Back in August, I had an opinion piece published in the Sydney Morning Herald warning against new proposals on suspensions and exclusions in New South Wales. This week, the same paper has published a response by Louise Kuchel, a parent advocate for children with ADHD.
Kuchel’s response is interesting because it highlights the perspective of many of those campaigning to abolish or severely constrain suspension and exclusion – the perspective of those lobbying and being heard by politicians.
First, let’s look at a couple of apparent contradictions.
Kuchel states that, “School suspensions and expulsions are a topic fraught with emotion,” and that, “A small but loud minority vocally opposes these reforms, painting a picture of violent bullies attacking teachers and students. This has created unnecessary conflict.”
However, rather than dial down the emotion, Kuchel then goes on to list several highly emotive case studies of excluded children – case studies she has sourced through her advocacy work. These are impossible to verify. For instance, one student was apparently suspended for snapping school pencils, but we do not, and cannot, know the school’s version of these events.
This problem becomes more pronounced in the case of ‘Harry’*. After stating that, “It’s a common misconception that students with challenging behaviours are violent,” we hear Harry’s story where he claims, “they made me write saying I punched a kid in the face when I just did a little hit on the shoulder.”
There’s a lot to unpack here. Why is it a misconception that students with challenging behaviours are violent if we are then going to be presented with a student admitting he had been violent, albeit while playing this down? This story is presented as evidence of where teachers, “actively work to push [students] out of the school.” Setting aside the view this expresses of teachers, has it occurred to Kuchel that there may be another version of these events? Any teacher will be familiar with students making claims like, “I just did a little hit on the shoulder,” even after having witnessed something they would not describe in the same way. People, including children, have a tendency to put a spin on events that shows them in a more positive light.
As ever in these discussions, the other students – the ones the kids telling their stories go to school with – are absent. Exclusion and suspension don’t work because, “The experience of being suspended or expelled doesn’t fix the problem.”
Well, it depends on how you define the problem. I am willing to accept that a suspension is not going to magically ‘fix’ the behaviour of a student who is suspended. The underlying reasons are often highly complex and so suspension should trigger a series of targeted interventions. This is where resources should go.
But are we really saying suspension doesn’t work for the kid being hit on the shoulder? I think it works quite well for them, at least in the short term.
Here’s more of Harry’s story:
“All they cared about is that I hit someone, they didn’t care about whatever that person did to me. I was scared and the other person pushed me to the ground super hard. They didn’t get into trouble. It’s always the one that cries that doesn’t. Cause even when I get hurt, I don’t cry; just get super annoyed and angry.”
Now, imagine this situation is not exactly the way Harry described it. Imagine you are the parent of the kid who is the ‘one that cries’. Teachers, whatever you think of them, are in a position to weigh the entire situation involving both students more objectively than Harry can as a participant.
Kuchel seems in two minds on teachers. My view is apparently that of the minority and Kuchel believes that, “most teachers will welcome the draft reforms”. And yet, “As clinical psychologist and author Dr Ross Greene says, children want to do well; all behaviour is communication. Teachers need training to understand this and learn how to collaborate with the child to solve problems… many of the changes needed cost nothing beyond teacher training. It’s about a change in mindset.”
Do teachers welcome the fact that they need a change in mindset?
Teachers really don’t need to understand that, “All behaviour is communication.” It is a meaningless deepity that sounds very wise but offers nothing of practical value. Do clinical psychologists really assume that teachers have no understanding of the causes of challenging behaviour and if they just understood more, they would change their mindsets and… drum roll… all would be well?
Listening to a child tell their story in a one-on-one situation is a world away from managing a class of 25 to 30 children. Until you’ve done it, this is hard to comprehend. Teachers don’t need to empathise more, they need practical strategies. Unfortunately, these are unlikely to come from people who have never managed a classroom themselves. Instead, we tend to see suggestions for ever more individual adjustments. Imagine, if you can, trying to teach a class where 10 out of 25 children require specific, individualised approaches. How would you go with that?
We are in this situation because we have taken a lawyerly, rather than practical, approach to intervention. Many whole-school or whole-class policies such as setting up clear routines, are helpful for students with disorders such as Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) but they are not recognised by a legal system that demands to know the specific thing teachers have put in place for this specific child.
Which brings me to my final point. Kuchel suggests that children with disabilities are over represented in suspension and exclusion statistics. The implication is that teachers discriminate against children with disabilities. However, it is important to know that many disabilities and disorders, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), are diagnosed, at least in part, through children’s behaviours. It is therefore predictable that there would be a greater proportion of such children in suspension and exclusion statistics. In fact, suspension or exclusion may even be the trigger for parents to seek a diagnosis.
There is a gap in understanding, but it is not on the part of teachers. Teachers don’t need to simply change mindsets. The behaviours will still be there – whatever they are communicating – and I cannot see us moving away from classes of 25-30 children any time soon. Instead of a relentless focus on suspensions and exclusions, issuing top-down policy to tie the hands of teachers and principals in extremely challenging situations, we should be focused on addressing the root causes of challenging behaviour using well-researched and objective strategies. We can all do emotive. Now, who can do practical?
*I will not address the most emotive part of Harry’s story because such serious matters should not be raised in passing