When my eldest daughter was in Year 4, a new boy joined her class who had difficulty managing his behaviour. He’d call out, bounce out of his seat, huff and puff over his work, lose his temper sometimes. Meg saw his frustration just as, I’m quite sure, her classmates and the teacher did. She didn’t judge him for it though, or question his ‘poor choices’. Quite clearly, it was all a bit more complicated than that. There was something behind this, ADHD maybe – trauma and loss perhaps. Whatever the underlying cause, Josh didn’t cope at all well. He stood out.
However, he wasn’t followed by the rest of the class, like some juvenile Pied Piper. His peers didn’t lose their ability to self regulate because he was still working on his. He wasn’t removed from the class to undergo training elsewhere, as advised by the DfE behaviour guru, to prevent his difficulties from ‘normalising.’ If he had been, and the re-entry criteria were total control of impulsivity, enabling the same standard of behaviour as that achieved by others, then he would never have returned to the classroom.
There’s a place for withdrawal, of course. Inclusion doesn’t mean everyone together all of the time. Counselling can be helpful, as well as a range of small-group interventions. Solutions-focused coaching ought to be an entitlement. But one-to-one and small-group learning must be generalised back in the classroom to be effective; reinforced and practiced within context.
Meg grew very fond of Josh. He turned out to be really good for her self esteem at a time when she was in and out of the ‘popular group’ with bewildering regularity. She found that she was a calming influence on him and the teacher regularly paired them up. She would come home full of tales about how she’d been able to help, strategies that had worked. This made her proud.
Fairness is a value highly prized by most children and their understanding of it is more subtle than we give them credit for when we assume they’re incapable of understanding disadvantage or difference. Those teachers who have employed Circle of Friends to include autistic pupils will know all about the enormous capacity that children have for compassionate understanding and empathy – and the joyous difference this can make when it’s harnessed within a structured programme.
Special Challenges is a report from the National College about how four schools effectively included children with SEMH. I’ve summarised it here. The report identifies peer support as one of six key themes and points out that there is social and emotional learning for all children, not just the vulnerable, when this is promoted. Pupils in the study schools understood diversity and consistently demonstrated caring attitudes towards those who were struggling. They were strong communities, happy places – and we have many schools that fit such a description.
The Coalition government aimed to ‘Reverse the bias towards inclusion’ and we live in the shadow of that rhetoric. (All it ever was, without a massive expansion of special schools). We need to change the rhetoric, because it doesn’t help the most vulnerable children in our schools feel that they belong there. And that is plain wrong.