Challenging behaviour and school responses

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Schools must respect students’ human rights, including when responding to behavioural issues.

On this page:

Addressing the reasons for a student’s behaviour

The Victorian Government’s Student Engagement Policy (available on the DET website) guides how schools should respond when students are having behavioural issues at school.

The policy requires schools to emphasise supporting students to behave well, rather than punishing them when they misbehave, or removing them from the learning environment – unless all other approaches have been tried. The policy also requires schools to investigate the underlying reasons for a student’s misbehaviour, and to intervene early and support the student to behave well; to try hard to stop the problem getting worse.

All children and young people who misbehave do so for a reason. For example, if a student with a disability or additional needs is not getting the right support in class, they can feel frustrated, anxious or embarrassed, which can in turn lead to behaviour issues. The same can happen if a student experiences bullying or exclusion, perhaps because of their disability.

Also, some disabilities make it difficult for a student to, for example, sit quietly for long periods, focus in a noisy classroom, or understand some aspects of the behaviour expected of them. Students’ responses to unrealistic expectations and lack of the right adjustments in the classroom might look like misbehaviour – but treating it as such is unfair, and is very likely to make the issue worse.

If your child is regularly getting into trouble at school, the school must work with you to understand and address the underlying reasons for your child’s behaviour, through your child’s Student Support Group and by providing support and adjustments to be documented in your child’s plan. The school is allowed to discipline your child, but the discipline must be fair and appropriate, and fit with the level and seriousness of the behaviour issue.


Behavioural expectations and discipline

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. Disciplinary measures used 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 can use, including:

  • Withdrawing privileges, such as representing the school in inter-school sports or attending an event. This must be time-limited, the risk to the student’s engagement should be taken into account. The student must be told why privileges are withdrawn, and how they should behave for privileges to be reinstated.
  • Withdrawal from class. This must be temporary, and only occur if the student’s behaviour significantly interferes with their classmates or is a risk to others. The student must be supervised if they leave the class, and parents and carers should be informed if a withdrawal has occurred. Withdrawal from class is different from suspension or expulsion and very different from an adjustment such as a quiet space (see below).
  • Detention can only be for less than half the time allocated for recess or lunch; after school detention cannot be for longer than 45 minutes. Parents or carers should be informed of after-school detention at least one day prior, and school should negotiate other measures if this would create undue hardship for the family.

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.

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. However, it must never be used regularly, for example for behaviour control.


Support for staff to understand and respond well to challenging behaviours

It might sometimes be very difficult for school staff to know how to respond constructively, if a student seems to have extreme or consistently challenging behaviours. In the experience of many families who contact ACD’s support staff, however, it is common for staff to misinterpret behaviour by students with disabilities as deliberate misbehaviour.

In many cases, such behaviour should be understand as a reaction by a student with a disability to either changes in their environment that they find difficult to cope with, or a lack of support or direction about what is expected of them. For example, many students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder can find it very difficult to cope with an unexpected change in their environment without support, and might respond in ways that teachers can find challenging (for example, by having what is sometimes called ‘a meltdown’). Without an appropriate supportive response from staff, such a situation can escalate, to the great detriment of the student.

However, DET has specialist staff, resources and training available to assist in providing knowledge and strategies to help prevent these kinds of situations, and for responding in supportive ways if they do arise. Schools should develop behaviour support programs and other strategies in consultation with you as your child’s parent or carer, and with input from psychologists and other experts.

  • For more information, talk to your school principal or welfare staff, contact your local DET regional office, or visit the DET website and search on ‘challenging behaviour’ and ‘Supports available to schools’.
  • The Amaze website also has many resources on supporting students that are useful to both parents and carers, and to educators, and can provide education programs for families and educators.