The words of an anonymous teacher quoted in 2000 by the clinical psychologist Russell Barkley have become a wellknown adage in education – “The children who need love the most will ask for it in the most unloving ways.”
The sentiment expressed here is one we can recognise and empathise with, but how many ‘unloving ways’ can schools be expected to take? Is it fair for the rest of the class to be exposed to this and have their learning disrupted in the process? These are the considerations schools have to take into account when faced with a disruptive child with challenging behaviours.
Teaching is certainly more standardised in approach and regulated by policy than it was when I first started. The question has to be, has this contributed to a ‘zero tolerance’ culture in some schools, particularly towards those children who have behavioural difficulties? I certainly see an immense variation from school to school in terms of what’s deemed forgivable and what leads to immediate exclusion. I do wonder whether some primary settings are now too rigid to allow certain groups to function positively.
We need to be creative about how we meet the needs of all learners, and this includes broadening the curriculum and becoming more child-centred. From the second a child walks into class there’s not a moment of education to be lost, and teachers are held painfully accountable.
Yet something arguably more precious is being lost – that instinctive knowledge on the part of the teacher that something is wrong, or the chance for a child to talk about the weekend or share an achievement from home. That all-important relationship-building and bonding is being undermined.
Often it’s learning mentors or family support workers who liaise with parents, help with family crises, lend a listening ear or provide a shoulder to cry on.
Whilst this is a great resource for schools, it can also mean that teachers are left unaware of important issues surrounding children in their class.
It’s difficult to see how teachers can have any sort of pastoral input when this vital role is farmed out, ‘leaving teachers to teach’. Building these relationships is essential, not some inconvenient part of school life that gets in the way of extra phonics or guided reading.
Compounding the problem at primary level is a proliferation of class interventions which occupy separate timetables with streamed groupings, meaning teachers don’t see their whole class as regularly.
Exclusion’s not the solution
I’m not against children receiving targeted support, but at what cost to their overall learning experience is this form of support provided? In secondary schools, pupils spend limited time with each of their teachers as they move from subject to subject. How can we build up a comprehensive picture of the whole child, their interests, strengths and weaknesses, if as teachers we hardly see them? And is it surprising that some children cannot cope with the demands of a busy classroom environment, either in accessing the curriculum or managing their own behaviour?
The system is to blame for this. We’re losing sight of our core purpose as teachers, in loco parentis. Parents are meanwhile working ever-longer hours, so some children are also missing out on the opportunity to spend meaningful time with the adults in their home lives.
I’ve seen first-hand the effects of exclusion on children and families, and on distressed parents who feel inadequate. Removing the ‘problem’ from school is not the answer. As Claire Wolstenholme and Nick Hodge, two academics at Sheffield Hallam University, observed in 2016, “It might initially feel like a relief when a pupil who is perceived as difficult and stressful is excluded from school. But exclusion can also leave many teachers with a sense of failure as they struggle with the unsettling question: ‘Could I have done more?’”
Many of the teachers and heads I work with share this unease and try to exhaust all other sources of help and support, with exclusion coming as a last resort. Wolstenholme and Hodge went on to say, “Schools find themselves trapped within what feel like competing government agendas; the mandate to include children and young people with SEND in mainstream, the ranking of schools according to pupil attainment and the need to be seen to be strong on discipline and control.”
Communication is critical
Wolstenholme and Hodge’s research suggests that regular positive communication with pupils and parents could reduce permanent exclusions. My own experiences suggest that communication and talking are indeed key – however, the discussion needs to begin at the earliest possible stage, before difficulties become embedded. The issue of communication can be particularly pertinent in the case of learners with EAL. At some of the schools I work in there is good use of staff who speak community languages to ease transition and ensure that integration is speedy without negatively impacting on the child’s cultural experiences.
My career actually began as an EAL support teacher at an infant school, in which a significant proportion of pupils were of Pakistani heritage and spoke a first language other than English.
Funding for such posts was ringfenced in the 1980s, but has since been subsumed into other budgets with some schools now relying more on bilingual support staff than specialists. I’m now seeing some children with EAL and SEN struggling to get the support they need, often resulting in them showing some challenging behaviours. This is particularly difficult for families who have little or no English themselves, as they have to rely on interpreters to access the right help from professionals.
The ‘right’ provision
Children with EAL often presented at our PRU with behavioural difficulties due to a language deficit – in their home language, as well as English – and a range of undiagnosed needs. Poor social and communication skills led to them leaving mainstream education, either as a respite placement or as the result of permanent exclusion. Due to their challenging behaviours, we were seen as the ‘right’ provision.
Usually, their behaviours were down to the frustration they felt in their struggle to communicate. They were often confused and traumatised, sometimes having been thrust into a new country and a new school. We often felt schools could be doing more to help these children before resorting to exclusion, although now I can see the pressures they were under.
Parents struggled to communicate and this only compounded the issue. It was often difficult to persuade them to engage with relevant medical professionals through referrals and subsequent appointments. They needed high levels of support from school staff. However, if parents trust you and know that you’re there to help them and their children, they’re more likely to meet you half way.
If a child has EAL and SEN, parents will sometimes be fortunate enough to receive home language support and be accompanied to appointments by staff acting as translators. This works well, but is very intensive as often everything will need translating – discussions, reports, follow-up appointments and team around the family (TAF) meetings. Without that, the child is in danger of slipping through the net, particularly if they require the support of an EHCP. Some schools provide extra adult support, but others may not be able to afford this.
However, if we’re proactive and search for resources we can integrate into our practice, there’s no reason why we can’t make a massive difference in helping learners with EAL and complex needs, rather than pushing the ‘exclude’ button.
The hallmarks of inclusive schools
What makes some schools more inclusive than others? Some common characteristics I’ve observed include…
- Leadership and management have embedded inclusive policies and practices
- Pupils with behavioural issues are identified at an early stage; underlying medical needs are investigated
- The school embraces difference and recognises when support is needed
- Parents and carers are fully included in the monitoring and managing of their child’s needs
- Correct SEN procedures are in place during EHCP applications; paperwork and evidencing is tight
Jackie Ward is consultant specialising in SEND, having previously taught in primary schools and a primary PRU over a 25-year career; this article is based on an edited extract of her book On the Fringes, published by Crown House Publishing.