Adam* is a 15-year-old boy from Canterbury with significant developmental issues. Adam’s school had difficulty coping with his special educational needs and told his parents to keep him home for three days of the school week. At times Adam was placed in a separate room by himself when at school.  Adam eventually left mainstream schooling for correspondence school when it became clear that the school did not wish to accommodate him.

Daria* is a five-year-old girl from South Auckland who has been diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety. Daria’s behaviour at school escalated due to a lack of support and her mother was subsequently advised that Daria should remain away from school for a period until the school felt that she could return again. No formal disciplinary steps were taken and Daria was removed from school for substantial periods of time. Eventually Daria’s parents felt that she was so unwelcome at school that she was withdrawn and an application was made to home-school her.

In many ways Adam and Daria couldn’t be more different. One is a teenage boy, the other a little girl just starting school. They are from different ends of the country. Their special education needs are very different. Yet what they do have in common is that their respective schools could not cope with their challenging behaviour and as a result both were driven to withdraw from mainstream education.

Adam and Daria are just two of many case studies used to inform the research carried out by YouthLaw Aotearoa on the rise of informal removals of students. The large number of cases is indicative of the fact that many schools throughout New Zealand are struggling to cope with their students’ challenging behaviour.

Why? Are schools not being given enough guidance, resourcing or support? Are teachers not being trained sufficiently for the realities of teaching students with a diverse range of learning needs? Have schools become so conscious about their images and about marketing themselves to their communities that challenging behaviour is hidden away in the hope that no one notices?

The Miramar Central School case

The Miramar Central School incident serves as an unfortunate case in point. Last year it was discovered that some students, most of whom had special education needs, were on occasion locked briefly in a seclusion room located near the school’s special education centre.

The tricky thing about the Miramar Central case is that the school’s use of the seclusion room was in keeping with ministerial guidelines introduced back in 2002. As board chair Peter McFarlane said, “At the time, that was the thinking from education specialists. It seems like things have moved on since then.”

Indeed they have. The Ministry of Education handled the complaint about the use of Miramar’s seclusion room very poorly, and issued a formal apology in October. In an attempt to compensate for this, the Ministry has since been assertive in addressing the issue. Following an independent investigation, the Ministry announced that it is now illegal for schools to use seclusion rooms. The Ministry also worked with an Advisory Group to develop guidelines for schools so that all have a clear understanding of what is modern practice for dealing with challenging behaviour.

Education Minister Hekia Parata says the vast majority of schools have good practices in place for managing the challenging behaviour of a small number of students in a safe and inclusive way.

“I appreciate this can be very difficult. But in today’s world there is no situation where it is acceptable for seclusion to be used in schools or early childhood education services, so I want to make that clear in the law,” says Parata.

“It’s important to note that seclusion is not the same as ‘time out’, where a student voluntarily takes themselves to an agreed space or unlocked room, like a sensory room, to calm down; or when a teacher prompts a disruptive student to work in another space.”

Parata says she is pretty certain Miramar Central would not have been intentionally trying to do the wrong thing.

She also indicated the need for intervention if necessary to protect teachers and other students. Miramar Central School apparently used the room as a last resort, to protect teachers and other students from children who exhibited violent behaviour. Ultimately, they ran out of options. And they won’t be the only school to face this situation.

Since the Miramar case came to light, it has emerged that eight special education units use seclusion rooms, and anecdotal evidence suggests more such rooms can be found in mainstream schools around the country too, although the Ministry has surveyed all schools and says they are not widespread.

So, what’s the alternative?

The Miramar case has lifted the lid on some of the realities faced by New Zealand teachers and schools of teaching children with challenging behaviour and the lack of clarity around how to manage such behaviour.

As one Facebook user says on the subject, “So what’s the alternative? Should a school keep the child in class and disrupt the learning of 20/25 other students? Imagine being a teacher/student stuck in a room and one child is smashing furniture, attacking students, throwing objects… would they feel safe?? The needs of the many should be the priority.”

The difficulty of teaching a classroom of children with a diverse range of learning needs cannot be understated, particularly when you throw in a pupil with a propensity for violence.

In 2014 Marie-Pierre Fortier’s research uncovered some of the stark realities of managing difficult behaviour in three New Zealand secondary schools. Her research outlined many instances where teachers struggled to manage challenging behaviour. One teacher shared her difficult experience with a student “who had major violent outbursts”.

“It was just not the right environment for him. I had to basically keep him contained until we could find the right place for him, which was an outside, smaller, specialised unit that worked with behavioural issues, but there were only 10 of them and there were like five members of staff.”

Alternative education and correspondence school are fast becoming the ‘dumping ground’ for such children. According to the YouthLaw report, from 2000 to 2006, the number of alienated and excluded students on the correspondence school roll increased from 876 to 1,518. From 2001 to 2015 the number of students registered as part-time has risen from 1,636 to 2,243. The reality for such students is only notional involvement in the schooling system.

The Ministry of Education is working to provide alternative education pathways that are more relevant to students to help them stay in school, or to re-engage in their learning. Trades Academies have been well received in this area. The more recently proposed alternative of communities of online learning (COOLs) has been more controversial.

Kiwi suspensions

According to official Ministry of Education statistics, formal removals from school are declining. In fact, the official 2014 data recorded the lowest age-standardised suspension rate in the 15 years of recorded data. On the face of it, this sounds great, but the reality is that while formal disciplinary procedures are decreasing, informal procedures are on the rise, bringing wild inconsistencies and variation to how schools cope with behavioural challenges.

YouthLaw’s research shows that illegal suspensions are on the rise, suggesting that the real number of children being removed from school is not reflected in official statistics. The research is consistent with previous claims that each year approximately one in 30 students will suffer informal disruption to education under the heading of ‘time out’ or ‘informal stand down’.

An illegal suspension in New Zealand is better known as a ‘Kiwi suspension’ – when a principal calls a meeting with the student and the student’s parents and suggests they withdraw their child from the school before formal action is taken.

Without a formal process, the student doesn’t have an established procedure to challenge the decision and is left feeling shameful and rejected.

Unsurprisingly, the Ministry of Education doesn’t have any data on illegal suspensions. They informed YouthLaw that they worked with schools on a case-by-case basis when they became aware of schools not following their legislative responsibilities.

The Ministry doesn’t shy away from Kiwi suspensions on its parents’ website. It emphasises that they are illegal and outlines steps that parents can take if their child is being asked to voluntarily withdraw from school or sent home for behavioural reasons without the correct protocols being followed by the school.

New Zealand schools are not the only ones. Research shows that informal processes are rife in Australia and are increasing in Canada. The competitive performance culture in the United Kingdom has also seen schools pressured to remove students who may affect the school’s public performance ranking.

Understanding the student

Kiwi suspensions are clearly not the answer. Nor are seclusion rooms. So how can schools and teachers deal with challenging behaviour?

All the schools Education Review spoke to were empathetic towards Miramar Central School and most said they had at least one student who exhibited difficult and sometimes violent behaviour. The inquiry into the Miramar Central case has resulted in guidelines for schools outlining best practice for how to manage such behaviour. But prior to that, schools had to draw on their own variable systems and expertise.

For example, one school has a strategy in place in which the code word ‘team’ is used to garner help from support teachers. Another had a seclusion room specifically designed for a student who is prone to extremely violent outbursts; the child is accompanied in the room by his teacher aide. Other schools have ‘time out’ areas.

Principal of Berhampore School Mark Potter says in the case of a student “meltdown” at his school, if the child can be moved simply and easily, they will do so. Failing that, they will remove the things around the child to prevent damage and harm. They will attempt to distract the child with a change of staff if appropriate. Ultimately though, it’s about understanding the child and doing what works for them, says Potter.

He gives the example of a student whom they discovered recovered from such episodes by being allowed to roam around the school grounds. Potter says in the boy’s previous school he had been subjected to seclusion rooms as a way of managing his behaviour, which worsened his behaviour and left him traumatised.

Potter believes the emphasis in dealing with challenging students should be on understanding each child and their disability or learning difference. This approach helps to prevent the “meltdown” incidents from occurring.

For example, anxiety can manifest itself in many different ways, with a child becoming withdrawn, or tearful, or aggressive. Potter thinks schools are often too quick to take a zero tolerance approach for behaviour that they perceive to be rude or aggressive, when a deeper understanding of the child could reveal that anxiety is the underlying cause for their behaviour, and what they really should be addressing.

“School conditions can exacerbate the problem,” he says. “If a child struggles with noise and echoes, then a modern learning environment is not going to be the best option for that child.”

Part of understanding the child means involving the parents. Potter says schools are sometimes guilty of taking the stance that they are the professionals and shutting parents down, instead of listening to what they have to say.

Potter admits it takes time to develop this level of understanding in a school.

A restorative approach

Berhampore School’s stance in striving to understand the child’s learning needs and behaviour triggers is similar to the principles of a restorative approach to addressing behaviour challenges.

The YouthLaw report advocates a restorative justice approach for schools, one that targets the underlying issues rather than a single incident. Addressing the wider issues such as student disaffection, underachievement and truancy can better help students than more traditional disciplinary routes like suspensions or stand-downs. Traditional discipline models lay guilt and blame on a student, which can cause a student to form a negative perspective of education. By contrast, restorative approaches allow students to take responsibility and understand the impact of their actions.

As with most initiatives of this kind, it appears the most effective restorative programmes involve the wider community. Bristol’s Restorative Approaches in Schools programme has proven to be effective. Working with local social service and police agencies, the programme trains school staff in restorative principles and techniques such as conflict and behaviour management skills. As a result the city experienced a 57 per cent decline in exclusions.

The Ministry of Education has indicated that it is supportive of restorative justice programmes to inform schools’ behaviour management strategies. Since 2015 the Ministry has been implementing the Positive Behaviour for Learning (PB4L) Programme – a long-term, systemic approach involving 10 initiatives. The programme is now in more than 600 schools and is widely regarded as an effective way of addressing behavioural issues. The PB4L initiative stems from the restorative justice system and provides best practice tools and techniques for restoring relationships when things go wrong. Essentially it is about supporting schools to build and maintain positive and respectful relationships across their communities.

There can be problems with restorative practices. The YouthLaw report notes that if a restorative approach does not resolve an issue, then schools typically move to other informal punishment measures and then possibly to formal punishment measures, so that the student ends up being punished multiple times for one offence.

Fortier’s research also revealed some limitations, showing that the success of restorative practice was dependent on students’ attitudes and a consistent approach among staff. Schools that had received professional development on restorative practices predictably had better success.

YouthLaw agrees that the successful implementation of a restorative approach is contingent on the development of wider school culture enabling student participation, flexibility, creativity and collaboration with other agencies. It notes that successful restorative justice initiatives appear to have a collaborative aspect, working with other juvenile services such as justice, healthcare, local authorities to provide ongoing training and professional development.

Training, resourcing and support

It appears more training and professional development might be needed in the areas of learning differences and behaviour management.

There are typically a multitude of factors underpinning a student’s challenging behaviour. A disadvantaged background and special educational needs often play a part. The YouthLaw report found that students with special education needs were “grossly over-represented” among those children who are informally removed, or excluded from schools.

Former NZEI Te Riu Roa president Louise Green says the report has raised the same concerns the union has been raising for some time, including a lack of guidance for schools in how to ensure children with disabilities can thrive, a lack of initial teacher education and ongoing professional development for educators, and the need for both better funding and greater funding support.

“It’s one thing to say that education should be inclusive of all learners; it’s another thing to fund schools, and train educators so they are equipped to meet every child’s needs,” she says.

Funding was bound to come up in a discussion around supporting schools with behaviour management. The Government is moving towards a more targeted approach for school funding, based on students’ needs. Schools will now receive $92 for each student at risk of educational underachievement.

Special education is also under Government scrutiny at the moment, with a recent inquiry into specific learning disorders, a review of special education funding underway, and a potential review of the Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS). Government proposals to shift special education funding from the schooling sector to the early childhood sector have been met with concern.

“A sensible solution would be to provide each school with a dedicated special needs coordinator, or SENCO, to help identify children who need additional support and ensure that educators are capable of providing it, and that the funding is there to back that up,” says Green.

Green also thinks there needs to be more resourcing directed towards providing adequate support for teachers. Support staff can be invaluable to teachers in helping to keep a child from distracting other students with their behaviour.

However, the pay is notoriously low and the work challenging. It can be difficult for schools to find people willing to take on such a support role.

Research also indicates that there is an over-reliance on teacher aides in many Kiwi classrooms to work with children with special educational needs, yet teacher aides often lack the necessary specialist training. Not always, though; Mark Potter says Berhampore School ensures its teacher aides receive plenty of specialist training and professional development.

Green believes all schools should take this approach.

“Teacher aides should be provided with specialist training so they know how to give children the support they need, and new teachers given much more initial teacher education in how to teach children with complex and special needs,” she says.

Mark Potter agrees there is very little training in the area of learning differences and behaviour management in pre-service teacher education. He says there isn’t much professional development available in this area either and what little there is, is difficult to access.

“Teachers need to know the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown,” he says. “They need strategies in place to deal with difficult behaviour.”

Collaborative practice

Berhampore School’s expertise in this area has led to many parents of children with special education needs bypassing other schools. Mark Potter says he was keen to share the school’s expertise, which it has built up over time, with other schools in the area, and in turn, learn from their experiences as well. As such the school is currently involved in a Teacher Innovation Fund project, which is about sharing expertise and experience across the schools to enable each to feel better prepared for students who might present different challenges.

Acknowledging the low level of funding, Potter says the aim is to look at what schools can do on a low budget to become more inclusive. For example, employing a specialist teacher to work across five schools full-time might be a better approach than each school employing a part-time person, he says.

The project will hopefully be extended to include secondary schools in the area. Transitioning between schools is often acknowledged as difficult for children with special education needs. Collaboration in this area would certainly help streamline educational pathways for students as they progress through the school system.

Kapiti College is another school that has excelled in providing an inclusive learning environment. As outlined in Guy Pope-Mayell’s recent Education Review article, the school has created a dyslexia-friendly environment that has seen significant improvements in self-esteem and academic achievement, and reductions in negative and destructive behaviour. It believes early screening at primary school and appropriate early teaching intervention is essential if children with learning differences are to succeed at secondary school and beyond.

Collaborative practices, more restorative approaches, better and more training, professional development and support, more funding – all will help us strive towards better management and understanding of the challenging behaviour and learning needs of the diverse learners in our schools. But ultimately we need to achieve wider systemic change in our education system and in our communities to prevent the marginalisation and exclusion of students who challenge us to think differently about the way we teach and run our schools.


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