School exclusions have often been seen as an inevitable part of educational discipline, a response to unruly behaviour, and a way of maintaining a conducive learning environment. However, when it comes to children with special educational needs (SEN), this punitive approach is not only ineffective, but it can also be detrimental to their educational growth and emotional well-being.
Children with SEN have diverse learning needs that differ from their neurotypical peers. Their behaviour, which may be perceived as disruptive or inappropriate, often arises from their struggles with communication, sensory issues, or other related conditions. Applying a standard disciplinary approach, like school exclusions, fails to address these underlying issues and does not provide these children with the support they need.
One of the main reasons why school exclusions do not work for children with SEN is the inherent inequity of the punishment. Such exclusions can be seen as a one-size-fits-all solution, which does not consider the unique circumstances of these children. For instance, a child with autism spectrum condition (ASC) might display seemingly disruptive behaviour due to overstimulation or difficulty in expressing their needs. Excluding them from school does not solve the issue; instead, it punishes them for manifestations of their condition, which they have little control over.
Compounding educational disadvantage
Children with SEN are already at a disadvantage in a typical educational system not tailored to their specific needs. Exclusion from school further compounds this disadvantage. They miss out on critical instructional time, the opportunity to interact with peers, and the continuity of learning, which is often essential for their understanding and retention of knowledge. Exclusion from school can lead to widening educational gaps, exacerbating their learning difficulties, and setting them up for long-term academic underachievement.
Negative impact on mental health
School exclusions can have a devastating impact on the mental health of children with SEN. Being singled out and excluded can lead to feelings of rejection, humiliation, and a sense of not belonging, which can cause or exacerbate mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. These children might also develop a negative association with education, impacting their motivation to learn and their overall perception of their abilities.
A missed opportunity for support
Every exclusion is a missed opportunity to understand and support the unique needs of a child with SEN. Instead of using exclusion as a punitive measure, schools could use these instances to engage with the child, their parents, and professionals to identify the root causes of the perceived problematic behaviour. This approach can lead to personalized interventions and support, enabling the child to better manage their behaviour and thrive in the school environment.
The need for a more inclusive approach
It is clear that school exclusions do not work for children with SEN. What’s needed is a more inclusive, understanding, and flexible approach. Schools need to invest in training for teachers to equip them with the skills to understand, empathize, and effectively teach children with SEN. They should foster an inclusive culture, where diversity is celebrated, and every child feels valued.
Instead of exclusions, schools could use positive behaviour support strategies, which focus on teaching new skills and making changes to the child’s environment to promote positive behaviour. Additionally, schools should work closely with parents and professionals to create personalised education plans, which cater to the child’s unique needs and strengths.
It is time for schools to move away from punitive measures like exclusions, which fail to support children with SEN, and instead adopt an inclusive, supportive, and child-centred approach. Only then can we ensure that every child, regardless of their needs, is given the opportunity to learn, grow, and reach their full potential.
Ola Malanska founded Caleidoscope in 2019.