If ‘no excuses’ means that inappropriate, disrespectful, risky behaviour must always be squarely addressed, then nobody would take issue with it. If, on the other hand, it means that such behaviour must always be addressed in the same way, according to an inflexible ‘do this-get that’ policy, then the approach is not compatible with inclusion.
To make such a statement is not to reveal low expectations for pupils with particular SEND, such as ASD. It’s not to say that a pupil with a special need affecting behaviour should have licence to ignore the rules. It’s simply acknowledging that some pupils need much, much more support than others and that sanctioning them for mistakes associated with their difficulties is both profoundly unfair and counterproductive – not least because sanctions can induce shame.
In relation to children with attachment difficulties, of course, we must do everything possible as educators responsible for their wellbeing to protect them from prolonged feelings of toxic shame. Their experience of relational trauma means that they are already shame-based and this is why we must be so very careful with discipline. We want all pupils to understand the difference between right and wrong and to experience a degree of guilt for misbehaviour. However, for the extremely vulnerable, insecurely attached child, this can easily tip into toxic shame, which is a long way from guilt:
Guilt, “I have made a mistake.”
Shame, “I am the mistake.”
Nathanson’s compass of shame, above, illustrates the ways that humans respond to shame – none of them positive, prosocial or healthy. All teachers will immediately bring to mind individual LAC children who regularly occupy points on that compass. They are very often the hardest children to reach because they have never learned dependency. They have never learned how to trust adults and to follow their lead. That crucial developmental stage was missed.
But in the problem lies the solution; the task for inclusive educators is actually very clear. Vulnerable children must be taught through their experience of school as a surrogate secure base that adults can be trusted. Though adaptation and recovery takes time, perhaps years, the experience of empathic, genuine relationship does facilitate such growth with the role of ‘key adult’ crucial in this work.
Any attachment aware practitioner will understand then that we cannot merely discipline children with relational developmental difficulties as we do the majority. Not unless we want to exacerbate difficulties by inducing feelings of rejection, panic and shame.
Louise Bomber advocates an approach to challenging behaviour which includes the possibility of reparation. It’s described below, more or less word for word as it appears in ‘What about me?’ The sequence does rely on all school staff understanding the needs of insecurely attached children and it also assumes that children with the most complex needs are supported by a key adult. In inclusive schools, these preconditions will exist. Sadly in many, where exclusion is the response to unmet need, they are absent.
The reparation sequence
1. Pupil’s key adult describes the events neutrally and with empathy.
I noticed that you were trying really hard with your maths work this morning. You started getting frustrated around question 5. It was as if you felt that you couldn’t cope any more. It got too much. You threw your book and then before you knew it you were in a real state.
2. Gently let the pupil know that you realise he is feeling disturbed right now.
You are probably still feeling all shaken up and need a bit of space.
3. Be explicit about the fact that something needs to happen to ‘repair’ what’s gone wrong. Give an idea of how that could be done.
When you are ready, let’s go and pick up your maths book and repair it with some Selloptape. We can then make a small apology card for Sir, as it wasn’t his fault that your patient, perservering part disappeared for a few minutes.
4. Let the pupil know that we now know that he is not as strong as we thought, and that we will help him practice in the area that he had difficulty in – so that he can cope.
I’m sorry because I thought the work was the right level. It wasn’t. I will make sure tomorrow the work is more suitable for you. Let’s get your confidence back before moving onto more challenges.
5. Supervision, structure and support are also necessary to varying degrees in order to facilitate the reparative stage.
Let’s go and neaten up that book together.
6. Once the pupil has engaged in reparative activity, we may also be very explicit about the fact that the relationship with the key adult remains intact.
Just to say that you and me are OK. The teacher is also OK. He understands that you were having a wobble and is looking forward to welcoming you back into maths tomorrow.
If we don’t make this kind of comment explicitly, we leave the pupil insecure and once again at risk of the inappropriate behaviour escalating, because of his very real fear of rejection or abandonment.
Some pupils will feel toxic shame so acutely that it will significantly affect their ability to re-enter classrooms, meet particular staff again or continue with lessons. In these cases, advocacy is needed by the key adult so that the classroom teacher understands that efforts must be made to build a bridge:
I really missed you in Geography today. I was looking forward to seeing you. I know we had some difficult moments yesterday but today is a new day. We have lots of interesting material to investigate together.
This sensitive after-care is very powerful. Many pupils are shocked by it and the experience has been found to strengthen their respect for and relationship with the member of staff who took the time to do this.
That’s just one of the many strategies described in ‘What about me?’ – a book about teaching traumatised children how to relate to others in healthy, appropriate ways; a book about differentiated behaviour management. Of course, we don’t usually do behaviour like this. We have one size fits all policies and that’s because our systems have been set up with the assumption that pupils will have benefited from consistently ‘good enough’ care to understand and make the most of education.
It’s increasingly apparent that this is not the case. If our schools are going to serve the whole of their communities, then this needs to change. The only alternative is exclusion – because those square pegs, they are never going to fit – not if we believe they can be hammered in through a sanctions regime, however ‘consistent’. For me, there is ‘no excuse’ for a belief that is contradicted by a plethora of evidence from the SEND field.