7 (school based) Steps to Reduce Exclusions

During this recent lockdown concerns about children missing education due to school closures, for those not identified as vulnerable or children of keyworkers, have been expressed from all quarters. But of course, there have always been children who miss out on education. For example, there are an estimated 1500 children not in school as they await specialist places.

And almost 8000 students were permanently excluded (2018-2019)and a staggering 438 000 who may have missed a few days sometimes repeatedly due to fixed term exclusion

I have come to see exclusion as something that can be brutal, isolating and traumatic for children and young people. In the same way that we look back at corporal punishment and see it as inappropriate at best and barbaric at worst I am confident we will look back and marvel that we ever thought it was acceptable to effectively exile a child from the community in which they would ordinarily spend much of each day from 5 – 16 years as a minimum.

Exclusions are not spread equally among the school population, children with SEND, or those who are already vulnerable in some way are much more likely to be excluded than their peers. At a moral or ethical level no child should be sent home if that would involve increasing any safeguarding risk – yet that does happen and children who may be looked after, post looked after, in need, or subject to a child protection plan have been excluded increasing a whole variety of risks and for a looked after or post looked after child it can even cause loss of family. A very high price to pay.

It estimated that half of the prison population have previously been excluded from school and much has been written about the negative impact of exclusion on already vulnerable students. Being sent away can be traumatic and given that many vulnerable students may already have experienced rejection, failure, and loss, may already have difficulty forming relationships this tears them away from those crucial healing connections.

It is not only traumatising for the student it may also be a huge challenge for parents, many of whom may not have had good experiences of school, may have suffered adversity themselves as children and find the hole ‘formal’ process threatening and isolating.

There is no doubt in my mind that we need to reduce the numbers of children and young people being excluded we know this is possible as some schools don’t exclude. So, how can this be replicated in others. The 6 steps below represent what I see as the foundational ‘pillars’ to avoid exclusion.

  • Commitment to principle of inclusion

There has to be a will, a belief that there are other things that can be tried. I accept that sometimes a student needs to be removed from class so others can learn and sometimes so that others can feel safe. But simply sending them away passes the ‘problem’ to another setting. Restorative approaches have proved to be very effective in a number of schools and when adults think creatively it is often possible for the student to remain in the school, part of the school community even if they work elsewhere for a few days. When a school commits to the principle of NOT excluding, when that is no longer an option it can be amazing how creative alternatives can be found.

  • Staff Wellbeing is a Priority

We know that emotions ‘spread’. If staff feel anxious, under pressure, likely to be blamed or criticised the stress this causes in the adult can easily be transmitted to students. I’m sure we have all had an experience of walking into a room and ‘feeling’ the tension, adults don’t need to tell students how they feel children and young people will pick it up and respond. The students this will have the biggest impact on are those who have experienced times when they haven’t felt safe. If they sense tension in adults, they will not feel safe and their survival response may be activated.

Staff wellbeing is a lot more than adding the word to an agenda for a staff meeting – it again comes back to culture. If adults are well, able to acknowledge and express their own emotions and feelings, in ways that don’t harm themselves or others – to self-regulate effectively, then they will be well positioned to co-regulate with students who need adult support to soothe themselves and to ‘teach’ children and young people about the often-overwhelming world of emotions.

  • An Empowered Staff Team

Our feelings of job satisfaction are usually at their highest when we have some professional autonomy and can exercise professional judgement without fear of blame. That doesn’t mean there can’t be challenge but it does mean an acceptance that we are all human and we will all get things wrong sometimes. Rigid behaviour policies often mean staff can’t exercise any judgement even though they are often the ones who know the student best, see the context that challenging behaviour happens in and know the most effective response.

Students do respond to consistency and we all feel safer with some boundaries, but we have a statutory duty to make reasonable adjustments. Some students because of prior experiences they have had (usually though no fault of their own) simply haven’t had the chance to develop the same skills as their peers. If a student can’t regulate their emotions, surely our job as educators is to teach them how to do this? If they are unable to self- regulate they may always find learning a challenge and relationships with peers something difficult to manage. Academic learning is important but so is learning the skills to enable learning, and it is these skills which will often increase a child’s chances of ‘success’ being able to build positive relationships, ask for help, articulate their feelings, not having these skills can often be what leads to toxic relationships, isolation, getting in trouble with the police, involved in gangs ( where they may initially feel acceptance), substance misuse  and all the other negative results of adversity we see in our society.

Rigid behaviour policies and sanction systems often make it hard to make adjustments and leave staff feeling disempowered.

  • Relationships are Central

Humans are wired for connection; relationships make our world go round and for many of us it is the impact on relationships that makes this current ‘lockdown’ situation tough. For children who have not had their early attachment needs met they will arrive into school each day seeking to have those needs met. They want to know that adults have noticed them, will meet their needs, and will keep them safe. The specific behaviours that may vary and the have you seen me leaflet from Beacon House explains these very well.

This is not a student making a conscious decision to behave in a particular way this is a child responding to primitive drivers to get adults to ‘claim’ them and meet their needs. Time given to forming and maintaining good relationships is never wasted time. Students who feel secure in their relationship within a school will be much better able to learn.

  • An Understanding of the impact of trauma on behaviour

It’s my view that every adult in every school or setting needs an understanding of the impact of trauma on children and the behaviours this may lead to in the classroom. If, when a child’s brain is developing, they experience the toxic stress that can come for trauma and adversity then their developing brain will be constantly ‘soaked’ with stress hormones. In turn this means that they may react with panic to situations that would not be threatening to others as their brains alarm system has become very sensitive to threat. This video from the film Resilience explains it very well.

Once again this is not behaviour that is a ‘choice’. Imagine being asked to do something that scares you – hold a spider for example if you are afraid of spiders – your rational brain may know it can’t hurt you but that won’t stop you being afraid and depending on the level of fear, being offered an incentive – a merit or sticker OR a deterrent – detention – would be unlikely to persuade you hold it.

What might help a student facing a situation that makes them feel afraid (like a difficult work task, reading aloud, sitting next to a peer thy don’t get on with, being told off) is knowing that adults will support them, being given a strategy if it all gets ‘too much’ and gradually understanding what is happening in their body and how they can manage these overwhelming emotions.

  • Adjusted expectations – Stage not Age

Having been a Head of Virtual School for children in care in numerous local authorities I have sat in countless numbers of Personal Education Plan (PEP) meetings and in many of those there has been a recognition that in some areas of development the child may lag behind their peers, often in social and emotional development. Once again, we can hardly hold the child responsible for not being afforded the opportunities to develop those skills. But I can also remember that while all professionals in the meeting agreed this was the case the child in this case in Year 2 but acknowledged to be more like a 4-year-old was till expected to sit still for certain periods of time, concentrate in the same way as peers, negotiate playground relationships, when clearly, as shown by her behaviour she could not. The same is true of secondary school students who may be in the body of a teenager but socially and emotionally have the skills of a much younger child. It’s once again helpful to think they can’t – which means we can consider ways to support rather than won’t which means we will think they deserve a sanction.

  • Empathy and Compassion

 When you are having your worst day, when your resilience is low, when you feel a failure, when you are worried and stressed- what helps you? I’m sure it’s not more criticism, more stress, further situations that prove you are as useless as you think you are. If a member of staff comes into the staff room and perhaps ‘slams’ a door shut, dumps bag, sighs or is somehow irritable or snappy, the hope is that we don’t criticise, tell them to go out and come in again ‘appropriately’ or in some way draw negative attention to their behaviour. The hope is that we recognise that the behaviour is fuelled by an emotion, and that we ask if they are ok, is there some way we can help.

That is a kind response that comes from a place of compassion and empathy. If that is how we treat adults who have more skills and a greater degree of maturity why would treat children, who are still developing skills with less compassion? Instead of focussing on the behaviour think about the emotion that might be behind it – like we so often would with adults.

We know it is possible to avoid exclusion – other school have and in some countries no schools exclude – we just need to make a collective decision that children in our schools deserve better.

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