‘Problems with disruptive children are now endemic in our schools’

Opinion: A lack of support will lead to many children being excluded from learning

Expecting schools to implement behaviour plans without essential clinical support and advice will lead to many more children being excluded from learning. Photograph: iStock

Expecting schools to implement behaviour plans without essential clinical support and advice will lead to many more children being excluded from learning. Photograph: iStock


Primary school children spend 183 of the 365 days in the year in school with an in-school ratio of hours 1:4. The concept of the “school year” is somewhat a misnomer. It equates to 12.5 per cent of an actual year with the remaining 87.5 per cent of time spent outside the school gates. Q.E.D the integrity of the school year must be protected. Children need to attend school for as many of their yearly quota of 1,048 hours as possible.

All schools need to be mindful of the above math, when faced with the issue of placing a child on a reduced day. While the Department of Education allows this practice in “exceptional circumstances”. The “exception” should have more to do with the health issues of the child and less with how a child behaves within the classroom.

Unfortunately, what is endemic in our schools now is the disruptive child. Equally, but frustratingly endemic, is a dearth of psychological support to ensure these children maximise the integrity of their school-based time and allow the majority of non-disruptive children the opportunity to do the same.

In reality there is hardly a school in the country which does not daily face disruption from a child whose behavioural needs remain as a memo on a National Educational Psychologist Service (NEPS) waitlist. In the meantime, school principals and staff try to join the dots and keep the teaching and learning rolling happily and the disruption to a minimum.

As a principal of a large rural school I was faced with the above balancing act with several pupils who for various reasons had difficulties in regulating and consequentially controlling how they behaved.

With limited access to a NEPS psychologist it was incumbent on the staff to put behaviour plans in place in order to manage disruptive behaviour.

Thankfully, we were relatively successful in helping these children to regulate and to access learning with their peers.

However, while we continued to improve in dot-joining our behaviour management strategies there was often the dilemma as to whether to send a disruptive child home.

As in the case of six-year old Kevin. In the absence of a psychological report, Kevin had no label I could slap upon his head to explain why he spat in his teacher’s face (and mine), climbed and ran across desks, broke classmates pencils and markers, used the f-word almost as often as he used the c-word to address his teacher, was seriously violent to staff and classmates to the point of regularly causing injury.

Kevin may easily have benefitted from a reduced timetable. His classmates would certainly have done so as would his teacher and most definitely his principal. He and I shot the breeze most days. Which is one way of putting it!

But like all children Kevin was a wonderful child, which I discovered on the many “sensory breaks” we shared walking around the school playground. A wonderful child who displayed negative behaviours which needed to be reduced and ultimately removed in order for him to learn successfully.

Having identified key behaviours to target we wrote up his plan where we chose one behaviour to reduce at a time. Kevin was rewarded for successfully overcoming a behaviour. However, anytime he displayed a serious behaviour there was a phone call to be made. It was home for Kevin for the remainder of the day.

This was a call I hated to make and I am sure one that his mom and dad equally hated to receive. But it was made and received maybe four or five times over a two month period. The spitting stopped, the violent behaviour reduced and the foul language lessened. He and I continued our playground sensory breaks for old time’s sake.

On a sinner-to-saint scale, he still had much ground to cover before earning his halo, but he was accessing the curriculum with his classmates and life returned to relative normality.

One of the reasons for the success of our work with Kevin was the understanding of his parents that our ultimate goal was to increase their son’s attendance in school rather than to reduce it.

At the same time it was made clear that schools cannot tolerate acts of gross misconduct as a benchmark for full school attendance.

While this is a fundamental argument for the greater good of the whole school, it allows the disruptive child the opportunity to become part of that greater good with minimum time spent out of school.

The same logic needs to apply when schools discuss with parents the possibility of reduced day timetables for pupils with challenging behaviour. The agreement to reduce the child’s day must be based on a rationale with a clear goal of ultimate full attendance. Parents not only need to consent to the rationale but also they need to be undersigning co-authors.

Primary school pupils now include many with major psychiatric needs which require support for the child, his or her family and the school entrusted to teach them.

While the Department of Education may refer to these children as “exceptional cases”, it must equally acknowledge that that they are now the unsupported norm.

Expecting schools to dot-join behaviour plans without essential clinical support and advice will lead to many more children being excluded from learning without remediating their negative behaviours.

Psychological assessment and identification of the root causes of disruptive behaviour might lead to closing this door before the horse can bolt.

The problem is now pandemic. We need to talk about Kevin.

Peter Gunning is a retired school principal