If I was in a job where I felt I was being left behind while colleagues around me were promoted and praised, I’m not sure how motivated I’d be. And if my boss was constantly pressuring me to improve and applied non-negotiable sanctions for my perceived lack of performance, I would probably leave.

If I was a school pupil, however, I would have little choice but to stick it out for my entire childhood – or demonstrate negatively perceived behaviours to such an extent that I was excluded altogether.

While this might sound dramatic, I’ve seen this situation play out for a number of children who struggle daily with school life.

And I’ve seen a lot of children who have been excluded as a result.

Recently there has been concern about the impact of rising rates of ‘zero tolerance behaviour policies’ adopted by some schools – particularly in some areas of the North East of England.

This practice seems contrary to the Government’s recent stated aim to transform mental health provision for children and young people and in light of an increased general awareness of mental health issues.

The damage such zero tolerance approaches can have cannot be underestimated. For those at school already coping with issues staff are unaware of, it can mean feeling even more isolated than they did already, with exclusion being the ultimate form of quarantine.

Recent research by the University of Exeter found that exclusions may lead to long-term psychiatric problems and psychological distress. They also found a “bi-directional association” in that poor mental health can also lead to exclusions.

In her briefing report issued last October, the Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield OBE, talked about children’s inability to access mental health support. She described how this lack of access could lead to additional problems such as exclusions, care placements breaking down and children ending up in the youth justice system. She went on to point out that early intervention is necessary and cost effective “but is currently a postcode lottery of fragmented support depending almost entirely on where a child grows up and which school they attend.”

This issue of accessibility and early intervention is critical. In my current role with Kooth and in my previous job as a family support worker, I’ve seen children dealing with complex issues, manifesting in behaviours at school which often come with the threat of exclusion.

What is needed is a conscious effort to apply understanding to those situations and help support – not penalise or judge – children and families.

During a recent series of school-based group therapy sessions for boys aged 11-15, I heard children talking about their struggles and their frustrations: schools and other services were not providing anywhere near enough support. Many of the boys in these groups had been, or were at risk of, exclusion. Mental health was a defining feature for the majority. Common issues were feelings of abandonment linked to family breakdown, self-harm, suicide, complicated relationships within the family home, depression and managing ADHD and autism. Often they were frustrated by constraints they felt within school.

The boys were incredible in sharing their experiences with one another – not typically something than males find easy.

The group provided the boys with a safe space, and to explore and avoid potential risk of exclusion. It was amazing how just one person sharing their story and their experiences would encourage others to do the same.

Gradually, my colleague, a Kooth counsellor, and I, were able to unpick their stories and frustrations and help them start to understand and address their emotions and their behaviour.

The truth is that mental health plays a significant role in most, if not all, of the young people I have supported. Most find an educational setting really challenging.

As a family support worker I saw that most of the children and young people I supported lived in chaotic homes and had all suffered varying levels of trauma in their early lives. This would often lead to difficulties at school; many were in a cycle of continuous exclusion. I saw a clear link between their early life experiences, academic attainment and mental health issues.

In my experience, exclusions rarely worked, if ever. Putting young people in detention or isolating them simply escalates the problem and pushes people closer to permanent exclusion as they just cannot manage this type of sanction.

So where do we go from here?

I think there are five key ways to start thinking differently about managing “bad behaviour” within schools. For a lot of schools this won’t be anything new, but for others with increased rates of exclusion, it may help inform a new approach:

  1. Try to view each child as completely unique and treat them as such. It’s important that schools individualise rather than having a ‘one size fits all’ approach
  2. Understand what underpins behaviours, and where possible put appropriate support in place
  3. Be less rigid when it comes to school sanctions. Is the sanction that is being put in place right for the individual? Has there been a positive impact following it? Where sanctions are not working (and I would guess most are not effective), it’s imperative that schools are able to notice this early and adapt support for each young person
  4. Investing in staff education is key. In some schools there is a real focus on consequence and punishment. Staff having a greater understanding of young people’s emotional development and individual circumstances would help change attitudes which could have a really positive impact
  5. Ensure staff are knowledgeable about the services and support available to their students

As the Children’s Commissioner stated, the issue of early access to support is at the heart of addressing mental health. Ensuring children and young people know about Kooth’s free, anonymous counselling has a significant role to play here.

If we can reduce exclusions and increase understanding and support, we have a real chance of helping young people into education rather than excluding them from it.

Tom Robson

Integration and Participation Worker, XenZone