Students with authentic dysfunctional behaviour

Jul 31, 2023
Young girl teacher in primary school in class in front of blackboard.

In recent Pearls and Irritations essays there has been a difference of opinion between myself and Ross Fox, the Director of Catholic Education, Canberra and Goulburn. I believe this difference of opinion rests with the definition of students with severe behaviours and my assertion that private schools do not enrol them.

I have a determination to continue this discussion, not to denigrate private education but to expose the growing concentration of students with real severe behaviours in public schools.

Ross is correct when he points out that I imply that his system has no students with significant behavioural challenges. In his contribution Chris Bonnor is also correct about my claim that ‘no students’ attend these schools might be hard to prove, but I remain convinced that the presence of a student with what I define as severely disruptive behaviour would be a rare species at the schools of any private system.

The data presented by both Chris and Ross come from the My School’s Index of School Community Socio-educational Advantage. This data is aggregated in quartiles according to socio-educational advantage and, as Chris points out only six percent of Canberra’s Catholic Schools, compared to 14% of Government schools, are in the bottom quartile.

First I would like to deal with the definitions, of disability in general and disabilities that result in severe behaviours in particular.

In NSW schools a disability is described as a “long-term physical, mental health, intellectual, neurological or sensory differences which, in interaction with various attitudinal and environmental barriers, may hinder full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others”. This covers a wide range of distinctive shortcomings each of which require specific support. The aggregation into a single totality masks this difference both in the support required and how the particular disability is expressed in the classroom.

Within the aggregation there are a range of disabilities which induce severely dysfunctional behaviours. I would include Conduct Disorder (CD), Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD) and Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs) amongst these extreme cases. I have included the conditions required according to the DSM-5. To meet the category of Conduct Disorder, at least four of the following have to be present in the last six months:

  • Aggressive behaviour toward others and animals.
  • Frequent physical altercations with others.
  • Use of a weapon to harm others.
  • Deliberately physically cruel to other people.
  • Deliberately physically cruel to animals.
  • Involvement in confrontational economic order crime- e.g., mugging.
  • Has perpetrated a forcible sex act on another.
  • Property destruction by arson.
  • Property destruction by other means.
  • Has engaged in non-confrontational economic order crime- e.g., breaking and entering.
  • Has engaged in non-confrontational retail theft, e.g., shoplifting.
  • Disregarded parent’s curfew prior to age 13.
  • Has run away from home at least two times.
  • Has been truant before age 13.

The other conditions mentioned above will present a similar tragic list of stated behaviours.

I assert that students who can be diagnosed with such disorders would exhibit extreme behaviours that would exclude them from enrolment in private schools. I accept, as Chris points out that this would be hard to prove and there may be a very insignificant number that qualify. However, let’s look at the real numbers of such dysfunctional students. What would we find if we take the most difficult of the schools in the Canberra and Goulburn Catholic system and identify the number of students with Conduct Disorder and compare this with the number of like students in the most challenging school in the public system. If the numbers are near to being identical then Ross’s claim is correct. I believe they would not be even close but I am more than willing to publicly retract my assertions if I am wrong!

I remain passionate about this issue for two reasons. The first is that these conditions are not the result of a biological mishap but have been put onto the children by the cruel actions of adults. They are not born that way (apart from those with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder which is a result of alcohol consumption by the mother prior to birth) they have been expressly treated in an abusive or neglectful way until they become severely disordered. These kids do not currently have real access to learning opportunities because of the lack of support offered in schools.

The second is that the presence of these students in any classroom guarantees disruption to the learning of their classmates. There is ample evidence to support this claim. In extreme cases the other students and their teacher are subjected to real physical and/or psychological abuse from the students.

Both these issues are concentrated in public schools!

The new Federal and State Ministers of Education are facing a real crisis in public education and I fear there are enough issues that will allow them to continue to ignore the problem children with severe behaviours present. I have seen nothing to date that would give me any hope and I fear these kids will continue to be abandoned by society!

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