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By Deb Gould
Image credit: Abhinav Thakur (CCO)

This is not a hints and tips piece; very far from it. Hopefully, it will stimulate reflection on the fact that 32,300 NSW public school students received short-term suspensions in 2018 with more than 9000 of them in primary school. The issue came under the spotlight in 2020 with the Disability Royal Commission hearing from the NSW Department of Education, that “the state’s behavioural policies for schools need to be reviewed” noting “ they can disproportionately impact students with a disability.” This review on Department “behaviour management strategies” began in 2020, receiving submissions from a range of people and agencies.

They came up with a plan, including to reduce the maximum number of days a student can be suspended for from 20 to 10. The proposals have not gone down well with everyone with a teachers’ union, parents and school executives arguing that schools would become less safe and standards of acceptable behaviour weakened. As of March 2021, this component of the recommendations has not been agreed to.

So, there is more than one side to this story. In the mix are:

Teachers – “Thank goodness she’s gone for a few weeks, I can get back to teaching”

Teachers’ union – “We can’t expect our teachers to be behaviour specialists while they are also trying to teach”

Welfare staff – “This is punishment for a child who needs support” “I guess now a few kids feel safer and can get back to studies”

Other pupils – “Phew”

The excluded child – “That’s not fair” “Yessss. Now I can start a life” “Now what?” “Stuff them, useless boring place” “I can’t get anything right”

Family of the child – “What do we do? We can’t control him” “It’s not fair, he is a good boy at home”

Essentially, suspensions and expulsions are a form of exclusionary discipline and a control measure for pupils exhibiting dangerous, distracting or destructive behaviour. The model is full of good intentions:

That the process would include multiple steps and check points prior to suspension. However, NSW-Ombudsman-Inquiry-into-behaviour-management-in-schools (2017) noted that the following processes were absent in more than half of the cases they reviewed: welfare support, formal disciplinary interview prior to suspension, suspension resolution meeting, school counsellor’s involvement;

It is a form of behaviour management intended to reduce further incidence of the behaviour. The NSW-Ombudsman-Inquiry (2017) summarised the research, saying simply that there is none that shows that suspensions reduce disruptive classroom behaviour.

As time-out, the child is to spend time with their family, to develop strategies to reduce the occurrence of “poor” behaviour. But few families can do this, especially if the behaviour emerges from disability, mental illness or trauma and particularly if they themselves don’t have experience of the education system. In reality, most children on suspension either sit at home bored or playing on devices, or out of home in unsafe spaces.

As a punishment, it withdraws something valued. But there is a big HOWEVER here and it reflects a faulty assumption – that people who break rules badly enough to be suspended would “learn from their mistakes”. The reverse (greater defiance) usually happens and the attachment to school as a potentially safe space for learning is weakened. Research has shown that exclusionary punishment at an early age might well facilitate “persistence in behaviour problems” (Mowen and Brent 2016; Sampson and Laub 1997) and increased physical aggression (Jacobsen et al. 2019),

A further stated intention is to keep other children safe. There is no evidence that the school community is safer when disruptive children are removed. It is worth noting that the usual reasons for suspension are misbehaviour rather than endangering others; most suspensions are meted out to the disengaged, overactive child who is unable to manage their arousal levels and lacks the capacity for boundaries.

School would also continue to provide educational support during the students’ absence, and alternative education be facilitated in the case of expulsions. Enter the Suspension Centre (not the kind you take your Harley Davidson to). There are 22 in NSW that will provide intensive educational support for scholars on long suspensions. There, students receive support to keep up with schoolwork and to work on some of the factors that led to the suspension, e.g. emotional regulation and social skills.

Of the developmental tasks of childhood and adolescence, most are facilitated in the school setting: building a world outside of the family, extension of support system, gaining mastery, developing identity and increased social connection. For scholars with refugee experience, it is the main milieu that enables (or fails to enable) their integration into a new society and community. They literally learn the ways of their new home.

Attachment to school has been found to decrease behaviour that leads to suspension (Dornbusch, 2001; Chapman, 2011). Gowing (2016) found that this connection with school is facilitated by “relational, activity-based and academic opportunities available”. Suspensions which simply exclude students from school further weaken protective attachments.

The NSW Education Minister (The Hon. Sarah Mitchell) stated in a radio interview that they would aim for early intervention, preventing a spiral of disengagement. Moving from a reactive to a proactive approach involves teaching students how to interact in prosocial ways, increasing conflict resolution skills. School-wide programmes like Positive Behaviour for Learning (PBL) aim to do this through building student engagement through strong relationships and individual support for children with greater needs. Those who have good rapport with staff have more opportunities to discuss behaviour prior to escalation.

For those children whose behaviour continues to put others at risk, in-school suspensions might well be a solution. But a lot needs to happen for individual staff to feel empowered to prevent and manage disruptive or unsafe behaviour.

While it is clear that in school factors such as “the quality of teacher-student relationships, classroom management approaches and curriculum enhancement” (Hemphill et al, 2017) are important, the majority of factors determining student “misbehaviour” emerge from a personal history of abuse, neglect, disadvantage that might be social in origin (e.g. refugee experiences, racism etc.). A Uniting Care document from 2012 stated that the core issue is a failure to address the underlying issues that lead to challenging behaviour. The only reasons a young person behaves in ways that are dangerous or significantly disrupts others’ rights is they have particular needs that are not being met: needs for safety, engagement, attachment, mastery, identity and community. When a child’s life is going well, they don’t act out in dangerous ways.

The idea of a turning point is important in our approaches to childhood adversity and recovery. A critical event can become a point (a fork in the road/ a sliding door moment) at which a young person’s trajectory is determined. For most young people, an exclusionary school experience would serve as a negative turning point; rather than being an opportunity to forge a better path it becomes a point at which they become “suspended”. They are not deterred by these suspensions and they don’t suddenly have an opportunity to reflect and review and rehabilitate their behaviour.

In my reading of this, there seem to be problems with the very efficacy of the measure as well as with how it is delivered. Getting balance of discipline and prevention and finding alternatives that balance needs of bully and victim will always be a challenge for schools. But we should be clear that all children have a right to continued access to education. When the behaviours of one child compromise that right for others, it is not necessary to trample on the rights of that one child.

References

Beauchamp, T. (2012). Addressing high rates of school suspension. Paramatta: UnitingCare Children, Young People and Families.

Chapman, R. L., Buckley, L., Sheehan, M. C., Shochet, I. M., & Romaniuk, M. (2011). The impact of school connectedness on violent behavior, transport risk-taking behavior, and associated injuries in adolescence. Journal of School Psychology, 49(4), 399-410.

Dornbusch, S. M., Erickson, K. G., Laird, J., & Wong, C. A. (2001). The relation of family and school attachment to adolescent deviance in diverse groups and communities. Journal of Adolescent Research, 16(4), 396-422.

Gowing, A., & Jackson, A. C. (2016). Connecting to school: Exploring student and staff understandings of connectedness to school and the factors associated with this process. The Educational and Developmental Psychologist, 33(1), 54-69.

Hemphill, S. A., Broderick, D. J., & Heerde, J. A. (2017). Positive associations between school suspension and student problem behaviour: Recent Australian findings. Trends and Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, (531), 1-13.

Jacobsen, W. C., Pace, G. T., & Ramirez, N. G. (2019). Punishment and inequality at an early age: Exclusionary discipline in elementary school. Social forces, 97(3), 973-998.

Mowen, T., & Brent, J. (2016). School discipline as a turning point: The cumulative effect of suspension on arrest. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 53(5), 628-653.

Ombudsman, N. S. W. (2017). NSW Ombudsman inquiry into behaviour management in schools. A Special Report to Parliament under s, 31.

Sampson, R. J., & Laub, J. H. (1997). A life-course theory of cumulative disadvantage and the stability of delinquency. Developmental theories of crime and delinquency, 7, 133-161.

Further reading

What Works. The Work Program: CORE ISSUES 2 Reducing Suspensions. www.whatworks.edu.au

This article largely articulates the issue for Aboriginal students, but it is very widely applicable in its content.

Pyne, James (2018) Suspended Attitudes: Exclusion and Emotional Disengagement from School https://doi.org/10.1177/0038040718816684

VFST “Schools in for Refugees”

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