School exclusion, the practice of temporarily or permanently removing students from their regular learning environment as a form of discipline, has long been a contentious subject. A growing body of research suggests that this practice may contribute to a vicious cycle that traps young people within the justice system. In particular, misunderstood trauma, special educational needs (SEN), and isolation emerge as significant factors fuelling this troubling cycle.
Trauma, especially when it goes undetected or misunderstood, can significantly impact a child’s behaviour and performance in school. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as physical or emotional abuse, neglect, or exposure to violence can lead to various mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These conditions can, in turn, trigger disruptive behaviours that might be interpreted as defiance or indiscipline in a school setting, leading to exclusion.
Unfortunately, traditional school disciplinary measures often fail to recognize the underlying trauma that drives these behaviours. Instead of offering therapeutic interventions or support, schools may resort to exclusion, which further exacerbates feelings of rejection and social isolation, leading to a higher likelihood of these students entering the youth justice system.
Special educational needs (SEN)
Students with special educational needs (SEN) are disproportionately affected by school exclusion. Conditions like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC), and dyslexia can affect a student’s ability to focus, process information, and socialize, often leading to behaviour that schools may find challenging to manage.
Notably, these students are not inherently troublesome or defiant. Their actions often stem from their struggles to navigate an educational environment that does not adequately cater to their unique learning needs. However, instead of receiving the necessary support, these students are often excluded, pushing them to the peripheries of the education system and increasing their risk of engaging with the justice system.
Isolation and its impacts
Social isolation is both a cause and an effect of school exclusion. Children who feel socially isolated are more likely to exhibit challenging behaviours, which may lead to their exclusion from school. Furthermore, exclusion itself is a form of social isolation, which can engender feelings of rejection and lead to the development of antisocial behaviour.
Excluded students often miss out on the social learning that occurs in a school setting. This absence of a supportive community can result in emotional distress, diminished self-esteem, and a lack of important social and emotional skills. All these factors can contribute to these students’ susceptibility to engage in criminal behaviour, thereby entering the youth justice system.
Breaking the cycle
The connection between school exclusion, misunderstood trauma, SEN, and isolation is a complex and vicious cycle that feeds into the youth justice system. However, this cycle is not inevitable. By adopting trauma-informed approaches, providing adequate support for students with SEN, and fostering a sense of belonging for all students, schools can disrupt this cycle.
It’s crucial that educators, policymakers, and society as a whole begin to view these issues through a holistic, empathetic lens. We must strive to understand the root causes of disruptive behaviour and invest in early interventions and inclusive education practices. Such efforts can prevent school exclusions and ensure that all young people have the opportunity to thrive and grow in a supportive, understanding environment – ultimately diverting them from the youth justice system.
Ola Malanska founded Caleidoscope in 2019 .