I had a really troubling meeting this week. It was my first with colleagues in Liaise, a service offering support to parents of children with SEND. In every LA, a spectrum of practice exists in relation to school-based SEND provision, ranging from the inspirational to the woeful. I’ve seen plenty of the former – including the glowing example at the bottom of this post – but this meeting was all about the latter, because we were discussing exclusions.
I heard about children being denied experiences because of their difficulties, labelled ‘naughty’ because of their needs, segregated, punished, sent home (one parent had to give up her job) such that when the permanent exclusion finally came, it was often a relief.
None of this is new or surprising, sadly; soon to be published, Jarleth O’Brien’s book, ‘Don’t Send him In Tomorrow’, will confirm that. But there was a perspective at the meeting that I thought was worth sharing. All members of the Liaise team were in emphatic agreement that there is one belief that, above all others, signals the beginning of the end with regard to a pupil’s successful inclusion. One utterance that indicates a punitive, evidence gathering, make-sure-you-log-everything route has been decided. Handing all responsibility for learning over to the pupil, it is:
“He’s making all the wrong choices.”
Of course, it’s sometimes ‘she’ – but ‘he’ five times more often, according to DfE data on rates of permanent exclusion from schools in England.
‘He’s making all the wrong choices.’
This reflects a fundamental misconception that challenging behaviour occurs because children have considered the consequences of their actions and decided that the benefits of misbehavior outweigh the costs. By ratcheting up the punishment, then, behaviour policies are designed to mitigate this – to encourage better ‘choices’.
We should have moved on by now. The research is as compelling as it is widely ignored. One of the key insights that neuroscience has provided in recent years is that children, especially those who have experienced significant adversity early in life, are often triggered by emotional, psychological and hormonal forces that are far from rational. They aren’t making choices. This doesn’t mean that teachers should excuse or ignore outbursts. But it does explain why harsh punishments so often prove counter-productive. They can merely increase the toxic stress which has caused the difficulty in the first place.
Perhaps there needs to be more of a focus on neuroscience and child development in teacher training. There is certainly no shortage of literature. Paul Tough writes brilliantly about the impact of toxic stress on children’s ability to manage emotions here. @JarlathOBrien works tirelessly to raise awareness on these issues, as do @JordyJax, whose primary PRU is full of pupils with SEND, and guru in the field of childhood trauma, @janeparenting2.
Of course, the brain’s plasticity is a wonderful thing and with consistent, caring, skilful support, children’s executive functioning can dramatically improve. I’ve seen inspirational practice that has enabled children who began their school careers with huge deficits – kicking, scratching, head-butting – to flourish. There’s a shining example at Spalding Parish Primary, which received the Boxall Nurture Award recently. I spoke at length to the proud dad pictured below. He said that the impact of the nurture provision on his son was nothing short of transformational.
We need to spread practice like this. England is by far the highest excluder of children in Europe, and when children with SEND are nine times more likely to be excluded than those born without such disadvantage, it’s time for an informed debate about what an inclusive behaviour policy might look like. Let’s start by talking much less about choice and much more about need.