What does exclusionary discipline do and why should it only ever be used as a last resort?

In this blog , C4IE’s Director, Professor Linda Graham explains why suspensions and exclusions do not work and why they should only ever be used for serious incidents or as a last resort. In a follow-up paper investigating overrepresentation of Indigenous students in QLD state school suspensions and exclusions, she points to recent policy advances from Australia and the United States to explain what schools can and should do instead.


The assumption by many adults, including school educators, is that the shock of being suspended will cause students to realise that what they have done is wrong. It’s intended to be a grave signal to deter a student from engaging in that behaviour.

This assumption is not baseless. Working out the difference between the number of single versus repeat incidents shows that some students veer off course only once and, from then, manage to colour within the lines.

Not all children and young people are the same, however. And neither are the incidents for which exclusionary discipline is used or the reasons for which those incidents occur.

For whom does suspension not work?

Looking at first versus repeat uses of exclusionary discipline tells us a lot. Repeat incidents are where we find the students for whom suspensions and exclusions do NOT work.

Oftentimes this is because exclusionary discipline is being used inappropriately and against a student who has not yet acquired the skills necessary to comply or who may never be able to comply because the rule itself is discriminatory, when applied to them.

Take, for example, a student with Tourette’s Syndrome. Involuntary verbalisation and movement are hallmarks of the disorder. That’s right. Involuntary. Suspending a student with Tourette’s for, say, yelling out profanities in class is like punishing you or I for breathing.

How about a far more common example? Suspending young children for minor incidents—described using inflammatory and hyperbolic language, in order to build a case around a child to justify an application for funding or segregation—is not only inappropriate but damaging.

Why? Because many young children have not yet developed the self-regulation necessary to think before they act to then choose an acceptable action from a range of possibilities, which is what they must do to avoid stepping outside the lines.

Given that getting in trouble is not a very nice experience, don’t you think these kids would avoid it, if they could?

Who ends up being repeatedly suspended and why?

In 2014, our team commenced a six-year longitudinal study investigating the development of severely disruptive behaviour funded by the Financial Markets Foundation for Children, and later, the Australian Research Council.

We wanted to follow children from their first year of school through to the grade previous research suggested was when some would begin developing the types of behaviours for which suspension and segregation into special “behaviour” schools starts to really kick off: Grade 5.

Seven years ago, I spent a lot of time in prep year classrooms, administering developmental and academic assessments with children, observing classroom interactions, and interviewing teachers.

I was pretty good at predicting which boys teachers would “red-flag” in prep, and which ones would end up developing the types of behaviour we were interested in by Grade 5. I wasn’t so good at detecting the girls, and nor were teachers for that matter.

But that’s because these boys really weren’t hard to spot. They were all developmentally immature with very poor spatial awareness, self-regulation, and oral language competence. And they all spent a great deal of their day in time-out.

Which taught them nothing, unless the aim of the exercise was to make them feel bad about themselves for which this strategy achieved gold stars. Many of them had already been diagnosed with a disability or were diagnosed at some point over the next few years.

The most common of those disabilities was Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), followed by Autism Spectrum Disorder, Speech Language Impairment (or Developmental Language Disorder).

A small number was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, and/or Intellectual Disability (after first being diagnosed with Speech Language Impairment. Hmm…).

We observed these children and watched what they were getting in trouble for. It wasn’t “violence”, although it would often end up described that way on OneSchool. Much of what was construed as violence was, especially in prep, the inadvertent result of poor spatial awareness, poor self-regulation, and lower oral language competence.

Bumping into and knocking over other children in a rush to be first.

Resorting to physical means, such as pushing, to respond to a verbally superior child who was teasing, criticising or dominating an argument.

Playing too roughly, like being heavy-handed in a gap of tip or colliding when playing soccer in the playground.

Accidentally connecting with another child or the teacher/aide during an episode of emotional overwhelm, usually due to an attempt to apply restraint.

Then there were the other behaviours, the ones that get described as “disruptive” and “disengaged”.

Failing to put their hand up before answering a question directed to the whole class.

Failing to stay “on task” and to complete their work.

Failing to follow directions to the letter and missing something buried in a complex multi-part instruction.

Notice how much “failing” is happening here? You and I are not the only ones who notice this. These children notice more than anyone else and their self-concept takes a dive quite early in their school careers, especially if they are also in the bottom group for reading or if they are constantly tailed by an aide.

They begin believing that they are bad, that there is something wrong with them, and that nobody likes them. Many take their cues from that and begin disliking themselves.

This is called internalisation. There’s an interesting relationship between internalising and externalising behaviours. While they are often discussed separately, children with externalising behaviours—described too often during this #DisabilityRC Hearing as “violence”—typically also have internalising behaviours, like anxiety and depression, but these tend not to be identified, empathised with or addressed.

What we see gets much more attention than what they feel, even though what they feel often drives what we see.

What are the effects of exclusionary discipline?

Australia often catches on to things more slowly than the rest of the world. In the case of coronavirus, that’s been a good thing. But when it comes to supporting students with disability and implementing evidence-based practices informed by prevention science, we’ve fiddled while Rome burns.

As a result, increasing numbers of children with disability are being suspended and segregated into activities-based education options where the focus is on welfare and keeping them quiet or out of the way, rather than learning and succeeding. Many end up leaving school early without a basic education, destined for the unemployment line and a life of poverty.

I believe this happens because educators are not aware of the effects of exclusionary discipline and why it should only be used as a last resort. I have to believe that because I cannot believe they’d still advocate for its use, once knowing what it does, especially when better evidence-based alternatives are available.

For that reason, this blog concludes with a “PSA” listing what we know about exclusionary discipline from the last few decades of scholarly research* and why it should only ever be used as a last resort. In Part 2, I will outline what those evidence-based alternatives are and what they have succeeded in achieving in the school systems where they have been implemented with fidelity.

Exclusionary discipline

1.    Does not provide students with the support needed to achieve behavioural change.

Suspension and exclusion, by default, removes children from the teaching environment. Children therefore do not learn replacement behaviours, increasing their risk of being repeatedly suspended or excluded. Replacement behaviours are critical and must be explicitly taught to the point of automaticity, so that a child can call on them during an emotional flood.

2.    Reinforces the behaviours that it is meant to extinguish.

If a child finds school stressful and therefore aversive, sending that child home provides them with relief from that environment, without fixing the environment. Exclusionary discipline can therefore have a paradoxical effect; it teaches stressed children that the behaviour for which they were sent home will get them back there, which can lead to a snowballing of that behaviour over time. The younger the child is, the more effective and indelible the result.

3.    Does not deter misbehaviour or improve safety.

High suspension rates are associated—after controlling for school and community factors—with lower quality school climates and higher teacher attrition. Further, there is evidence that using suspension for minor incidents contributes to desensitisation. Students themselves report becoming inured to exclusionary discipline over time (although their word for it is “meh”) and, if the most severe options are used too soon or too easily, schools have nothing left to deal with an escalation in behaviour.

4.    Increases anti-social behaviour and contributes to behaviour escalation.

Suspensions often precede the development of more serious behaviours, rather than the reverse. Moreover, disrupted access to education can encourage deviant group identification and congregation with ‘birds of a feather’, as well as fuel resentment and distrust by the young person who feels rejected and unsupported by their teachers. This can manifest in disrespectful, disruptive, and destructive behaviours that worsen over time.

5.    Weakens and eventually severs social bonds with peers and teachers.

School connectedness, friendships with prosocial peers and positive teacher-student relationships are protective factors, especially for students with learning and behavioural difficulties. Exclusionary discipline weakens students’ connectedness to school, to their teachers and to their friends. Without a network of friends or supportive teachers to go to, excluded students begin drifting away from school by engaging in truancy, leading to repeat exclusions and early school leaving.

6.    Actively contributes to and/or hastens disengagement with the education system.

Prior research has shown—again controlling for individual factors, such as prior achievement, behaviour and engagement—that exclusionary discipline contributes to negative outcomes over and above other individual factors. Suspension has also been shown to be a strong predictor of special education placement, particularly for students from minority racial groups.

7.    Sends some children back into unsupportive and abusive home environments.

School can be a protective factor for students who have experienced abuse and trauma, and children living in care, however, excluding them from school makes them spend more time in those settings. These environments may also be a strong contributing factor to the behaviours for which the student was suspended, reinforcing rather than ameliorating the problem. This risk is seldom acknowledged by proponents of exclusionary discipline.

8.    Creates and/or exacerbates achievement gaps.

There is evidence from Australian research that students are not provided with schoolwork to complete while on suspension/exclusion but, even when they are, most do not have access to the academic support they need to complete it. This creates or exacerbates gaps in their learning, which can in turn reinforce the behaviours for which these children were suspended, as they may then engage in task avoidance through disengaged and disruptive behaviours, as well as truant classes and/or whole school days.

9.    Places an undue burden on parents, risking further adversity.

When students are suspended, parents must provide supervision and support learning for the duration of the disciplinary response. This can impact parental employment, as well as the stability of the family unit or the stability of care arrangements for a child or young person in care. Families who experience socioeconomic disadvantage and single parents/carers have reported that frequent suspensions results in caregivers having to cease or risk their employment or leave their child at home unsupervised.

10. Disproportionately impacts priority equity groups.

Exclusionary discipline is inappropriate for but disproportionately used on students who are at most risk, dislocating them from prosocial peers and supportive adults, exposing them to significant long-term risks. In Australia, students from disadvantaged backgrounds, students with disability, Indigenous students, and children in care are disproportionately overrepresented in school suspension and exclusion statistics. Most overrepresented are students with a disability. The intersectionality of disadvantage is also evident: Indigenous students with a disability are more likely to be suspended or excluded than Indigenous students without. Similarly, Indigenous students with a disability and living in care are also grossly overrepresented. These are the children who will continue to suffer if the groups opposing discipline reform are successful in hanging on to old, ineffective and damaging practices.

11. Increases the likelihood of contact with the justice system.

Not all parents are able to take time off work to supervise their child while suspended or excluded and not all parents will supervise even if they are not working. The result is that some children and young people subjected to exclusionary discipline are unsupervised and out on the streets where they can come into contact with the law for shoplifting, loitering and drug use. This all too common scenario represents the final stage in the “school to prison pipeline”.


In an open-access paper with Dr Callula Killingly, A/Prof Kristin Laurens and A/Prof Naomi Sweller, I describe best practice models that should inform what we can do instead. These approaches are also described in the Final Report of the 2020 Inquiry into Suspension, Exclusion and Expulsion processes in South Australian schools.

It is not that we don’t know what to do. We do.

But educators need support from system leadership to put the necessary structures in place. The SA Inquiry Report provides more than 20 recommendations which will be instructive reading for  all systems.

*Citations are provided in my Expert Witness Statement to the Disability Royal Commission, which will become available on the DRC website, Public hearing 7: Barriers to accessing a safe, quality and inclusive school education and life course impacts.

Linda Graham - The Centre for Inclusive Education

Linda J. Graham is Professor and Director of The Centre for Inclusive Education at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Her research focuses on the role of education policy and schooling practices in the development of disruptive student behaviour and the improvement of responses to children who some teachers find difficult to teach.

Linda has appeared in numerous print, radio and television media and is a strong advocate that inclusive education is a foundational platform for broader social inclusion and the development of an inclusive democracy.

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