‘Naughty’ classes are wrong: here’s what the research says

By Linda Graham

A primary school in Victoria made the news recently when it created a separate “naughty-naughty” class for children experiencing learning and behavioural difficulties. It is not the first school to have done this and it is unlikely to be the last.

Separate special educational settings are administratively attractive because resources can be consolidated and the effects of disruption can be contained. Schools sell the idea to themselves and others by claiming a smaller class will mean more individualised attention for difficult students and that this will lead to better outcomes.

If this were true, then there would be a wealth of research to support such decisions, right?

What the research says

International research evidence shows that concentrating children with learning and behavioural difficulties into separate settings leads to poorer outcomes because these children are segregated from prosocial peers from whom they can learn.

In separate classes and special schools, students with learning and behavioural difficulties learn negative attitudes and antisocial behaviours from each other. This is particularly the case when younger children are placed with older children, as the news story suggests is occurring in this Victorian primary school.

Research also indicates that the quality of learning in such settings tends to be low and that intellectual demand is almost non-existent. This can lead to an increase in achievement gaps over time.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I have observed students playing computer games and watching Disney videos in “support” classes. So if we’re talking about better outcomes, the question becomes: for who? The excluded students or the students and teachers they are separated from?

Not surprisingly, research from New South Wales, where are there are many such settings, has found that students tend not to return to mainstream. Indeed, there is evidence that suggests segregation contributes to further decline with students in support classes graduating to special schools, students spending years in segregation bouncing from setting to setting, and even evidence suggesting that some students are graduating to juvenile detention.

Consider what it must be like to attend a school that has a total enrolment of 14 students? A school in which the youngest student might be 9 (or even 5, for the few K-12 behaviour schools) and the oldest 17? A school in which you have been placed because there are no places in a special school for students with autism and where all the other students have been diagnosed with Oppositional Defiance or Conduct Disorder?

Imagine what it feels like to be told that you can’t return to mainstream until you ‘prove yourself’ by not reacting to those other students, each of whom finds it amusing to press your buttons until you explode?

Whilst the same study in NSW found that a slight majority of students preferred these settings, the majority also wanted to return to mainstream. The reasons behind these contradictory preferences were complex.

Those who preferred the special schools did so mainly because of more supportive teacher-student relationships, but also because they:

  • got to go home at 1.30pm,
  • did activities like wind-surfing and woodwork,
  • were not being pushed academically, and
  • had a games room with a Wii.

Those who wanted to return to mainstream (and some were in both camps) did so because they missed their friends or wanted to have the potential to make friends with same-age or “normal” peers. A smaller number wanted to return to mainstream because they were concerned by the quality of teaching and learning, and some wanted to experience the same rites of passage (Year 12, going to formal, etc) as other students.

This is what one could learn from just a brief search of recent research literature. But why should we bother checking the research evidence when we can make important educational decisions based on what we see on a TV show.

The low standard of evidence being used

That is apparently the standard of evidence now required, if the comments made by a Victorian Education Department spokesperson who enthused about the Darrabi program seen on the four-part ABC series, Revolution School, are anything to go by.

So how good is that evidence and what does this particular TV show tell us? The short answer is: Not good and not much.

The Victorian secondary school that featured in the ABC’s Revolution School developed a separate support class called the Darrabi Pathways Program. All the students were boys.

Rather than question how these students came to be “Darrabi Boys” or what the research says about concentrating students with high support needs into segregated units, the TV show focused on the achievement of one boy, Michael, who is elected sub-school captain.

It’s a story that ends well (for Michael) but we hear far less about the other Darrabi students and the question remains as to whether those students did reintegrate to mainstream, how they fared if they did, or whether they will be managed out of the school to follow an “alternative” pathway.

Revolution School was a TV show. So, rather than a rigorous comparison of student outcomes to test the effectiveness of segregation against an inclusive model, we get a hallmark card feel-good presentation that doesn’t ask the questions it should and therefore doesn’t tell us all that we need to know to make an informed judgment of the Darrabi program.

Is this the standard of evidence that schools (and especially Departments of Education) should be drawing on to make decisions that will affect the current and future lives of the young people in their care?

Hopefully we can all agree that the answer to that is a resounding “No!”

What schools should be doing

So what should schools do before they develop what the Department spokesperson called ‘innovative approaches to keep students engaged in their education’?

For starters they should consult the research evidence, of which there is plenty. And hopefully they will ignore word-of-mouth eduspeak mythology, where it is believed something works because someone said it worked for them, or because someone saw something they liked on a TV show.

For that to happen on a regular basis, we need to support everyone involved in education to become research literate, from initial teacher education and beyond. We also need to provide educators with access to education research databases, and our governments should better fund education research.

Educators, especially those in Education Departments, should be encouraged to consult the research evidence and weigh it objectively before making decisions that can have lifelong implications for others.

This is where the entire field of education must lift its game. It wouldn’t be acceptable to work off hunches in any other field and it isn’t okay in education either.


(Here is the news story that got my hackles up.)


Linda GrahamLinda Graham is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education, Queensland University of Technology (QUT). She is the Lead Chief Investigator of two longitudinal research projects focusing on disruptive behaviour. One examines the experiences of students enrolled in NSW government “behaviour” schools (Australian Research Council DP110103093), and another is tracking the language, learning, experiences, relationships, attitudes and behaviour of 250 QLD prep children through the early years of school (Financial Markets Foundation for Children FMF4C-2013). In 2014, she was elected Editor of the Australian Educational Researcher (AER) and serves as a member of the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) Executive Committee.


13 thoughts on “‘Naughty’ classes are wrong: here’s what the research says

  1. Emily O'Connell says:

    Where are the answers to the question posed – ‘so if we’re talking about better outcomes, the question becomes: for who? The excluded students or the students and teachers they are separated from?’ Quality research can’t ignore the outcomes for students in classes with highly disruptive students as well as teacher wellbeing outcomes. If we are to consider this issue in all its complexity everyone’s needs must be considered.

  2. Linda Graham says:

    Schools exacerbate the impacts on other students AND on teachers by streaming students with additional support needs. There are all sorts of reasons this is done but one particular reason stood out in my research with principals. They tend to choose the “kindest” most inclusive teacher – the one who will agree to having kids with ‘special needs’. They say they do this to protect the kids from impatient, ineffective, or unsupportive teachers but the inclusive teacher burns out in the process. It is much easier to handle one child with high support needs than it is five or more. Teaching kids with disability and/or learning and behavioural difficulties is everyone’s responsibility but it doesn’t always work out like that, does it…?

  3. Interesting research Linda Graham, as you know we mainstreamed our boy from kindy to year 7. He had been to early intervention, he is now in a MC class at his HighSchool that he and all his sisters had and have attended. His friend isn’t in the class but he likes the kids in the class, he is only in there for English, maths, science and some support for other subjects if required- there are only five kids so noise isn’t an issue, and he isn’t aware of the behavioural issues of the other students (three lockdowns this year due to classmate) his sister in year 10 is much more aware of it- she rings me, I ring the school, Ben isn’t aware at all- or just says – oh —- had a meltdown, the kids in playground were stressing him. He still can’t spell his name or tell you his address but he is happier to go to school with the fantastic teacher, and he has been allowed to do a sport he loves- Thursday is his best attendance day- so while it isn’t for everyone and I appreciate the research it is working better for our boy than mainstream did for eight years

  4. Linda Graham says:

    Thanks for the comment Rachael. I guess this is where a discussion about ‘mainstream’ and inclusive schools comes in…

    Obviously there wasn’t the space to do that in this AARE blog post but I’m not advocating for an unreconstructed “mainstream” which doesn’t currently serve kids with disability well.

    I wrote about that here: https://drlindagraham.wordpress.com/2016/05/16/on-inclusion/

    And the type of class that I’m most concerned about is not the specialist ED/autism class. Rather the informal type that schools develop themselves by grouping random pockets of support funding…

    I described one such class here: https://theconversation.com/the-way-schools-cope-with-learning-difficulties-is-doing-more-harm-than-good-36544

    My son is in one such class. Total disaster.

  5. Linda, I read avidly your articles, always, but thought this was one to comment on, maybe as I still feel a bit that I have let him down putting him in the class, one of his teachers last year ran and questioned me about it, like it might just be a whim, and that he would learn bad behaviour in the class as several other kids in class have odd, and are violent. So you are probably just getting my mum guilt. I wanted him to just be that narrow focused boy at uni, I still hold that goal for him. But this has worked for him, I would advocate that it isn’t a choice that suits all students but works best for him. His teacher says he participates, and can talk for three hours on ancient roman soldiers, so the class helps him as they look at what he can do.

  6. Irene Buckler says:

    I am not sure how to respond to this except to say that while there is no doubt about the poor outcomes for students in these classes, dealing with very “difficult” students in mainstream classes without the proper support or resources is too often the only alternative. It is simply not enough to advise that the solution is for teachers to find better, more effective ways to engage their students. Sadly – and for obvious reasons- the challenges referred to in the article are most obvious in schools serving disadvantaged communities, the schools with the least resources. As always, its very easy to criticise without offering REAL solutions. Those of us who have been advocating for adequate resourcing to meet needs (for many years) wonder when, if ever, such riches will ever be delivered. For too long (and as long as I can remember), it has been to easy to dump ‘difficult” students in mainstream classes WITHOUT necessary support or resources. In the meantime, Linda, your suggestion that teachers make their lessons more engaging is really just a slap in the faces of hard working teachers.. As always, it infers that if they did their jobs better (or were higher ‘quality’) then all would be hunky dory. Really.

  7. Linda Graham says:

    Apologies Irene, I didn’t receive any further notifications that comments had been made; hence my lack of response. If I’d seen your comment earlier, my response would have been “Where did I say in the post that all would be hunky dory if teachers were higher quality, or did their jobs better (by making their lessons more engaging)?”

  8. Irene Buckler says:

    Hi Linda,

    Thanks for your reply. I guess what I am saying is that it is not much use recommending teachers consult the latest educational research when making classroom or behaviour management decisions. I believe teachers are already well-informed – and constantly under (unrealistic) pressure to keep improving the ‘quality’ of their lessons to meet the individual needs of all students and keep them engaged in productive learning. However, as we all know, being well-read, differentiating and producing IEPs or PEPs (where necessary) and having effective classroom management skills does not magically turn ‘difficult’ students around, especially when the classroom cohort has a significant number of ‘difficult’ students. What I am saying is that teachers understand that ‘naughty’ classes are NOT ideal, but this is not an IDEAL school system. So long as schools and teachers remain under-resourced, they will, of necessity,rely on practical solutions that are not ideal. I am reminded of a notorious case in a Canberra school where an autistic student was placed in a time-out area, which was enclosed in pool fencing at the back of the classroom (so he could be in full view of supervising teacher). The case caused outrage. I wonder how many of those who were/are outraged have ever taught autistic children. I can recall a little autistic boy integrated into a mainstream kindergarten class suddenly trying stab another child.with scissors during a craft lesson. He was a lovely little boy, but very unpredictable. Luckily he had an aide with him during that session and she managed the situation very effectively. I retired five years ago, but I’ll bet my bottom dollar that while we in NSW have the Every Student, Every Class, there are far fewer teacher aides in our classrooms and for less hours than there were, say, ten years ago. Sorry for the rant, Linda, 🙂

  9. Linda Graham pleased to contribute and that is only our experience, which might have been different if we lived in a different area, or if I hadn’t had a brain tumour as he started school, so I can only comment on what has worked for us, but mixed mode seems to be meeting his needs best, and yes they do have a PlayStation but so do lots of homes, and you have to work for it, and if you throw a chair you have to do push ups as you must have too much energy, and his teacher texted me while I was presenting at your conference to let me know how he was going while I was away. His teacher has a sibling with ASD so he says he thinks what would his mum want for that child, and uses that to direct his practice. And Ben is no more isolated in the class- he still has never ever been to a birthday party, from preschool on, my issue not his. I was sure mainstream was the best option until he continued to “fail” socially and academically at school making him an angry boy, who required counselling- which is less now. He will never be able to get an HSC given the band 8 requirements- unless he does life skills, I checked with the minister, but he is at least happier now. And that he hasn’t the literacy skills to read the telegraph isn’t all bad- sorry Maralyn Parker!

  10. peter o'brien says:

    Thanks for the article. I am a high school teacher in country Victoria (low socio economic area) and believe in what you have written. It sounds great in theory but in the today’s classroom????? I have classes of 26 year 8 students from all walks of life, learning needs, interests, behaviours etc etc etc. It can at times be absolute mayhem. Teachers are blamed for not engaging all students – it must be your classroom management or your lesson plans (boring curriculum), you haven’t differentiated your curriculum, you are not meeting individual learning needs etc. Now multiply that by 5 to 7 classrooms. Yes, streaming is used at times and teachers crawl over themselves to get the “good” class. Yes, it’s wrong but given the constant attack on public education, the incessant need to raise scores, the lack of resources and training, it’s no wonder it is used. It’s survival. This is sorry state we find ourselves in and it’s getting worse!!!! Schools are judged on “Naplan” results and as a result stream out students who might bring those results down. Teachers are leaving due to stress and “burn out” – the very ones we need to keep!!!!

  11. Hi Peter,
    As an advocate I hear this time and time again. I attend SSG and ILP meetings with families and I see the anguish on teachers faces. They are defeated. Not so much by the parents but by the Region they are under in the DET. The region are the ones who dictate who gets the support and who doesn’t. The region are the ones who instruct teachers to forward letters by advocates such as myself straight to their legal department thus creating more stress on the schools. This is unfair and this and this alone is one of the reasons we are seeing a departure of teachers. I wonder how different things would be for them and you if there was funding for ongoing support and teacher training, engaging with Mansfield and Autistic and Disability organizations to assist with children and the writing of plans, and offering peer support by trained staff that have lived experience of the difficulties some of these children face.
    In a perfect world we would have an Education Department who actually supported their teachers as opposed to hanging them out to dry when the going gets tough.
    Please do not feel advocates are the bad guys. I, myself am trying to change the way our education system looks at Autistic children and behaviours of concern. We are holding the regions accountable. Because, yes there are some teachers that should never be able to teach children let alone disabled children and they are held accountable as well, but there are some truly outstanding teachers who go above and beyond for their students. Sadly they are under supported and under funded by their regional departments and we are losing a lot of great educators to burnout and stress because of it. Will they (the regional departments) ever learn?
    Probably not.
    But I am hopeful.

  12. Linda Graham says:

    I agree with everything you have said Peter and have written/talked about those issues elsewhere. The problem is that two wrongs don’t make a right. If we want to improve the education system we have to use evidence (and there is reams of it to show that streaming leads to poorer outcomes) and we have to put pressure on governments to use evidence in their policy decision-making. Incidentally, that evidence needs to include the impact of their decisions on teacher wellbeing and effectiveness. We can’t accept or comply with some of those decisions as fait accompli (e.g,. school markets, NAPLAN & My School) and then not comply with others policies etc (e.g., Disability Discrimination Act and Standards for Education). That is currently happening in Education which, when you think about it, is just messed up, isn’t it?

  13. peter o'brien says:

    We are about to implement the “Hands on Learning” (HOL) program into our school. It is basically taking 14 yr 8/9 students out of mainstream into an alternative setting 2-3 days a week within the school. The remaining days would be “normal” main stream schooling. These kids have been identified as “disengaged” due to “wagging” or “behavioural” issues in class.
    I’d be interested in your comments.

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