June 22, 2018


Experts push for new approach to dealing with difficult students.

Tasmania has among the lowest school retention rates in the country. But experts at the University of Tasmania are working to turn this around.

Imagine you’re a young person who hasn’t had an easy journey through school.

You may be disengaged from learning.

Teachers may find your behaviour hard to handle.

You may be suspended. If so, then you’re just one of 3000 students suspended each year from school in Tasmania – and you may be suspended for long periods, or multiple times in a year.

However, evidence suggests that punitive measures don’t work.

“When some teachers talk about managing difficult behaviour, they say: ‘I just have to set an example. We need to show that we’re doing something’,” said Dr Jeff Thomas, Lecturer in Behaviour Management in the Faculty of Education at the University of Tasmania.

But this knee-jerk response can be damaging.

‘Exclusion sends messages to students. It says: ‘How you are is not okay. Unless you change, you’re not welcome.’

Ongoing problem

Tasmania has the lowest school completion rate in Australia, with the exception of the Northern Territory.

The effects of unchecked school disengagement are not just temporary, nor confined to individuals. It can have life-long and society-level implications.

Statistically, the outcomes of departing education early are significant and include a lower income, poorer health and even a shorter lifespan.

Minimising exclusion and maximising engagement are therefore essential goals for the state as a whole.

“The need is clearly great in Tasmania,” Dr Thomas said.

“To keep these students in education, we need to work to make every interaction in school increase their engagement.”

Make the change

Dr Thomas has authored two specialist courses for student and professional teachers.

Masters of Teaching students all take the compulsory unit Planning for Positive Behaviour, and to date, 50 practising teachers have undertaken the Re-Engaging Disengaged Students unit, as part of the Graduate Certificate in Education (Inclusive Education).

Dr Thomas and his colleagues are also working directly with independent and Department of Education schools, in an effort to get the department’s best-practice student engagement principles implemented in all schools.

“If the relationship between a student and school has become so broken that a child cannot be in school any more: what do you do? This is where we need to aim to do school differently.”

Do you agree that exclusion is really not the answer for a difficult child?

Share your comments below.

  • My son was bullied at school because the boy thought it made him look tougher. I used to drop my son off at school and within 10 minutes he was back home. The bully even tried to pull the goal posts down onto my son. My son has ended up not wanted to go out in case this happens again. Unfortunately the school did nothing because they weren’t allowed to discipline the boy. Things need to change but I have no solutions to offer. Hopefully something is done to stop bullying in the schools soon


  • I got bullied all through High School. It only stopped once those kids no longer were at school, because they dropped out.


  • Everyone is entitled to an educatoin. I totally agree and support this. My son has been bullied and greatly affected by disengaged students, however we need to do more. I don’t have the answers but I’ve seen my son and his class made to leave their classroom whilst a troubled child has threatened a teacher, I’ve seen questionable behaviour levels in schools increase at such a dramatic rate just during my son’s time at school that I understand it to be a huge problem. My son is about to finish Year 12 and I can’t wait for him to be out of the school environment. He’s a great kid, who has been greatly impacted throughout his school life by others with ‘issues’. Quite frankly, we’re glad it’s nearly over.


  • I am all for inclusion and always encourage our Punks to keep an eye out for a kid who is not playing with anyone and at least ask them to play, but I believe behavioural issues need to be dealt with appropriately, and exclusion can be an effective tool when used as part of a broader strategy to address the issues. Parents need to be involved in this process, most behavioural issues stem from home life! Perhaps services for families such as counselling can be utilised as part of the strategy, to get to the root of the issues. The trouble is, so many parents aren’t willing to parent these days! My daughter is currently experiencing bullying from a boy at school. He has thrown things at her, hit her with objects, punched her and just come out and told her straight that he doesn’t want to be her friend as he doesn’t like her. They are 5 years old, and in PRESCHOOL. My daughter, who is smart, helpful, well behaved, respectful and considerate of others and kind to everyone, already doesn’t want to go to because of this. Why should she be subjected to bullying and have her educational experience marred by a kid like the one who is bullying her? There will always be kids with those tendencies, and those kids need to be dealt with. It’s really very simple, society has just made things complicated unnecessarily, I believe. If one kid is the issue, get them the support they need, counselling, family assistance etc, and if the behaviours don’t change and they are still disruptive towards others, then take them out of the equation. Would these sorts of behaviours tolerated in the workplace? No, and there are bullying and harassment laws in place for this reason. By allowing and enabling these behaviours to flourish in their early years, it is giving these kids a sense of entitlement and lack of respect for others, nothing else.


  • My heart goes out to the poor kids bullied by these “disengaged kids”.
    Perhaps special classes for these kids so the compliant kids can get on with learning and not have to put up with disruptive behaviour in their class.


  • My son has been bullied and beaten and STILL the school has not expelled the kid responsible.
    Tell me how it’s ok for this horror to be allowed at school but my kid has to suffer?
    Maybe the “experts” should talk to the parents who’s kids are affected by the “disengaged” kids


  • Iam no expert on this I think the experts should have the last say


  • I feel sorry for the good kids discrupted in class by those difficult children. Not sure what the answer is but it’s not productive to stay in classes that they hate and disrupt.


  • Disengaged children at school become disengaged members of the community. Schools and communities need to find ways to engage all children and have them be productive and move forward with their lives.


  • So kids who behave well are punished by having their lifetime of education disrupted by the badly behaved kids who take up all the teachers time. Kids behaviour needs to be addressed at home. Not at school.


  • Research shows that punitive measures DO actually work. Restorative practises only work for about 90% of the students in schooling and punitive is the option for the rest. Violence is unacceptable and kids who hurt others should be suspended. The rest can be dealt with restoratively.


  • I’ve been teaching for 15 years and have seen a lot of difficult children some as young as 5 years old. I don’t like this article. The statement Ïf the relationship between a student and school has become so broken…” There are many reasons why a student becomes so disruptive they cannot be in a classroom. Do you know what the most common reason is? Not because of their relationship with school, but because of a broken home. That responsibility lies with parents and social services. Teachers and schools can bend over backwards setting up free after-school homework programs, breakfast clubs, modified programs, negotiated curriculums, incentives to come to school (e.g. circus programs, gardening club etc.), reward days. There’s not a teacher out there that hasn’t had to bring spare food for the child that often doesn’t have lunch, bring a brush and hairbands, spare jumpers and second-hand shoes, and the stationary equipment as well. They give up their lunch times help them socialise, run reading programs before school, worry all night and invent new ways to help them participate and learn. They have meetings with all sorts of professionals and develop individual cases to support these young people who are struggling. Most of them have experienced trauma – mainly neglect and abuse daily. Suspension and exclusion is not easy to do. A student would have committed many violent acts by the time they were excluded from a school Fair enough. Everyone has a right to come to school and feel safe. Getting chairs thrown at you, being spat at, threatened, other children getting punched and kicked, climbing up on the roof/railings/, yelling screaming, running off is all things teachers and schools try to deal with. Yes there needs to be funding to help these families but exclusion is also necessary.


  • Yes I agree that exclusion isn’t really the answer for a difficult child.
    And when there goes such a shout out that mental illnesses should be more accepted and normalized, it’s so important to include and to learn from each other.
    I believe in the power of inclusion where there is place and space for everyone, as with inclusion you do an appeal on the normal behaviour and all kids learn to think and feel they’re valuable.
    These specialist courses are a good move and there should be guaranteed funding for children with a special need, so school can apply for resources and aids.

    • I am an advocate for inclusion too – it simply makes sense for schools and for communities.


  • Difficult kids affect the learning of other kids, they need either their own classes or a teachers aid to help keep them focused. Excluding them is not the answer, that just creates a bigger problem for their future.


  • Well said mom 160421 Thought and Resources.


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