Disabled students face exclusion from education

Disabled students are not being served well by the current educational set up leading to their exclusion, experts addressing the Disability Royal Commission have recommended a rethink.
Oct 15, 2020
The Disability Royal Commission has heard that disabled students face exclusion

Disabled students suffer from outdated approaches to accommodating their behavior with the manage and discipline model used in schools being out of line with their needs.

The lack of an appropriate way of accommodating these students also leads to their neglect and exclusion from education and therefore a meaningful career.

An international expert on behaviour, disability and mental health in education, Dr David Armstrong from RMIT, spoke at the Disability Royal Commission hearing into ‘Barriers to accessing a safe, quality and inclusive school education and life course impacts’.

Armstrong warned that outdated ideas about managing children’s behaviour in schools were not working for children with disability.

He said the problem was likely to get worse as Victorian schools re-opened to on-campus learning, following the lifting of coronavirus restrictions.

“Problem behaviour by students with disability in mainstream schools and resulting responses by teachers remains a major educational issue,” he said.

“Students who have a disability, experience poor mental health, or are from Aboriginal or Torres Strait backgrounds are disproportionately suspended, or excluded (expelled) from schools because of behavior.

“Many never return, foiling efforts at greater inclusion in our education system."

He said it was time to modernise the profession’s attitudes towards children’s behaviour in schools. 

“The manage-and-discipline model used in many Australian schools doesn’t work, yet it forms a core part of the teaching profession’s understanding of how to engage students,” he said. 

“The risk of disengagement becomes particularly acute when the model is used on students with disabilities… and is one reason for their over-representation in programs for disengaged or educationally excluded young people.”

Armstrong’s submission highlighted the problem for children with some disabilities who may not be able to process certain instructions as quickly as their peers. 

He argued the model needed to be replaced with one that provided positive behavioural supports for students with disability who were perceived to be creating behavioural difficulties.

Another key area was turning to evidence-based strategies.  

“As behaviour is often a symptom of psychological distress or mental health difficulties, all future teachers should gain knowledge of how to notice behaviours that indicate mental health difficulties and understand principles for best practice approaches. 

Suspension and exclusion
Dr Armstrong argued schools should end the use of suspensions and exclusions (expulsions) of children, especially those with disabilities.

“Suspension should only be considered in exceptional cases such as where the child’s safety or that of their peers is endangered,” he said.

“If adopted, they should only be a pause to establish what happened and a plan of action and should be for a maximum of two working days. 

He said concerns about behaviour should not be used as a pretext by a professional for recommending that children attend special schools or specialist settings. 

Greater oversight of how schools use disciplinary measures by governments in the states and territories was also needed.

“This should be accompanied by greater support for transforming professional learning about behaviour as part of wider change in school cultures,” he said. 

Armstrong recommended establishing a national registry of exclusions, with standardised terms of use such as ‘exclusion’ as opposed to ‘expulsion’. 

“Only by addressing the wicked problem of behaviour in our schools, will we ensue a modern, effective and inclusive education system that serves the needs of all children,” he said.

Monash University’s Dr Kate de Bruin noted that neglect of children with a disability can be both willful and passive. It can take place when schools fail to support students with disabilities to access quality education through appropriate support.

The impact of exclusion can be catastrophic for a young person’s social and emotional development, mental health and wellbeing, sense of worth, and future.

Dr de Bruin said, “The Commission has heard this week from young people and their families about their own experiences in schools, and from academics who informed the Commission what research shows about inclusive education and the barriers to achieving it.

“Collectively, their evidence paints a sobering picture of the educational neglect of young people with disability and the devastating consequences of their experiences in schools, such as restrictions being placed on their attendance. Witnesses have described the consequences of this educational neglect in terms of the harm done to the young people, many of whom are left traumatised. They have also painted a picture of the educational failure that results for these young people, who are unable to learn at school and who do not receive the benefits of an education that is supposed to prepare them for a fulfilling and purposeful place in life after school and within their communities. 

Image by Brandon Nickerson from pexels