Some students with communication support needs, due to difficulty expressing themselves through language (verbal or written), may use behaviour as a method of communication. While every student should be supported to have a functional means to communicate (refer Communication methods section), behaviour can be a useful additional communication tool in some circumstances. However, there can also be occasions when the behaviour used is problematic. This is behaviour that could cause harm to the student or to others, or behaviour which does not cause harm to anyone but impacts on the student’s engagement in learning and social opportunities, for example saliva play or masturbating in public.
Students with communication support needs who are exhibiting these types of behaviours may need – in addition to a means to communicate – support to address these behaviours. This involves providing positive behaviour support. The key to this is understanding the reasons behind the student’s behaviour. Teachers should always consider physical, medical, sensory and emotional reasons for behaviour before exploring other possible causes. (For a discussion of sensory challenges that may contribute to behaviours, see sensory processing topic).
For example, a student may feel bored, anxious or over-stimulated, and without language to explain these feelings, may express this via behaviours such as work refusal, hitting out or absconding. One scenario is a student refusing to engage in classroom activities, where it is later identified that the activities were set at a level below the student’s abilities and the student was expressing frustration. Therefore, a critical first step is to ensure that classroom expectations are appropriate to the student’s abilities – a well-prepared ILP may help avoid such scenarios.
Alternatively, a student may exhibit behaviours which are simply an uncontrollable response to their sensory challenges. For example, some people with autism may cover their ears, flap their hands, scream, hum, rock or bang their head. Carly Fleischmann explains this behaviour and what it is like:
“Because if I don’t it feels like my body is going to explode. It’s just like when you shake a can of coke. If I could stop it I would but it is not like turning a switch off, it does not work that way. I know what is right and wrong but it’s like I have a fight with my brain over it.” (Carly Fleischmann, 2009, describing why she bangs her head)
“It’s a way for us to drown out all sensory input that over loads us all at once. We create output to block out input.” (Carly Fleischmann, 2009)
“I want to be able to go to school with normal kids but not have them getting upset or scared if I hit a table or scream. I want to be able to read a book by myself without having to tell myself to sit still. I want something that will put out the fire.” (Carly Fleischmann, 2009)
Positive Behaviour Support is an evidence-based approach to supporting people who use challenging behaviour. Positive Behaviour Support seeks to both improve the quality of life of the person with a disability and to reduce the impact of the person’s challenging behaviour. Positive Behaviour Support is not therefore solely focused on eliminating challenging behaviour. Rather, it seeks to improve quality of life by understanding why a person needs to engage in challenging behaviour, and then addressing that need.
To do this Positive Behaviour Support relies on three related elements:
understanding why the person engages in challenging behaviour (this understanding is developed by conducting a Functional Behaviour Assessment);
finding the environmental causes for challenging behaviour, and then modifying them so that the behaviour is unnecessary;
teaching the person new skills to meet their needs without having to resort to challenging behaviour.
If your student is exhibiting behaviours of concern at school, or you are concerned this is likely to occur:
Make sure the student has, or is currently being supported to access, a functional means to communicate (refer Communication methods section). This is critical as without a functional means to communicate, behaviour may be the student’s only form of expression.
Ensure that classroom expectations in terms of academic level, and opportunities for social interactions, are appropriate for the student’s individual abilities. The students’ behaviour may be a response to feeling overwhelmed, bored, anxious, misunderstood, etc.
If behaviours persist:
Hold a Student Support Group (“SSG”) meeting to discuss possible reasons and strategies to try.
Develop a Positive Behaviour Plan (“PBP”), together with SSG members (student, student’s family, allied health professionals).
All staff working with the student should undertake training in Positive Behaviour Support.
If behaviours of concern continue beyond 4-6 weeks, a Functional Behaviour Assessment (“FBA”) should be undertaken with the assistance of a suitably trained psychologist or a Board Certified Behaviour Analyst (“BCBA”).
Update/amend the PBP based on findings from the FBA.
Regularly review the student and the PBP with involvement of a suitably trained psychologist or BCBA. If behaviours of concern are not reduced or eliminated within 4-6 weeks, other strategies are required.
Positive Behaviour Plans
The goal of a Positive Behaviour Plan (“PBP”) is to develop and implement preventative and/or proactive behaviour interventions to achieve a reduction or elimination of behaviours of concern, in the short- to medium-term (4-6 weeks). Primarily such a plan sets out what other people will do (e.g. teachers/aides) to modify the student’s environment and teach them new skills. In the past, behaviour management often involved compiling a list of unwanted behaviours and the associated consequences or punishments. This approach has proven not to be effective as it did not adequately address the reason for the behaviour.
Positive Behaviour Plans (“PBP”) are also commonly referred to as Behaviour Support Plans (“BSP”). These terms have largely replaced the use of behaviour management plan (“BMP”).
Functional Behaviour Assessments
Positive Behaviour Plans are developed on the basis of information about the reasons for the student’s behaviour, gathered using evidence-based practices relating to data collection and analysis. The method for doing this is termed Functional Behaviour Assessment (“FBA”). FBA can be conducted by:
qualified behaviour analysts
psychologists who have a qualification in behaviour analysis
school or Department staff (e.g. social workers, speech pathologists, teachers) who have received formal FBA training
This is then used to develop the PBP. Supervision, monitoring and review of the plan must occur to ensure it is effective.
For more information on qualifications required, click here.
Where school staff do not have the expertise to address behaviours of concern, professional expertise should be engaged at the earliest opportunity as the more entrenched behaviours become, the more difficult they are to change.
Training for school staff
Relevant school staff may need training in how to support a student – consistency in approaches between different staff is crucial. This training is usually provided by the professional who has undertaken the FBA and prepared the plan.
For more information on professional development and training opportunities in this area, see the following:
Government guidelines prohibit the use of restraint and seclusion (see below for definitions)of a student except as a last resort in an emergency where there is an imminent threat of physical harm or danger to the student or others. In all other situations, Positive Behaviour Plans and positive approaches to behaviour change should be used to reduce and respond to behaviours of concern. Restraint and seclusion should not form part of a behaviour management strategy or support plan for a student. The use of restraint or seclusion needs to be notified to school principals and student’s families, and must trigger a review of the student’s PBP, or implementation of a PBP where there wasn’t one previously.
Restraint and seclusion can cause, and have caused, serious harm to students. Every instance of restraint or seclusion has the potential to place the student and staff member in a harmful situation which can include injury and death. Every instance of restraint or seclusion can undermine the professional relationship between the student and staff member.
Restraint and/or seclusion should not be used if the above steps of engaging advice from relevant expert (e.g. BCBAs or suitably trained psychologists) and implementing evidence-based Positive Behaviour Plans have not yet occurred. Given the research supporting the efficacy of such approaches, restraint and seclusion should not be necessary.
In most states and territories, planned restrictive practices (planned refers to previously discussed, agreed upon and written into an individual plan, by the school in consultation with parents/carers) are still permitted despite widespread strategic goals of reducing or eliminating restrictive practices. The different states/territories provide varying degrees of information regarding what constitutes as restraint or seclusion, what is considered acceptable and what is not, and are not always publicly available on department websites. See blue box below for further information.
In Victoria, guidelines prohibit the use of restraint and seclusion of a student except as a last resort in an emergency where there is an imminent threat of physical harm or danger to the student or others.Prone restraint (holding a student face down) and supine restraint (holding a student face up) are never permitted within Victorian government schools, as per the guidelines. See also:
NSW provide detailed guidelines over the use of “time-out” strategies or rooms, which effectively prohibit seclusion (locked in) however neither these guidelines nor the Student Welfare Policy refer to restrictive practices of restraint. The guidelines do however mention that staff should consider undertaking non-violent crisis intervention training, if working with students who have anxious, hostile or violent behaviours. The 2017 Ombudsman Inquiry into behaviour management in schools brings attention to the need for more rigorous policies, practice and oversight and greater guidance on restraint and seclusion practices.
Australian Capital Territory
Principles for the reduction & elimination of restrictive practices in the ACT was developed by the Education Directorate in 2016 and will provide a guide for policy development. The Safe and Supportive Schools Policy states that schools are minimising restrictive practices and further detailed information regarding the practices of restraint and seclusion is available on the Safe and Supportive Schools Policy Procedures A & B.
The Teacher Registration Board of the Northern Territory have Protective Practices guidelines which outline appropriate boundaries between teaching staff and students and include information on restraint and applying the guidelines to working with students with disabilities. Each school is required to have a Behaviour Plan based upon a code of behaviour and the National Safe Schools Framework, which may have further information.
Western Australia has a Behaviour and Wellbeing Portal with policies and resources for staff regarding behaviour. There are some guidelines on physical contact and restraint here and in addition, each school develops a whole school plan to support positive behaviour support which may provide further information, as per the Student Behaviour Policy.
“physical restraint means the use of physical force to prevent, restrict or subdue movement of a student’s body or part of their body. Students are not free to move away when they are being physically restrained”
3.1 Physical restraint refers to the prolonged use of any part of a person’s body to restrict the free movement of that person.
3.2 Chemical restraint involves the use of medication to control a person’s behaviour when that medication is not prescribed by a registered medical practitioner for treating a formally identified physical or mental illness.
3.3 Mechanical restraint refers to the use of devices such as harnesses or straps to restrict the free movement of an individual or to prevent self-injury, with the exception of an authorised device recommended by a medical practitioner or therapist for therapeutic purposes, or devices required by law to transport a person safely.
3.4 Psychosocial restraint is the use of social or material sanctions, or verbal threat of those sanctions, to attempt to moderate a person’s behaviour. Psychosocial restraint includes practices such as response cost and restricted access. Banks et al. (2007) define response cost as withholding a valued item or activity from the person in response to a specific behaviour. Restricted access refers to the process of using a physical barrier, increasing supervision, or implementing limits or boundaries beyond normally accepted community practices as a means of limiting a person’s access to items, activities, or experiences with the intention of manipulating a particular behaviour or managing risk — for example, locking a cupboard where food is kept.
“Seclusion is the solitary confinement of a student in a room or area (e.g. a garden) from which their exit is prevented by a barrier or another person. When used by a staff member in immediate response to behaviours of concern, seclusion may also include situations where a student is left alone in a room or area and reasonably believes they cannot leave that room or area even if they would physically be able to, i.e. it is not locked.”
3.5 Seclusion involves solitary confinement of a person in a room or area (e.g., garden) from which their exit is prevented by a barrier or another person. Seclusion includes situations in which people believe they cannot or should not leave an area without permission.