We need better experts

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I believe the following:

1. Every child has the right to an education.

2. Every child has the right to be educated with their peers in a regular classroom. This right must be balanced against the rights of the teacher, the student and their peers to be physically safe, and the rights of the student and their peers to be educated.

This seems like a reasonable position to me and one that experts in child development could help teachers with. A child who might not learn in a regular classroom may, with appropriate intervention, be able to do so. A child who might pose a danger in a regular classroom may, with appropriate intervention, cease to pose such a danger. For example, having clear and consistent classroom routines and expectations and clear instructions and guidance will harm no students and help many of the most vulnerable. We should research and apply the best approaches.

Teachers need knowledge and resources to do this. There is no conflict here and teachers and experts should be teaming up to solve these complex problems and jointly push for the resources to do so.

This is not exactly what is happening.

Unfortunately, many experts take a rights-based advocacy approach to inclusion that lacks nuance and asserts absolutes. We are told that all behaviour is communication and is the result of an unmet need. We are told that problem behaviour (it is not clear whether this is all problem behaviour – more later) is caused by disorders (which are sometimes described as disabilities). Any attempt to apply a negative consequence for poor behaviour is therefore discriminatory. Exclusion, both from school or internally from a given classroom setting, is seen as punishment and so is also discriminatory.

Some disorders are of obvious explanatory value and point to treatments, such as developmental language disorders. However, it is worth bearing in mind that the logic of behavioural disorders is sometimes rather circular and lacks explanatory power:

  • This student is persistently defiant and oppositional
  • This is because he has oppositional defiant disorder
  • We know he has this disorder because he is persistently defiant and oppositional
  • I am concerned about the expansive medicalisation of human behaviour in this way. I think people behave in a variety of ways for a variety of different, complex, human reasons.

    Note that it is the experts themselves who have introduced these concepts of disorders and disabilities into the discussion about inclusion. What teachers experience is a variety of presenting behaviours. However, we must be careful in taking on this idea of disorders as a root cause of problem behaviours.

    Firstly, it is clear that the vast majority of children with a disability pose absolutely no threat at all to the safety or learning of other students.

    With this in mind, how would we characterise the situation involving students who commit sexual assaults against other students? This happens a lot more than we may care to think. Recently, some parents were interviewed anonymously for the TES in England. They claimed that their daughters were placed back into a classroom with boys who had abused them, with the explanation that the boys had a right to an education. This strikes me as very wrong, but you can see how teachers might think they are applying inclusive principles.

    When I raise this as an inclusion issue, I am told that I am defaming disabled people. But I am not the party who has decided that inclusion is all about disorders and disabilities. It is the experts who have done that. Whether you want to call it an inclusion issue or not, we have a problem with these behaviours and we need to know what to do about them. As far as I am concerned, sexual abuse may be nothing at all to do with disorders or disabilities.

    It seems that there are two distinct possibilities (accepting the answer might differ for different cases).

    1. Sexual assault sits outside the framework of behaviours that are caused by disabilities and disorders.

    2. Sexual assault sits within the framework and is an example of when we balance the rights of peers against the rights of a student to inclusion in a regular classroom.

    I make the assumption that no child should sit in a classroom with someone who has sexually abused them or who is likely to do so in the future and so I assume that exclusion of the abuser from that classroom is appropriate (although please feel free to make the opposing case in the comments).

    If sexual assault sits outside the framework, then what are the criteria on which this judgement is made? When advocates for inclusion make statements such as ‘all means all’ are they applying this only to the proportion of students who we can identify as having a disability (‘all’ is then misleading)? If so, does that mean there is no obligation to include students whose behaviours are not related to a disability, of which there may be a significant number? How does this then fit with those same advocates seeking to eliminate all exclusions, as many of them appear to do?

    If sexual assault does sit within the framework and is likely to be linked to a disorder or disability of some kind, then is this not an example of where ‘all does not mean all’ and where we relax our commitment to inclusion? If so, what other cases would this apply to? What about a child who repeatedly bites a classroom assistant, or a child who bullies and intimidates their peers? Again, how can this be reconciled with eliminating all exclusions?

    It is as if experts want to make broad, sweeping statements of principle without paying too much regard to the details. Such statements are relatively easy to make and to understand. But classroom teachers live and work in details. We need experts to help us with the details or the experts are frankly not much use to us. A good start would be for experts to acknowledge the reality that internal and external exclusions are sometimes necessary and appropriate, even if they think the overall levels are too high.

    Alternatively, rather than engaging with teachers, experts may seek to impose on the profession by campaigning to mandate reduced exclusions rates or other statutory requirements. Such an approach is likely to be counterproductive because teachers will still be left with all those messy details to address and the same knowledge and resources that they currently possess with which to address them.


    2 thoughts on “We need better experts

    1. Kim says:

      Wow! Very well written and hits the nail on the head. Hot house students to give them the skills and strategies needed for inclusion and then train the teachers in the settings before the student integrates or re-integrates. It’s not about labels, it’s about supports and resources.

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