In session 2012/2013 (the year in which my son was excluded from school) 21,955 exclusions from school took place across Scotland. 21,955 phone calls made to parents or carers informing them that the behaviour of their child was not deemed acceptable in their school. Of those numbers, 9,608 children had additional support needs. Of those numbers, 9,298 were from the top 20% of the country’s most deprived areas.
Exclusion is the most severe ‘punishment’ that a school can hand out. It’s purpose is to offer a clear message to pupil and parents alike that such behaviour displayed is not acceptable. A clear message that until the child starts conforming to the ‘school rules’ then they will not be allowed to be in school. But is this the only messages we are sending with this consequence, and is a day or few days away from school the only punishment being implemented? That would be a huge NO.
Lets first of all start thinking about more than just numbers – these after all are REAL children. So lets start off with those from the most deprived areas of Scotland. As we begin to learn more about ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences), we know that in many (not all) cases, poverty is a contributing factor to a child’s ACE score. In many of these deprived areas, there is also higher rates of substance misuse. Many of the children from these areas are living with multiple ACE scores. While they are at school, they are (in most cases) in a safe place. They are likely to be receiving free milk and free school meals. This meal, could in fact be for some, be the only meal they are getting. An exclusion forces the child to be at home within a potentially toxic environment and also potentially, deny them of the meal they rely on. Is that really the kind of punishment we are wanting to be dishing out? For those with parents out working and relying on that money just to keep their family surviving, we are forcing parents to miss days of pay – something that can have a hugely adverse affect on the family.
Lets think about adopted and fostered children who already live their lives with deep set feelings of shame. Many have feelings so big and frightening that they are unable to control their behaviour – the important part of that sentence being ‘unable.’ For much of the time, they will be living their lives with the primitive parts of their brain guiding their every move and the instinctive flight, fight or freeze response being the norm. This translates into such actions as hiding, running around and out of school and/or lashing out at staff, pupils, property and/or themselves. All of these are likely to be deemed as ‘exclusionable’ actions.
So how does an exclusion affect such children? Well, exclusion quite simply means rejection to them. They are being rejected for having feelings, rejected for communicating how they feel through the only way that they know how and above all, they are being rejected for being them. This reinforces all those negative feeling they already have of being unloveable, stupid and responsible for everything that happened to them. An exclusion simply confirms to them, everything they expect from life. They have possibly already been rejected on a number of occasions from both their birth family and from previous foster carers. Whilst they may not have been ‘rejected’ – it might have been necessary moves for safety reasons, that doesn’t matter to them. Each and every move is a rejection and a further confirmation of their deep set loathing feelings of themselves.
But do schools and education authorities ‘get this’ – no, I don’t think they do. Our education system places an expectation of a high level of discipline on our pupils. It is expected that children will behave in a particular way in order to be part of the school. If they don’t then the option of exclusion is there to be used – and it IS used. 21,955 times in 2012/2013 it was used. If educators truly understood the effects that exclusion would have on such pupils, would they deem it acceptable to use it. I would like to think not. However, in the same year according to the figures published on the Scottish Government’s page, there were 2,960 exclusions of looked after children. This figure does not include adopted children – no such figures are recorded for them (something I would really like to see changing) but if they were, my son would have appeared. At age 6, he was excluded multiple times from Primary 1. The majority of these were called ‘informal exclusions’ where I was asked to collect him and take him home from school and the final exclusion was of the official kind. What all the above figures quoted do not take account of are those informal exclusions – if they did, I suspect the figures would at least quadruple.
So in his case, what was so serious a behaviour that an exclusion was warranted – and a week long (maximum penalty) one at that? Well, you can watch the video I have created here to find out. Do you think an exclusion was warranted? I certainly don’t.
So if not an exclusion from school then what should it be? Well not an exclusion – or at least not of the sending home rejection kind. The child’s behaviour should firstly be seen as communication – what are they trying to communicate with their behaviour? This is the key. Once you know that, then you can try to help them. Perhaps they are struggling to be within their classroom, in which case, the response to the behaviour should be to look at ways to offer smaller group learning. Perhaps they are telling you they are not ready for formal learning – could a play based curriculum be offered? The most important thing to remember is this – ‘Children are not bad’ – to some this may sound strange, but it is true. Children are not ‘out to get us,’ they are not ‘evil’ – they are simply a representation of what they have or are currently experiencing. It is up to educators and the wider community to be curious and find out what is driving the behaviour – I can guarantee that it is nothing that an exclusion is ever going to solve. If exclusions were an effective means of punishment, wouldn’t we now be down to minimal numbers of them? Wouldn’t children ‘learn’ from their mistakes and just stop the behaviour? Well lets look at the figures – the most recent figures in Scotland are for the follow year 2014/2015 where there were still 18,430 exclusions. This does not sound minimal numbers to me.
So how can we move forward? For me, it’s about schools becoming attachment aware. Once you truly understand attachment and understand how ACEs impact a child and their behaviour, then you will understand how damaging exclusions can be. Adoption UK are offering an amazing training package that provides schools with a deeper understanding of attachment and strategies for becoming an attachment aware school. This understanding will not just help adopted pupils, but those with ACEs and often those with ASN as the strategies can actually benefit all. My children’s school is going to be undertaking the training despite already having lots of knowledge in this area, but I would love to see more schools across Scotland doing the same. If you would like more information on this, do send and email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
What are your thoughts on exclusion? Are you a parent who has had their child excluded? Are you a HT where you have felt an exclusion was the only option? I would love to hear from you.
I will be adding this post to the #waso (weekly adoption shout out) as well as the Adoption and Fostering Weekly Round-up. If you would like to vote for this post in the latter of these, you can do so here.