I’ve been working on a film about the impact of permanent exclusion over the past few months. Among other things, I wanted to explore how some pupils were able to succeed in their new mainstream schools, despite a history of ‘persistent misconduct’. Was it that the shock of the exclusion triggered some kind of wake up call? Or was it more that the previous school just wasn’t inclusive in its policy and practice? Of course, contributory factors will always be multiple and complex but the really interesting thing for me was that the pupils themselves had no difficulty at all with this question.
‘They really care about us here.’
That sentence, and variations of it, was the answer pupils gave me, in a heartbeat, time after time. Sometimes ‘all’ was added, with a degree of bitterness – ‘They care about all the pupils’. Nobody said, ‘Well here, rewards and sanctions are consistently applied and that’s helped me improve my behaviour.’ Or, ‘The rewards are bigger at this school and the sanctions harsher so I make sure I toe the line.’ No, it was feeling cared about that made the difference. And I don’t suppose anyone is surprised to read that.
Many studies confirm what has always been self-evident to the instinctively inclusive practitioner; that vulnerable young people, those at risk of permanent exclusion, are more likely to be saved by an empathic relationship than a rigorously applied behaviour management policy. Stanford University researchers found through this recent project that the exclusion of adolescents fell by half when teachers adopted an empathic as opposed to a punitive mindset. The significance of this is outlined at the top of their paper:
Stanford researchers, in arguing for a paradigm shift, demonstrate how sanctions actually worsen behaviour. In this way, the medicine of the traditional behaviour policy is killing the poorliest patients since they’re the ones swallowing most of it.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting in citing this research that schools should abandon their boundaries, rules and the consequences for ignoring these. We can’t just have a free for all. What we must accept though, is that for a small, vulnerable minority, the traditional behaviour management approach will not work. It’s simply not the answer to a chronic behavioural difficulty and for as long as we continue to apply it as if it is, without reasonable adjustment and a focus on maintaining empathic relationships, then we will remain the highest excluder of children in Europe. That can’t be right. Especially when the answer is in many ways so simple.