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‘What’s the point of living?’: Suspending kids doesn’t fix the problem, it makes it worse

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It’s a common misconception that students with challenging behaviours are violent. In reality,
this is a vulnerable cohort of students, often with neurological disabilities. Recent figures revealed that of the suspended population of primary school students, almost three out of four have a disability. Seven out of 10 kindergarten suspensions are students with disabilities. Five-year-old violent thugs? I don’t think so.

The experience of being suspended or expelled doesn’t fix the problem. It can make it worse. The right response when children like Harry, who has a complex set of problems, including an acquired brain injury from encephalitis, as well as ADHD, autism and dyslexia, are showing challenging behaviours is to make reasonable adjustments to teaching and behaviour management.

As clinical psychologist and author Dr Ross Greene says children want to do well; all behaviour is communication. Teachers need training to understand this and learn how to collaborate with the child to solve problems. There is funding available – a pot of money provided to all schools for low-level disability as well as targeted funding for individual children based on diagnosis. But many of the changes needed cost nothing beyond teacher training. It’s about a change in mindset.

Too often children with disabilities find teachers who either frame them as a problem to be contained or actively work to push them out of the school. Harry, who is now 8 and home-schooled, remembers it like this: “I was allowed to say what happened but they would say ‘no you did something else’ and then they made me write a report about what happened. Then they made me write saying I punched a kid in the face when I just did a little hit on the shoulder, they make it sound so violent like something else like something in an MA15 movie.

“All they cared about is that I hit someone, they didn’t care about whatever that person did to me. I was scared and the other person pushed me to the ground super hard. They didn’t get into trouble. It’s always the one that cries that doesn’t. Cause even when I get hurt I don’t cry just get super annoyed and angry.”

The stories I am sharing here are from families who contacted me through my work co-ordinating parents for ADHD Advocacy Australia. Sally, 12, an Indigenous Australian, has survived domestic violence and lives with post-traumatic stress disorder, ADHD, anxiety and self-harm. Sally has been suspended twice and has not been allowed full enrolment, despite never being violent at school.
Sally said: “Even though grown-ups look at me like I’m naughty, I can’t help it. I’m no different to their child. My brain just gets fuzzy and I have to do what comes into my brain right then. I hate it when grown-ups always ask my mum if I have had my tablets that day. It’s like they want us to be zombies.”

David, 13, was diagnosed with ADHD at the beginning of kindergarten and had the best-practice treatment including regular sessions with a paediatrician and psychologist. Despite this, David was suspended seven times in his primary school years, starting at age 5. His final 21-day suspension cited that he had “damaged school property”. Follow-up revealed the full details of this terrible crime – he had snapped school pencils in frustration.

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David said: “In my experience [suspensions] very negatively impact kids’ mental health. It affected mine badly. Especially if they have ADHD or autism or any conditions like that. It makes it harder for them to make the right choices in the moment. Kids don’t want to get in trouble, they want to do well.”

I believe most teachers will welcome the draft reforms released by NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell. It’s been 14 years since the last time policy was adjusted and change is well overdue. Teachers were consulted; they requested professional development to help them to support students in accordance with disability standards and the draft policy outlines a commitment to that. The idea is to help all students, including those with disabilities, receive the education they deserve.

Some say it’s a brave decision by the minister. I say it’s common sense.

Louise Kuchel is a parent advocate for children with ADHD. The NSW government’s draft behaviour strategy is open for feedback until October 11.

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