Disrupting Schools

The Institutional Conditions of Disordered Behaviour

by Rod Kippax (Author)
©2019 Textbook XIV, 218 Pages
Series: Disability Studies in Education, Volume 23


Disrupting Schools: The Institutional Conditions of Disordered Behaviour represents an applied sociological address to the intractable patterns of educational exclusion of students diagnosed with "emotional and behavioural disorders." Starting with the finding that these students commonly share educational trajectories signposted by critical incidents and alienation, this book seeks a scientific solution to this problem via a more reflexive way of understanding these students’ practices in situ—in order to avoid critical incidents and foster inclusion. Pursuing this logic, Disrupting Schools uses Bourdieu’s theorising of practice and Sacks’ Membership Categorisation Analysis and Conversation Analysis to prise open the epistemological dynamics of exclusion by forensically dissecting an incident of classroom violence leading to exclusion. This produces the discovery that institutional conditions operating within teacher-student interactions ensure, via psychologically informed knowledge construction practices, the non-conscious substitution of reflexive understanding for a symbolic violence that underwrites both critical incidents and exclusion. The discovery unlocks the possibility of systemic inclusion based on a consciously controlled reflexive understanding suggested by these findings.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • Advance Praise for Disrupting Schools
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Chapter One: The Importance of Understanding
  • Patterns of Educational and Social Exclusion: Similar Outcomes
  • Patterns of Educational and Social Exclusion: Similar Trajectories
  • A Different Way of Thinking
  • Reaching Towards ‘A Better Understanding’
  • What Advantages Are There in This Approach?
  • What Follows
  • Summing Up
  • Chapter Two: A Practical Approach for Practical Understanding
  • Act One: The Break
  • Act Two: The Construction
  • Context Thinking Tools: ‘Habitus’
  • Context Thinking Tools: The ‘Field’
  • Positions and Position Taking
  • ‘Misrecognition’ and ‘Symbolic Violence’
  • The Constructed Object
  • Act Three: An Interrogation of Methods
  • Suitability of a Critical Case Study Approach for Theoretical Generalisability
  • Suitability of MCA and CA for Apprehending Disposition and Position
  • Objectifying Effects of the Methods
  • What Do the Methods Do to the Object?
  • Summing Up
  • Chapter Three: Aaron’s Dispositions
  • Aaron’s Categorisation Talk of ‘Getting Into Trouble’
  • The ‘School Relationships’ MCD
  • ‘Smartarses’, ‘Teachers’ and ‘Get Fucked Do It Yourself’
  • ‘Smartarses’, ‘Teachers’ and ‘Taking and Giving Abuse’
  • ‘Smartarses’, ‘Good People’ and ‘Don’t Care What Happens’
  • Summing Up the School Relationships MCD
  • ‘Friends’/‘Cunts’ MCD and Autonomy, Trust and Power
  • ‘Friends’, ‘Cunts’ and Autonomy as Bodily Autonomy
  • ‘Friends’, ‘Cunts’ and the Physical Performance of Bodily Autonomy
  • ‘Friends’ and ‘Knowing People’
  • ‘Friends’ and the Competent Performance of ‘Smartarse’
  • Summing Up the ‘Friends’/‘Cunts’ MCD
  • The ‘Streetsmart’/‘Schoolsmart’ MCD: When Isn’t a Classroom?
  • Summing Up
  • Chapter Four: ‘Blowing Up’
  • Setting the Scene
  • The First Movement
  • Moral Requirements of the Classroom: ‘Right I’m Moving You All’
  • Fault Line 1: Bodily Authority and Bodily Autonomy
  • Fault Line 2: Weak and Strong Orientation to Institutional Setting-Tied Activities
  • Fault Line 3: Individualism and the Collective
  • Fault Line 4: Overt and Covert Social Expression
  • Attaching Aaron’s Moral Requirements: ‘Slackin’ Off’
  • The Second Movement
  • Moral Requirements of the Classroom: ‘Sit Down and Do Work’
  • Attaching Aaron’s Moral Requirements: ‘I Wouldn’t Sit on My Fuckin Seat’
  • The Third Movement
  • The Moral Requirements of the Classroom: ‘Settle Down, Calm Down’
  • Attaching Aaron’s Moral Requirements: ‘Schizing Out’
  • Summing Up
  • Chapter Five: The Triumph of Misrecognition
  • When Worlds Collide: Blowing Up as Symbolic Struggle
  • Relationships of Symbolic Violence
  • Relationships of Misrecognition
  • The Triumph of Misrecognition
  • Teacher Competency and What Counts as Understanding
  • Teacher Competency, Power Relations and Tacit Self-Interest
  • Overlapping Fields and Epistemological ‘Doxa-cology’
  • Relationships of Exclusion
  • Summing Up
  • Chapter Six: The Possibility of a Better Understanding
  • Towards a Better Understanding
  • Journey’s End
  • Appendix A: Index to Transcript Notation
  • Series index

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Firstly, I wish to thank the young person and their teacher who, with great generosity of spirit over many hours, offered their stories, their insights and their knowledge. I owe very deep thanks to Prof. Scot Danforth, an editor of this series, who first saw the potential of a book and whose unmatched patience, sense of humour, experience, encouragement and intelligent editing made the book possible. Thank you Scot! I also owe an enormous intellectual debt to Assoc. Prof. Barbara Adkins and Prof. Mark Brough who were my mentors in the long years of research and introduced me to the pyrrhic joys of Bourdieu and Foucault. Thanks too need to go to my closest friend Tony Davis who listened endlessly and critiqued thoughtfully through every twist and turn. In addition, acknowledgements for patience, extraordinary technical support and flexibility need to go to the folks at Peter Lang who supported the book’s oft-interrupted journey from beginning to end. I would also like to acknowledge the support of the NSW Department of Family and Community Services (FACS).1 FACS financially supported the completion of the research through study leave and a grant supporting an extended period of absence. In this regard I would like to particularly thank Susan Priivald and Denis Myers for their faith in the value of the research. No small mention needs to go to my children, Jeremy, Laura and Charlotte, who had to put up with my pursuing this project for most, if not all, of their lives, but nevertheless who unceasingly believed in me. Finally, I am profoundly grateful to Deborah Murray-Kippax who ← xi | xii → has been a precious and unmatchable source of support, encouragement and ideas and who has been my steadfast ‘carer’ throughout the long years of my obsessed madness with this idea.


1. The research that this book draws on was undertaken with assistance from the NSW Department of Family and Community Services. However, the information and views contained in this study do not necessarily, or at all, reflect the views or information held by the NSW Government, the Minister for Family and Community Services, or the Department.

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The Importance of Understanding

A twelve-year-old young man, diagnosed with ‘Comorbid Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Serious Conduct Disorder (CD)’, let us call him Aaron, was attending an Australian specialist education setting for students with ‘emotional/behavioural disorders (EBD)’. He had been referred to the specialist setting following a lengthy history of truancy and disciplinary exclusion with the well-intentioned aim of reintegrating him back into mainstream schooling. This aim was underpinned by a compassionate, evidence-informed and trauma-based understanding of the relationship between abusive family histories and ‘disordered’ behaviours. The specialist setting was well resourced including a staff ratio of one staff person to four students. The staff were highly trained in behaviour management and key personnel had many years of experience working with children and young people diagnosed with ‘EBD’. Nevertheless late on a Friday afternoon a violent incident occurred, associated with the ‘EBD’, which resulted in Aaron’s permanent school exclusion. Some of the intensity of this episode is captured in Aaron’s own account:

His teacher reported that Aaron had spit frothing from his mouth and that Aaron’s anger was so intense that it required three male teachers to restrain him while he continued to try to smash his head up against the wall. When asked if he was calm, so that they could let him up, Aaron continually replied: ‘Yeah, I’m calm, yeah, let me up I’m calm, I’m gonna kill you.’ The police were called and after being threatened with capsicum spray Aaron was released and he left the school grounds. He was formally expelled. He has not returned to any formal education from that day to this.

To the educational practitioner these kinds of episodes can present as highly unpredictable and unavoidable eruptions of psychological instability—what Aaron’s teacher referred to as a ‘blowing up’ that occurs despite best practice, compassionate understanding, the flexibilities of specialist settings and, above all else, despite all good intentions. Nevertheless, this is precisely the paradoxical challenge that practitioners face each and every day—how to avoid these kinds of seemingly unavoidable incidents. This is for good reason because when these crises occur everybody suffers. Practitioners suffer the unwanted and highly distressing outcomes of teacher–student relationship breakdown and student exclusion despite often lifetime vocational commitments to inclusion. They get to go home and worry about why that happened and what they could have done differently and how can they stop that from happening again. Young people suffer because archetypically these critical incidents lead to permanent educational exclusion and lifelong patterns of social exclusion. Therefore, finding an answer to this challenge is a pressing social issue both in terms of helping to make the above kinds of crises more avoidable and also in terms of interrupting endemic pathways to educational exclusion and then lifelong social exclusion. This book will show that not only is there a better way of understanding these incidents that makes them more avoidable and as a consequence makes the broader patterns of exclusion more avoidable, ← 2 | 3 → but that current psychologically informed ‘best practice’ ways of understanding the behaviours of these young people can paradoxically, despite all good intentions, help produce these kinds of incidents in the first place.

Before this journey can begin it would seem wise to present a convincing case that the fastidious task of conceptualising a better understanding beyond current theorising is worth the effort. In other words, that the problem isn’t being exaggerated and we’re not off on some wild goose chase. To do that we will canvass the evidence showing that Aaron’s story is a member of a much larger family of similar stories, where critical incidents, disciplinary exclusion, dropping out and educational exclusion converge in a way that describes the essence of the problem of exclusion for this group of young people. We will then look at how we can conceptualise a better practical understanding, how the current analysis approaches the task of building that conceptualisation, why this particular analytical approach offers unique insights and therefore why it’s all worth the effort.

Patterns of Educational and Social Exclusion: Similar Outcomes

There are many things that are troubling about Aaron’s story. But perhaps the most troubling is the way that this particular collapse in the teacher–student relationship, and this particular crisis resulting in school exclusion, is reminiscent of so many other similar collapses, crises and cases of school exclusion for this group of young people. Worse still, it reminds us that these endlessly repeated stories of suspension, expulsion and early school leaving occur despite all the flexibilities afforded by specialist education settings specifically designed to foster inclusive schooling. Collectively these stories add up to an endemic pattern of educational exclusion for a substantial group of young people diagnosed with ‘EBD’ that continues to frustrate all efforts to systemically interrupt this pattern.

The US and Australian research has been quiet clear on this point. In the United States, the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2012 (NLTS-2012) data showed that 65% of students with ‘emotional disorders’ had been suspended and 19% had been expelled (Lipscombe, Haimson, Liu, Burghardt, Johnson, & Thurlow, 2017b, pp. 63–64). This is almost three times the rate of suspension/expulsion for other disabilities and more than four times for suspension and more than six times for expulsion to that of the general population (Lipscombe, Haimson, Liu, Burghardt, Johnson, & Thurlow, 2017a, pp. 44–45). In addition there is no sign of this rate of disciplinary exclusion slowing down in the decade between 2003 and 2012 despite any possible change in good practice (Liu et al., 2017, p. 42). On the contrary, a number of researchers argue that the rate ← 3 | 4 → of disciplinary exclusion for students diagnosed with ‘serious emotional disability (SED)’ is increasing rather than decreasing (Achilles, McLaughlin, & Croninger, 2007, p. 33; Bowman-Perrott et al., 2011, p. 1). Meanwhile, the yearly dropout rate for 14- to 21-year-old ‘SED’ students in specialist education settings has remained between 35% and 40% from 2005/06 to 2014/15 (U.S. Department of Education, 2018, p. 68).

The Australian evidence, while more indirect, is just as compelling. While there is no large-scale NLTS-2012 Australian equivalent, there are studies of specific populations that are equally relevant because of the high prevalence of ‘EBD’ diagnoses within these populations. This includes young people in juvenile justice and young people in out-of-home care (OoHC). For the first group, the 20032006 Survey of NSW Young People on Community Orders (young people who have received a non-custodial juvenile justice sentence) reveals that 40% of this group had severe symptoms consistent with a clinical disorder. Of this 40%, an extraordinary 89% had a history of school suspension, while an overwhelming 86% had left school prior to Year 10 (Kenny et al., 2006, pp. 22–30). Similarly, the 2009 NSW Young People in Custody Health Survey showed that while 86.7% were assessed with a ‘psychological disorder’ only 37.9% had been attending school prior to custody, while the mean age for leaving school was 14.4 years (Indig et al., 2011, pp. 16 and 144–145).

The OoHC group is similarly distinguished by a high prevalence of ‘psychiatric disorders’, with estimates from audits and sample surveys ranging from 15% to 57% of the population (De Lemos in CREATE Foundation, 2006, p. 12; Department of Human Services, Victoria [DHS], 2001, p. 28; Osborn & Delfabbro, 2005; Tarren-Sweeney & Hazell, 2006, p. 91). It is therefore equally concerning that the CREATE Foundation’s 2005 Report Card on Education reported that 13.4% of students in OoHC had experienced permanent expulsion and 49.2% had experienced suspension in the course of their school history (p. 25). Nor has the situation seemed to have improved since 2005. For example, in research conducted from 2005 to 2010 Townsend reported that 57% of the sample of OoHC sample had been suspended from one to thirteen times (2011, p. 519).

In terms of early school leaving, the prognosis for children and young people in OoHC seems just as bleak. The CREATE Foundation 2006 Report Card on Educational Services throughout Australia revealed a non-retention rate of 55.6% for post-compulsory 17-year-olds (p. 27). In other words, almost a half drops out of school. Given that other Australian evidence has persistently drawn strong links between students with ‘mental health’ issues and early school leaving (Australian Social Inclusion Board, 2011, p. 5; Batten & Russell, 1995; Brooks, Milne, Paterson, Johannsson, & Hart, 1997, pp. 13–16; House of Representatives ← 4 | 5 → Standing Committee on Employment, Education & Training (HRSCEET), 1996, pp. 26–30; Lamb, Walstab, Teese, Vickers, & Rumberger, 2004, p. 18), it is extremely likely that a large percentage of these young people in OOHC who leave school early have been diagnosed with an ‘EBD’.

The evidence is also clear that above patterns of school exclusion via permanent expulsion and early school leaving continue despite special education intervention specifically aimed at inclusion. Thus the US longitudinal NLTS-2012 studies and IDEA congressional reports are large investigations of students already receiving special education services under IDEA. Identical problems frustrate the best efforts of Australian specialist education. For example, the health study of NSW young people on Community Orders 2003–2006 showed that while 36% received special education intervention at some time during their school history, nevertheless 86% had left school prior to Year 10 and 89% had a history of school suspension (Kenny et al., 2006, pp. 22–30). A national comparative study of 300 ‘high-needs’ children and young people in care in four different Australian States by Osborn and Delfabbro (2005, 2006) is of particular interest in this regard. This group can be understood as providing a case study of outcomes for specialist attention given that: (a) 67.7% of this group is considered to have ‘CD’ and 27.6% a ‘mental illness’; (b) 72% received psychological services; (c) 49.6% received ‘behaviour management services’; (d) 41.4% had individually tailored curricula; (e) 24.7% had a general education support worker at location; and (f) 28.0% received a range of other services such as special day programmes or specially designed educational interventions (2006, p. 63). Yet despite all of this attention, 42.9% of these students had been suspended or excluded in only six months (Osborn & Delfabbro, 2005, p. 12).

This amounts to a fairly bleak picture for a significant cohort of young people diagnosed with ‘EBD’ who, despite continued efforts, face a deeply entrenched pattern of educational exclusion via school expulsion or early school leaving. Nevertheless this undesirable reality confirms that the struggle to improve inclusive practice is a struggle worth having. We are arguably therefore some of the way in justifying the effort of conceptualising a better understanding. We’ve established that exclusion is a significant problem. Now we need to establish that a better understanding of the behaviours of these young people holds the keys to unlocking that problem. To do this we will need to first turn to the evidence that suggests that this cohort of ‘emotionally disturbed’ young people by and large share similar school trajectories to Aaron above. That is, they share a trajectory sequentially signposted by disruptive behaviour, conflict, disciplinary exclusion, alienation and then dropping out. If this is the case, then anything that creatively and systematically interrupts this sequence is likely to also creatively and systematically interrupt the pattern of exclusion. ← 5 | 6 →

Patterns of Educational and Social Exclusion: Similar Trajectories

The first point to make is that ‘EBD’ warranting special education is basically a synonym for seriously aggressive and non-compliant behaviour. This makes sense given the practical equations of schools where ‘EBD’ equals ‘troubled’ behaviour, which equals troublesome behaviour, that is, behaviour that the school finds most ‘troublesome’. And as the NSWTF (2002, pp. 66–67) and Kauffman (2005, p. 34) have noted, ‘troublesome’ behaviour primarily refers to externalising, ‘acting out’ behaviour such as anti-social, aggressive, non-compliant, disruptive and violent behaviour rather than say more passive ‘acting inwards’ ‘internalising’ behaviours. A point that is further reinforced by research demonstrating that ‘internalising’ are far less identified in schools (Gage, Josephs, & Lunde, 2012; Urbis, 2011, p. 23; Weist, Ruben, Moore, Adelsheim, & Wrobel, 2007, p. 55) and therefore less prevalent in statistics for ‘EBD’ or in special education interventions. Accordingly, it is not surprising that Laws, in an Australian case study of a special education facility for ‘emotionally disturbed’ students, would report that almost 100% of the young people attending that facility have either ‘CD’ or Oppositional Defiance Disorder (2001, p. 52). Nor is it surprising that Kauffman concludes that ‘CD’ is one of the most common forms of ‘exasperating deportment and psychopathology that brings students into special education’ (2005, p. 289).

It therefore logically follows that the pattern of disciplinary exclusion and early school leaving identified above is closely associated with non-compliant and aggressive behaviours, rather than ‘mental health problems’ per se, given that the ‘emotionally disordered’ population in schools as a whole is largely comprised of young people diagnosed with externalising disorders. This association between aggression and non-compliance, disciplinary exclusion and early school leaving can be pinpointed even more precisely by four other pieces of evidence. First, disciplinary exclusion does not amount to a one-off experience for ‘emotionally disordered’ students. Rather, as Bowman-Perrott et al. (2011) showed, using the Special Education Elementary Longitudinal (SEELS) data, students with ‘emotional disorders’ were most likely to be excluded and be excluded multiple times (p. 1). This means that the school experience of this group is littered with histories of conflict and disciplinary exclusion that terminate with educational exclusion. Second, as Murray and Greenburg (2006, p. 229) have demonstrated, it is the accumulation of negative experiences and relationships that seems to have the greatest impact on exclusion and alienation. Third, as Breslau, Miller, Chung, and Schweitzer (2011, p. 299) discovered, the relationship between early school leaving and ‘psychiatric disorder’ is attributable to externalising rather than internalising ← 6 | 7 → disorders once comorbidity is controlled. So it is seemingly not the case that dropping out is largely a matter concerning young people with ‘acting in’ internalising disorders. This is a pattern confirmed by a number of other researchers showing a strong relationship between dropping out and disciplinary exclusion where disciplinary exclusion pre-empts early school leaving (Bowman-Perrott et al., 2011, p. 1; Bradley & Renzulli, 2011, p. 538; Daly, 2013, p. 4). Fourth and lastly, there is some evidence that disruptive behaviour in mainstream schooling is what triggers an initial diagnosis and this then provides the grounds for a staged removal to an alternative or specialist educational setting (Danforth & Navarro, 2001, p. 178; NSWTF, 2002, p. 66) where the same disruptive behaviours lead to the same patterns of disciplinary exclusion, increasing segregation, school alienation and ultimately educational exclusion.


XIV, 218
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (March)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. XIV, 218 pp., 3 b/w ill., 3 tables

Biographical notes

Rod Kippax (Author)

Rod Kippax has been a human services research practitioner for over 30 years, specialising in young people diagnosed with "emotional and behavioural disorders." He completed a social science doctorate at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). He currently runs a consultancy and is a QUT sessional social work lecturer.


Title: Disrupting Schools
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