A Professor of Psychology wants schools to stop using suspension as a disciplinary tactic, saying it is counterproductive.
“Schools might need to rethink the way they discipline children, because commonly used practices such as detention and suspension may do more harm than good,” says Professor Sheryl Hemphill from Australian Catholic University.
Studies have found that suspending students may intensify their academic difficulties and result in school drop-out, disengagement from school, criminal activity, and alcohol and drug use.
It is also likely to lead to further exclusion. Professor Hemphill’s research has found that a student suspended from school is 50 per cent more likely to engage in antisocial behaviour and 70 per cent more likely to engage in violent behaviour in the following 12 months.
Restorative practice programs
An alternative to suspension might be the ‘restorative practice programs’ that some schools are reportedly having success with.
The RP for Schools website explains that where traditional school discipline asks:
- What happened?
- Who’s to blame? and
- What do they deserve?
the restorative approach to school discipline asks:
- What happened?
- Who’s been harmed? and
- What needs to happen to repair some of that harm?
Restorative programs focus on the harm that has been done and the obligation of those responsible to ‘right the wrong’. Graeme George from RP for Schools says students might still be excluded (suspended), but usually only to give them time out of the situation and away from those affected by the behaviour until a restorative conference can be organised and conducted.
“The key aims of a restorative response to poor behaviour are to enable the wrongdoer to learn the depth of the harm their behaviour has caused, and to give those affected by the behaviour the opportunity to have a say in what needs to happen to repair some of the harm,” says Graeme. “Sometimes this takes time and there can be a need for some ‘cooling off’ time. In this case, the student isn’t ‘suspended’ as much as given time to reflect before coming face to face with those he/she has affected. The ‘suspension’ isn’t the response, it’s just to enable the necessary preparations to occur. A suspension without any other response really serves little purpose.”
Professor Hemphill told ACU’s Insight magazine that she hopes further testing of restorative programs will show schools that their programs are having a useful and positive effect.
Readers of The Kids Are All Right have shared their experiences of their children being suspended.
Amy – positive experience
When my daughter was suspended in grade three (after numerous other interventions by the school) the Principal told her if her behaviour continues, he would have to seriously consider whether she’d be welcome at the school. He made sure she knew it wasn’t her, but her behaviour that was unwelcome. She got the shock of her life and has been more or less out of trouble since then. Having said that, the school was AMAZING in regards to the support they offered from day one. It only worked because she loves school and I guess just hadn’t realized how serious the situation was.
Marie – negative experience
I feel that the only person that is punished by suspension is the parent. I’m working six days a week, and when my son has been suspended I have to worry about keeping him home all day (usually it is four days suspension, not just one). It is very stressful and interferes with my working day.
My 15-year-old son was recently suspended over something pretty petty – a push to another boy when called a name. As a result, the minimum is four days suspension.
I was told by another parent that you can ask for the suspension to be at the school, but I actually went in for a meeting with the Principal and told him four days was too long. He was happy with my son to come back after two days, but I don’t feel it helps him in any way to be responsible for his actions.
Having two days off school he falls behind more in his work, and is made to feel guilty for defending himself after being called names. I would prefer counselling and more emphasis put on self-esteem and bullying issues and how to better handle situations than be told to “go away for four days”.
I feel that the teachers find it an easy option and they use this rule freely as a way of not dealing with problems that all teens come across in the schoolyard. Kids need to learn to problem solve, not be told to “go away, you’re in the too hard basket”. What does that achieve?
Leanne – negative experience
Bad behaviour is an indicator that some sort of a need is not being fulfilled. I believe no child should be suspended unless they make a physical threat to someone. My son was classified as violent purely by his diagnosis of ADHD. He is not violent, but he is a difficult child to have in their schools. After he left his first high school a classmate of his told me the school “just never tried with him, they just gave up, he was too hard”.
Teachers don’t know how to handle kids like my son because they’re not trained in managing behaviour. He had been diagnosed as ADHD, but after he left school at 15 to study externally, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s. So he had Asperger’s and extreme anxiety around attending school, he was bullied, there was a lack of understanding, and everything escalated and school became a really stressful place to be.
He became so anxious he physically couldn’t take himself to school, so he ran away from school; and for that he got suspended. Their answer to a child not attending school due to extreme anxiety and extreme school refusal was to say: “you can’t come to school”.
In primary school he was sent to the Principal’s office, and he ran away then to the border of the school grounds. The Principal panicked and took off after him, which made him run more. The Deputy Principal, who knew him outside of school, said he’d take over. He sat down and told my son he wasn’t going to chase him. My son came and sat next to him. That’s an example of one person who handled it the right way. So much depends on how people manage it.
Both the mums who described their negative experiences with suspension had teens who have been diagnosed with disabilities. One boy has dyslexia, the other ADHD and Asperger syndrome. Both boys also have extreme school refusal.
These circumstances are not an uncommon trigger for suspension, according to Children with Disability Australia (CDA), the national peak body representing children and young people with disability.
“Many behaviours of students with disability are often viewed as disciplinary issues rather than taking into account a child’s disability,” says spokesperson Stephanie Gotlib. “As a consequence, challenging behaviour is often interpreted and dealt with inappropriately. This can exacerbate the challenging behaviours and lead to children being suspended or expelled. There seems to be a lack of knowledge within the education system, in addition to a lack of resources, to enable appropriate and effective intervention.”
If you would like to share your experiences or thoughts on suspension, please join our discussion on our forum.