school, and to their families if needed.

It is important to talk to your child about the problem, and to your child’s teacher, homeroom teacher, student welfare coordinator, integration coordinator or other key staff member. You can ask for an additional Student Support Group meeting to discuss the problem. Your child can be involved in these discussions as appropriate.

Sometimes families might find it hard to get their children to school because of things happening at home, such as health issues, anxiety or depression or other mental health problems, grief and loss, parental separation, family violence or homelessness. These might be things that are affecting your child directly, or another family member.

If you are having difficulty supporting your child or getting them to school for any reason, the school can be a source of support and referral for your child and your family. Your child can get additional support to help them cope with such challenges, for example from a youth mental health service, community health or family support service.

Talk to your child’s teacher, or ask for an extra Student Support Group meeting to discuss options for obtaining additional support for your child, and how you can work with the school to resolve any problems your child is having. If your family needs support, you can talk to the teacher, welfare coordinator, school nurse, integration coordinator, assistant principal or principal.

  • You can find more information about how the government requires school to support student engagement in Education and your child’s rights, and information on support services and information about a range of alternative pathways and student re-engagement programs in Choosing a school. These can be a great way to get your child re-engaged with their education in a supportive learning environment.

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