Many education institutions have made headlines recently for excluding students, citing challenging behaviour and poor attendance as the reasons, while their attainment levels increased.

"Understanding students’ difficulty with school, whether environmental or academic, is the first step we can take to making sure everyone is given equal opportunity to succeed."

Of course, not all schools or multi-academy trusts (MATs) have the same approach, and in fact some are shining examples of how to identify underlying issues and support a student in fulfilling their potential through a personalised pathway.

So, what can we learn from them?

Understand students

When a child becomes disruptive in class, fails to hand in homework or starts to miss lessons completely, a common assumption is that they are just uninterested in school. However in my experience as a teacher, I have found this is rarely the case. Whatever the reason for their behaviour, attitude or even sudden drop in progress, it’s rarely about the student being ‘naughty’ and is usually the result of them being disengaged with learning. For example, issues at home could change a student’s involvement instantly overnight, which is out of their control. Or, the subject matter is not being delivered in a way that works for them.

An inclusive approach

We need to make sure strategies to reengage students with their learning are considerate of all backgrounds, all abilities and any additional needs. It is frightening that children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are far more likely to be excluded from school than other children. 

For students with special educational needs (SEN), a mainstream environment may simply be too chaotic for them to learn effectively. This can lead to heightened levels of anxiety, especially for those who are sensitive to loud noises and crowds, and expressing this can be difficult, so the result can be what is mislabelled as bad behaviour. The truth is often far from this, but the danger is that acting on this can be really damaging to a child. The ‘naughty’ child develops into a ‘troubled teen’ and their reputation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading to poor attendance, poor attainment and their potential is limited before they’ve even had a chance.

Disengagement in the classroom might also be the result of deeply rooted problems that are harder to see from the surface. It may be less to do with how the lessons are delivered, and more to do with poor mental health, or bullying. Either way, missing school becomes an increasingly attractive option to them. 

Understanding students’ difficulty with school, whether environmental or academic, is the first step we can take to making sure everyone is given equal opportunity to succeed. Rather than turning to exclusion, we need to act quickly and use the right tools to create personalised pathways to improvement wherever they need it most. For example, online platforms offer all students the opportunity to access learning, because they allow students to complete homework and even attend class via a virtual classroom, all from the comfort of their own home, or in a quiet environment on the school’s site that is designed for their needs. Through these platforms, schools can continue to deliver lessons to support students from afar, while working to re-engage them with mainstream education when they are ready.

Act quickly

Lastly, if a teacher or parent addresses issues early enough, they will stand a much better chance of successfully re-engaging them in learning and hopefully direct them towards a route back into mainstream education. For example, if a student is exhibiting challenging behaviour, sitting down together to talk about what is causing them to act in a disruptive way is an important way to correctly identify the support they need to get them back on track, rather than making assumptions and acting on those.

It’s also important to work on building mutual respect between teachers and students. Showing students that they are trusted to take ownership of their studies can be incredibly empowering, helping them to see the connection between what they are learning and how it fits with their own goals or potential careers.

Exclusion, as the name would suggest, is incredibly isolating and only pushes students further away from their learning. When a child exhibits poor attendance, behaviour or progress, the last thing we should do is restrict their access to education. Working together, students and their teachers can look at their current development expectations and where they could be, and how that relates to their aspirations, makes the process far more meaningful to them and in turn, increases their engagement with learning.

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