The psychology of containment: (mis) representing emotional and behavioural difficulties in Australian schools

Penny Van Bergen*, Linda J. Graham, Naomi Sweller, Helen F. Dodd

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    6 Citations (Scopus)


    The number of students in special schools has increased at a rapid rate in some Australian states, due in part to increased enrolment under the categories of emotional disturbance (ED) and behaviour disorder (BD). Nonetheless, diagnostic distinctions between ED and BD are unclear. Moreover, despite international findings that students with particular backgrounds are over-represented in special schools, little is known about the backgrounds of students entering such settings in Australia. This study examined the government school enrolment data from New South Wales, the most populous of the Australian states. Linear and quadratic trends were used to describe the numbers and ages of students enrolled in special schools in the ED and BD categories. Changes between 1997 and 2007 were observed. Results showed an over-representation of boys that increased across the decade and a different pattern across age for boys and girls. Consistent with international findings, these results indicate that trends in special school placements are unrelated to disability prevalence in the population. Rather, it is suggested that schools act to preserve time and resources for others by removing their more challenging students: most typically, boys.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)64-81
    Number of pages18
    JournalEmotional and Behavioural Difficulties
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 2 Jan 2015


    • behaviour disorder
    • emotional disturbance
    • enrolment patterns
    • special schooling


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