Exclusion and mental health difficulties: unravelling cause and effect and seeking answers in classroom practice

Amelia Roberts

We are in an ‘exclusions’ crisis.With a rise in exclusions for three years running, we now have 40 children per day being permanently excluded across the UK.

There is a clear link between exclusions and subsequent mental health difficulties. Add the ‘high number of prisoners currently serving time in jail – 42 percent – hav(ing) formerly been permanently excluded we urgently need to understand the reasons behind excluding. The thinktank Poverty and Social Inclusion articulates the links between exclusions and subsequent mental health difficulties. Too often we are assuming that the reason for exclusions lies in prior pupil behaviours or pre-existing illnesses. Should we be instead considering that the cause and effect are the other way round? Could it be that exclusion has an impact on mental health, rather than that the mental illness came first? Perhaps it is the early experiences of excluding in school that reinforces social exclusion in later life?

Such questions will feed into discussions at a conference at UCL on March 15 which will examine how the Lesson Study approach can support vulnerable children.

In an ongoing UCL Centre for Inclusive Education knowledge exchange research programme on whole school wellbeing (SWERL), a number of schools allude to that dreadful phrase ‘the usual suspects’ when talking about pupils or students who are often in detention, out of class or on fixed-term exclusions. On closer scrutiny, many of these schools acknowledge that these young people may not be getting their needs met in the classroom – either in terms of access to the curriculum or in terms of building the sorts of good relationships with teachers that encourage motivation and resilience at school.

So how different would things look if we started to consider the needs of these young people from the perspective of their success and satisfaction in the classroom? Dutch research last year used pupil voice to explore reasons for exclusion. Respondents called for greater creativity in the classroom to help build social groupings and communities outside school. Poor attainment has long been known to be a risk factor in school exclusions. Poor teacher-pupil relationships quickly become the model for poor peer to peer relationships.

What can be done? I believe Lesson Study methods are a a fruitful area to explore. Under Lesson Study, the classroom environment is under proactive, thoughtful scrutiny. A key researcher in this area, Brahm Norwich, describes Lesson Study as a ‘powerful model of professional learning (that)has been integrated with the principles of inclusive practice by classroom teachers in the challenging area of teaching pupils in the spectrum from Moderate Learning Difficulties (MLD) to low attainment.’

So what is Lesson Study? Boiled down to its core components, it is a well-honed technique from Japan whereby a group of teachers (normally three) jointly plan a lesson with one to three pupils specifically in mind, predicting how they might react to different components of the lesson. The lesson is then observed with particular attention paid to the focus pupils, whose opinion on the lesson may be sought. A lesson debrief occurs and lessons learnt are integrated into the next jointly planned lesson. A typical cycle usually involves three lessons and an element of research (or a ‘knowledgeable other’) is used to refine the pedagogy. Sometimes a research question might be asked, such as ‘does peer-talk help our focus children produce greater written output’? A helpful workbook is free to download from Lesson Study UK.

Lesson Study provides a sustainable structure for schools to make sure lessons meet the needs of pupils. Good lessons produce on-task behaviour, resulting in fewer exclusions. With the high cost to society of excluded children and adults, surely then this is an area worthy of greater investment, scrutiny and exploration?

Dr Amelia Roberts, with the World Association of Lesson Study and Lesson Study UK, is running a Lesson Study conference on March 15, looking at topics such how Lesson Study reduces bullying and can support Autistic children.

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Posted in Evidence-based policy, Special educational needs and psychology, Teachers and teaching assistants
4 comments on “Exclusion and mental health difficulties: unravelling cause and effect and seeking answers in classroom practice
  1. John Mountford says:

    Without doubt, the fact that exclusions are happening on the present scale is of great concern. It seems quite clear to me that it is accurate to claim ‘the reason for exclusions lies in prior pupil behaviours’. However, I feel that conflating ‘pre-existing illness’ with prior behaviour is very likely not a helpful way forward.

    Before my retirement, having returned to headship from working as an Ofsted inspector, I was appointed to a SE London junior school with the dubious claim to being the ‘top school’ for pupil exclusions in the borough. Not surprisingly, governors and the LEA looked to turn this situation around. After two years in post, the school was near the bottom of the league table for exclusions and our success prompted an investigation into the reason for our success.

    Briefly, this came about out of a clear focus on the causes and on ways of tackling the issue. First we accepted that the decision to exclude was an indication that the school was not meeting its responsibilities towards at-risk pupils in particular. We also learned that there were inconsistencies in the way different teachers viewed the problem and hence how they were likely to respond when situations arose. In our efforts to tackle the problem, I undertook to thoroughly investigate and document every incident and to share my findings with the pupil, staff member and parents. It was also clear that certain lessons were more likely to ‘provoke’ negative responses among those ‘at-risk’ pupils.

    One trend emerged. Not only was it so often the same children presenting themselves, but certain staff members also seemed to feature more often than others. It became evident to me, as you point out, there is a connection between adult modelling of expectations and the subsequent behaviour of pupils “Poor teacher-pupil relationships quickly become the model for poor peer to peer relationships.” If that was in evidence then, how much more relevant is it in today’s environment of high-stakes accountability and zero tolerance regimes modelled so effectively by senior managers.

    None of this takes away from the fact that mental health issues are on the increase. My feeling is, as well as being mindful in that regard, schools need to increase their efforts first to address the things withing their remit to change before labelling children, especially very young children. Were I still in headship, I would be very interested in looking more closely into the option of using Lesson Study. Upon cursory exploration, I anticipate its main drawback would be its heavy time demands on staff in our quick-fix school culture.

  2. John quicke says:

    There are always numerous interacting factors at work. The point is to recognise what is most salient in relation to specific students in specific contexts. Sounds obvious but few research models capture this dynamic.

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