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An inconvenient truth: school suspensions are linked with poor teen mental health

When news filters through to a class teacher that a pupil has been suspended – after a forgivable sigh of relief – most start rapidly planning: they need to be able to maximise the work the rest of the class can tackle while there is a short respite from the interruptions the disruptive pupil causes.

It is only then that the typical teacher might start to think about the state of mind or future prospects of the child who has been suspended or what could be changed to stop it happening again.

Even this attempt to support the general class population can backfire.

The returning pupil will now be behind the rest of the class in their work, which could add to their feelings of frustration at not being able to understand the lesson the teacher is delivering, and then acting out this frustration in a way which will cause them to be excluded again.

National statistics show that it is the same pupils who again and again are suspended from the classroom. So, as an effective preventative tool, it fails at the first hurdle.

And a wide ranging study published last year highlights another inconvenient truth about suspensions: the link between adolescent mental health and exclusion.

While it might be easier in the teacher's mind to dismiss the pupil's poor behaviour as a deliberate provocation that needs to be dealt with, this new report reveals something that most educators will probably have suspected and introduces another factor which questions the validity of suspending children from school at all.

The extensive report, which analysed responses from more than 5000 British pupils, found that children with mental health issues are more likely to be suspended than the general school population.

The flipside is that these same pupils are more likely to experience psychological distress, such as depression, anxiety or behavioural disturbance even three years after their exclusion.

These figures open up a can of worms similar to the prison debate. Criminologists agree sending an offender to prison is unlikely to stop them committing crime on release or being shortly returned to jail, but stopping sending criminals to prison isn't a solution either.

Similarly, exclusion doesn't solve any problems for the excluded.

I've never noticed any radical changes in behaviour on a pupil on return from exclusion. However it does allow the rest of the class to learn in an undisrupted environment as well as giving those children who have legitimate grievances surrounding another's poor behaviour a sense that something has been done.

We shouldn't underestimate the importance of justice and fair play in the mind of a young person.

Furthermore, the study's author Tamsin Ford from the University of Exeter in England highlights the unsaid paradox of exclusion; it punishes children for poor behaviour by giving them what they want, time away from the place they hate.

Not only that, but for many uninterrupted time spent home alone with the TV, PC or smart phone. It is like punishing rioting prisoners by letting them go home for a few days.

It would make sense that problems of a psychological nature should be addressed by professionals in that field. Counselling which begins as soon as a mental health problem is flagged, rather than after the queue has gone down is crucial.

The Scottish Government has recognised this with a major financial investment of £60m which will finance the introduction of 350 school councillors across Scottish schools to offer psychological support to young people.

Already every school in Northern Ireland and Wales has a counsellor. In fact, a study into the provision of counselling in Wales, found a 31 per cent fall in suspensions because of targeted school-based interventions.

We know that one in ten school-age children have a definable mental health problem, while the majority of adults who have mental disorders developed them while they were of school age.

Can you imagine the relief a campus-based school psychologist would bring to the lives of these children, as well as the development of coping strategies into adulthood?

It has to be remembered schooling works for the majority of young people and is the most cost-effective means of educating a large number of children simultaneously.

However, it depends on how malleable each square peg is for fitting into the round hole of a 'one size fits all' education system. For some the pressure to conform is too great and this is when exclusions occur.

Properly financed psychological support for schools would make suspensions go away, but would certainly increase the sense of inclusion in schools.

By Gordon Cairns

10 September 2018 

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