When beliefs are challenged

A first-time principal encounters a child with major behaviour issues that require immediate action for the safety of the child, other children and the well-being of the child’s teacher.

Meeting Chris

I have always held the belief that all children can be successful in their own way within the school environment. I also believed that under no circumstance should a teacher physically restrain a child. These beliefs were completely challenged by the following situation.

Chris had been in the school for a year before I arrived. He had recognised and diagnosed learning and behavioural conditions. By all accounts his first year had been very difficult for his classroom teacher. The priority for the year had been on developing Chris’ security and sense of belonging in the class, so most of the behavioural issues had been overlooked. Chris’ family and the Resource Teacher of Learning and Behaviour (RTLB) had agreed on this approach, and Nick, his classroom teacher, had worked hard to achieve this. Chris had been stood down three times in his first year.

I work hard not to prejudge, but it was with some trepidation that I met Chris as his reputation certainly preceded him.

Chris was in Year 6. He came from a single parent family where his mother, Anne, had little support. Chris slept poorly and needed to be supervised until he went to bed at midnight and from 6am when he woke up. Anne could not take him into shops because of temper tantrums or shoplifting. She could not take him to friends’ places because he stole from them. She found it hard to establish relationships because of the way Chris behaved when other males were in the house. She lived a difficult and isolated life.

Anne had not had a great response in the past from principals, so in the beginning she was very sceptical of my sincerity. I had to work very hard to develop a relationship with her.

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Chris goes to camp

The new year began with all the enthusiasm and optimism that this time brings. The school, Chris’ mum and the RTLB all agreed that it was time to increase the expectations on Chris. Our collective goal was for Chris to take part in the class to some degree. An IEP was developed, teacher aide support was introduced and a highly individualised programme was collectively created and developed. The ultimate goal of the programme was that Chris would accompany his class on some or all of camp.

Term 1 went relatively smoothly. With substantial support Chris attended much of camp and had a highly successful time. Chris’ mum and I accompanied the class. At camp I was able to observe Chris as a very individualistic boy on the whole who was unaware of others’ emotions or perspectives. I witnessed his mother working tirelessly to support him to be successful.

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Things deteriorate

The next two terms were different. Chris did not have camp to look forward to. It was as if all his energy and motivation to take part in the classroom programme had been exhausted. Classroom involvement stopped and Chris reverted to spending his days sitting in the corner making planes out of his pens and ruler, picking his toes, or removing himself from the classroom and wandering the school. Chris was stood down three times over Terms 2 and 3.

This devastated all adults involved, as we had seen what he was capable of. We decided to try and persuade Chris to take part in learning by setting up a behaviour modification plan and full teacher aide support. Chris stubbornly, expertly and loudly rejected all our attempts. He vehemently abused all in range, and would run out of the class and regularly leave the school grounds. He climbed on the school roof and often disappeared for extended periods of time.

The turning point for me was the day that he could not be found for four hours and yet on the arrival of the police dog he miraculously appeared! At this point it was clear that the professionals involved, including me, were not achieving success. We needed more expert knowledge. I requested that the RTLB refer Chris to the Behaviour Support team (BST).

The BST came in, did the usual set of observations, physiological tests and interviews and it was agreed that a behaviour modification programme would be introduced that had many rewards.

We duly implemented this but Chris was still highly non-compliant and over time, even with intensive behaviour support, things deteriorated. Chris was increasingly defiant and aggressive. Finally, in desperation, it was agreed by all those involved that a Calm Down room would be used a last resort if Chris would not comply and was being dangerous to himself or others. If necessary Chris would be physically taken to this room and remain there accompanied by two adults for short periods of time.

Was it right to treat Chris like this? Did we have the expertise to undertake such extreme measures? What psychological issues were we developing in Chris because of our actions? This approach went against everything I stood for, but under guidance from the BST and with the support of Chris’s mother, I reluctantly agreed.

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Something has to change

Chris was taken to the Calm Down room twice. On the second occasion, while I was in the room sitting beside the BST psychologist and listening to Chris’ anger at being taken there, I came to the realisation that this is not what my school should be doing and that this school was not right for Chris. Something had to change.

All parties were drained. Anne was exhausted from Chris’s behaviour at home, as we were at a school. His teacher, Nick, had lost his enthusiasm for teaching. In addition to managing Chris, he was also trying to teach the rest of the class. He had become cynical and negative in his relationship with many in the staff, particularly me. I was adamant that the current situation would not continue.

I was in between a rock and a hard place. I had a school to run. Chris had the right to an education but protecting this right was impacting enormously on the rest of the school. Students were seeing and hearing Chris’ verbal and physical outbursts. Was it right for other students to see and hear these things? Should Nick, myself and other staff members spend a massive amount of their time and energy on one child at the expense of all the others? I didn’t know.

The board had the option to exclude Chris, but knew that this would put his mother under even greater strain. The BST wanted to continue the current programme as they felt it was too early for it to be stopped.

Shortly after, Chris assaulted a staff member and I suspended him pending a board hearing of the case.

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Reflective questions 1

  • What is the problem or issue here? Is there more than one?
  • What would you do at this point if you were in this principal’s position?
  • What are the principal’s options for dealing with this dilemma?

Practitioner comments on dilemma

Principal one

  1. Explore other options, for example referral to an outpatient unit, a full time tracker. There is a real dilemma when principals want to meet the individual but also need to support the rest of the school to be able to learn. Sometimes a ‘hard ball’ approach with external organisations can lead to resources or new ideas miraculously appearing. However, at the end of the day, the needs of the majority must prevail. The principal should place all the facts and possibilities before the board and get perspectives from all concerned. They should also ensure that all parties are consulted in the process. Ultimately it is the board that makes the decision whether to uphold suspension, lift it or impose conditions. If the principal has done his/her homework and presented all the facts, this becomes easier.
  2. If the board upheld suspension, the principal could help the mother to be adequately supported and to find a new school.
  3. The other issue that is part of this dilemma is that having a difficult child in your class is extremely stressful. It is the school’s responsibility to keep staff emotionally safe and there are obligations to do so. The teacher needs to be well supported and strategies put into place to ensure they are safe.
  4. If this issue is not dealt with clearly, and procedurally correctly, there is the possibility that there will be negative feedback from other parents and some may take their child out of the school or demand that their child be shifted. The principal needs to monitor this tension and take action to discuss issues as soon as they arise.
  5. The principal is not keen to have children physically restrained, but if this is to occur he/she needs to ensure there are procedures in place to keep the child and the staff involved safe and to ensure that the appropriate staff are trained in correct restraint procedures. This will minimise harm for all involved.

Principal two

  1. There are times when you may need to restrain a child. The safety of the other students, the teachers and the child themselves is paramount.
  2. When dealing with behavioural issues there has to be a multi-faceted approach. There is a need to look at the behaviour, learning, support, home and personal well- being of the child. To do this requires input from a variety of agencies. It is important that the principal does have correct initial data on the needs of the child.
  3. In this issue the IEPs should have been ongoing. This is because the idea that a residential school was the best for Chris probably would have been raised earlier through the consensus of the group.
  4. The principal must always take into consideration the rights of the class teacher and the students in the class. If the effectiveness of the teacher is being affected by this student, then the intervention programme has to be implemented.
  5. The RTLB should have been observing and providing support at a much earlier stage. Early intervention signals to teacher, students and parents and to the student at risk that the school is being proactive in its acceptance of its responsibility in this situation. The problem also indicates that the child and adolescent unit be involved due to home circumstances. Mum was in need of support and also there appears to be unknown underlying needs for the child that had not been identified.

Leadership adviser

  1. An urgent meeting should be held with Group Special Education and referrals made to a school specialising in Behaviour Management.
  2. A change of teacher could be considered.
  3. Ultimately an exclusion from school could be considered, as this behaviour is interfering with the learning of children. (Prior to this it would have been vital to follow the school behaviour management plan to the letter.)

Actual courses of action taken by this principal

Chris was suspended pending a board hearing as a result of the assault. All sides were represented at the meeting and a full, frank and comprehensive discussion was held. I outlined how this type of behaviour and resulting interventions were too much for a school resourced as we were, and that there was real concern for Chris over possible psychological issues he might develop as a result of our actions. We talked at length about Nick’s stress levels and my frustration over this issue and the behaviour modification plan we were delivering to Chris. We also expressed concern about other students, especially our younger ones, seeing Chris in this state and being ‘handled’ in this way.

Anne could see that the school was unable to continue with the current plan. GSE could not provide sufficient resources to undertake all components of Chris’ support and relied on continued intensive support from the school. Teacher aides were unwilling to work with him. Chris was part of most of these discussions and we think to some degree understood the severity of the situation.

It was agreed that we would return to the previous system. Chris would continue to receive comprehensive teacher aide support and a highly modified programme. We would move him to another classroom as the relationship with Nick had completely broken down. I could have made Nick take Chris back, but this would not have been in Chris’ best interests. If Chris’ behaviour deteriorated to a state where it was impacting on others then Chris’ mother would be called and he would go home with her.

We decided that all expectations would be removed from Chris and that the school would simply focus on getting through Term 4 as best we could. Our aim was to recommend that Chris attend a residential school that had specialist staff. We had no plan for the following year if Chris did not get into the school.

At the end of the year Nick resigned from teaching to have a break. Nick’s self-esteem had taken a battering. Taking Chris’ problems on board was too much and he needed time to reflect on his future in education.

Fortunately Chris was accepted by the residential school and he spent two successful years there. Time will tell how life treats Chris or more likely how Chris treats life. Thankfully he did finally receive the support and help that he needed and that we could not provide. Now he has had the best possible chance of being as successful as he can.

Reflective questions 2

  • Although this situation was at the extreme end of issues a school might face with a child who has severe behavioural issues, have any processes and procedures noted here alerted you to how you might deal with such a situation?
  • One of the ‘casualties’ from this situation was the teacher, Nick. Could this have been avoided? If so, how?

Writer’s reflection

Even now I try to remember that I did not create this problem and could not have fixed it. Who knows if continuing with the Calm Down room system may have worked in the end? I really struggled in this situation with balancing the rights of the individual against the rights of others. In reality, though, there was little choice for us but to pursue the residential school option. I believe we did the right thing for Chris.

There probably are ways a school can support a child like Chris, but as a normally resourced primary school, we couldn’t have continued to support him, though we tried our best.

I have lost contact with the family and am unaware of where Chris is now, and how he and Anne are going. Hopefully at some stage I will find out.

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