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  • Sarah Johnson

The Danger of One Narrative

In the early hours of the morning I was thinking about ideas that children who are excluded are all traumatised and posted the following thread on twitter:

I think there is a danger in the narrative “children who are excluded are all traumatised”. This thread is going to detail why.
1. It ignores the idea that children are part of a system which for some is rigid & doesn’t take into account a child’s individual needs. This can push kids to the margins & impact on behaviour and the label what is good/bad, acceptable/unacceptable.
2. Not all children who suffer from trauma behave in ways that are incompatible with what is seen as ‘good behaviour’. How about those quiet children who do their work diligently? We must keep an open mind to those children potentially being unsafe or have difficult pasts.
3. School systems are made up of a myriad of relationships & those relationships can fracture & the outcome is that there may be an infraction of rules that can lead to exclusion.
4. Adolescents are often “risk takers” and behavioural policies may attempt to a) minimise this risk b) control [yes control] breaking these rules can lead to exclusions

I need to clarify a few questions that came from the subsequent discussion.

  • What do I mean when I say excluded?

  • What is meant by the term trauma?

  • Are all children excluded from school traumatised by the very act of an exclusion?

  • How do children behave [within the school environment] when they have traumatic experiences? Is there a unifying characteristic of behaviour exhibited by children that are traumatised?

  • Can trauma and relief co-exist?

I was going to write more free flow but I think the ideas are complex so using the above questions as a framework to answer will be better for those reading it. I welcome people’s views and comments. I don’t think it is helpful to position myself as a person that knows all the answers. There are many perspectives that may help us understand a complex picture in a fragmented education system.

What do I mean when I say excluded?

Exclusion is often used interchangeable to include;

  • Fixed term exclusions

  • Permanent exclusions

Wider perspectives of exclusion may also include (and this is not a complete list, those reading this will have their own views and perspectives)

  • social exclusion (those children that may not have access to resources to full participate),

  • self-exclusion (sometimes referred to as ‘school refusal’, ‘school based anxiety’, ‘truancy’ etc),

  • children with medical needs that are unable to attend school (may also include school based anxiety, but also children with cancer, mental health needs, recovering from operations),

  • children with SEN who may not have been allocated a school place

  • children with unidentified/unrecognised SEN that are not attending school

  • children that are off-rolled by a school (e.g. encouraged to Elective Home Educate when it isn’t the parent’s positive decision. More information can be found here)

We can see that exclusion as a concept is wide-ranging. Within research we often talk about the idea of operationalisation – the idea that we have to define our terms so that at the outset we have a shared understanding. So when I say exclusion, in this instance, I am talking about children that are permanently excluded from school. Where there is a defined process of exclusion as set out in statutory guidance. I am talking about this here otherwise the blog will become a book rather than something short and accessible as part of my ‘I am up at 2am in the morning and thinking blog’

What is meant by the term trauma?

The next question is what do I mean by trauma. Trauma is often used as a short cut in education and other settings to mean ‘things have been really hard’. Again I reiterate the need to operationalise our term. Full disclosure – I am not a clinician, I am a teacher by trade (and now an education consultant including roles in PRU/AP and Local Authorities). I have had a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and subsequent treatment in the form of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR). I do have concerns that trauma is used to express the seriousness of concerns that people have about the negative impacts of exclusion on groups and individual children. Understanding events which are potentially traumatic, knowing what PTSD is, and using a trauma lens to approach your work, the children and their families are different things but are often used interchangeable. I think MIND has a good overview of trauma which includes the idea that it is a personal response to external events. It says that;

“Going through very stressful, frightening or distressing events is sometimes called trauma”

It is important to reiterate that what you and I may find stressful, frighted and/or distressing may not affect the other person in the same way. We interpret and understand events differently.

Further, a child recognising or even if they can’t name it, expecting an event is trauma, may not mean they have PTSD. However, using a trauma lens to understand their experiences I believe is helpful. I think it opens up dialogue to explore the effect something has had on a child.

Are all children excluded from school traumatised by the very act of an exclusion?

I think in short my answer is no. I think whenever we use the word ‘all’ we know that some, even if it is just one, will not experience things in the same way. Do many? Perhaps, but without really digging deeper and finding out more from the child’s perspective we are risking overlaying our own perspectives and talking for children and young people directly. As part of my PhD (and yes I need to finish it, and stop faffing around) I spoke to a number of children in a very small scale piece of research which explored their own experiences of exclusion (both how I have operationalised it for this blog as well as wider definitions mentioned above). Some did speak about how they found it distressing, the act of exclusion. Others reported that they didn’t care and found it a relief to not be in the mainstream school environment. Now, that leads to ideas about what we can do differently and I would argue, better, to ensure that all children’s needs are met within the schooling environment so that children appear so disenfranchised by an education system that is a relief to be out of the mainstream.

How do children behave [within the school environment] when they have traumatic experiences? Is there a unifying characteristic of behaviour exhibited by children that are traumatised?

This is my favourite question of this blog. Again another short answer is “no”. If we assume that all children who have experienced traumatic situations behave in the same way we are in danger of that assumption missing out the children that don’t fit into our narrow understanding. If we assume that children who are traumatised or have experienced trauma only react in one way (i.e. those children that may throw things, shout abuse or exhibit what we term as persistence disruptive behaviour) we also forget the children that may be quieter, disengage, or diligently get on with their work (I was one of those later children by the way – see my full disclosure above)

In turning this question around ‘Have children and young people that behave in ways that we see as negative, all suffered/witnessed trauma?’ Again, no. Children behave in a range of ways for equally huge range of reasons. What about the children that have Special Educational Needs (SEN) that the school are unaware of or not meeting their needs? The child that may opt (consciously or otherwise) to exit class so as not be embarrassed by some of their difficulties. The child with poor self-esteem (but no trauma) who would rather not risk failing their learning because they have already catastrophised and do not want anyone to be witness to it? It always reminds me of Howard Becker’s work (thanks sociology teacher) about rules and the behaviour itself is not innately bad but how we apply rules to others and the infraction of those rules is what constitutes deviance. Again I would argue that instances of rape, assault etc would not fall into this definition of rule breaking. However, I would certainly argue that forgetting pens, wearing incorrect school uniform and swearing etc certainly would.

In my initial thread I also argued that school systems make up a myriad of relationship where it is incumbent on the child to rub along and be polite and work in environments where they may want to be. This isn’t about trauma or anything else but a realistic knowledge that children are no different to adults, we don’t necessarily like Mrs. Butler (sorry for any random Mrs. Butlers that are reading this!) and really the idea of a Friday afternoon sitting in a class doing English with her is far from their interest. Boredom, dislike and frustration can show up in children’s behaviours just as it can with adults, the difference is, children often have less choice than we do as adults.

Can trauma and relief co-exist?

If we are to exclude a child and we see that very act of exclusion as being potentially traumatic, can a child also feel relief in being excluded? I think so, but that is less about the child themselves, but more about a system being built around the allocation of resources being made available only when there is a point of no return. Often, exclusion can mean that finally, a child’s needs are being met (if accessing good PRU or AP upon the exclusion) or that if it is a case of special educational needs, they are not being faced with an environment that doesn’t meet their needs on a regular basis. However, that disruption and disconnect from their friends, their community and so on can still have a fundamental effect on feelings of being part of a community where they belong and should not be underestimated.

My parting thoughts

So is every child that excluded traumatised by the very act of exclusion? I don’t know, is the simple answer but it is certainly important to be professionally curious to that possibility. Then in exploring that, from an AP perspective, develop specific support to address that trauma.

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