Graham Chatterley is a father, teacher, education consultant and trainer. He was previously a school leader in a specialist SEMH setting and has children on the autism spectrum. He recently embarked on a new venture called “Challenging Perceptions”. In this guest post for the Axcis blog, he talks about the use of isolation and zero tolerance policies in schools and the impact they may be having on our young people.
There is much debate at the moment about the use of isolation and zero tolerance. Powerful people in education favour a zero tolerance approach that is punitive in its response to behavior. Many settings that use zero tolerance claim that once a child is removed from class they are supported, that it is never for longer than a day and they are with other children. This is challenged by professionals who believe the practice of isolation and zero tolerance to be dated, ineffective and often misused. It is predominantly vulnerable children who are repeatedly hit with these sanctions.
The argument for the success of these isolations and punitive approach is that it sends a clear message to the other children of what is acceptable. This teaches them how to conform to rules and will make them a good citizen. However I’m not sure this is what is happening.
The argument against is that vulnerable children who, due to trauma or having additional needs such as speech and communication difficulties find systems like this extremely difficult to navigate. Repeated failure and the perception of threat cause these children to adopt survival strategies in order to cope.
Children who know they are failing will often mask with behavior because they have an unmet learning need. For those children the fear of failure drives everything. We have a built in fear of rejection from when we were cavemen, failure means rejection, rejection means being alone, being alone means you are getting eaten. We no longer have the reality of being eaten but nobody has told the underdeveloped brain that. Rather than getting laughed at and rejected for being stupid and failing it is better to choose a flight response. Avoid the work with behavior or get sent out, flight achieved. Repeat this cycle enough times and you achieve ‘persistent disruptive behavior’ and will be excluded. Usually for a specialist provision to identify the additional need – but often too late to do enough about it.
What if everyday involved survival? What if you arrived at school forecasting failure? What if you expect to be challenged the second you walk through the school door? What if attack is the best form of defence?
For a child who has experienced trauma, this perception is an everyday reality. Expectation that they will fail, forecasting being attacked, believing that nobody likes them, expecting rejection. This child will perceive everything as a threat and be ready to fight at any moment. Hypervigilance means they react on impulse, are often full of adrenaline and stress hormones and in a zero tolerance environment those threats are everywhere, They may not be real and life threatening but when you can look at a pen and see a path to your own death, the perception is more important than the reality. When challenged this child will fight, most likely verbally but sometimes physically. Repeat this cycle enough and you have ‘aggressive/ violent behaviour’ and this child will also be excluded, probably much quicker. Usually to go to a specialist provision where they build relationships, are made to feel safe, trust adults and find children they belong with.
There are very successful mainstream schools who don’t adopt a zero tolerance approach who still use removal. Getting a distressed child away from the distressing environment is good practice, but as a way to teach children about their behavior rather than a means to punish. These schools realise that there is an underlying feeling driving the behavior and that comes from experiences. They must use empathetic and understanding staff/pupil relationships to change experiences. It doesn’t happen over night and it doesn’t mean no consequences as is argued by a lot of zero tolerance supporters. What it means is that they gain safety and trust first and then teach behavior. The 2 go hand in hand.
Children’s mistakes are opportunities to learn a better way, and most importantly they aren’t shamed for having feelings. They are taught to be guilty about the behavior that resulted from the feeling but the feeling itself gets the validation it needs and we make a plan to change the behavior. It is a process and a culture, it’s not a magic wand strategy. The message given when we punish children who can’t control their feelings is a dangerous one.
This is where my biggest concern lies. Children who express their emotions inappropriately, either through a fight survival strategy or through a flight one will eventually get the support they need. They will eventually end up in a setting where they are loved and supported.
What about the children who have the same experiences and the same additional needs but who freeze when faced with adversity? They have learned from witnessing the zero tolerance approach that the best way to survive is to hide and blend in. Despite having all of the dangerous feelings that other children have, safety comes from suppressing them. We have been teaching boys that they can’t show they are hurt or upset and need to be tough for years, but look at the different between male and female suicide rates.
We are at best not noticing what is happening to these children, and at worst deliberately ignoring them. They are being forgotten in favour of the high achievers or the high tariff pupils. They have made themselves invisible and many schools have become compliant in this. They don’t cause any bother and don’t take up any resources.
The argument in support of the zero tolerance approach is that by not strongly/obviously dealing with challenging behavior, it sends a message that it is OK to behave that way. However this doesn’t really happen, I’ve been in lots of situations where a child has behaved poorly – the idea that one child throws a chair so everyone gets up and throws a chair just isn’t reality. It could just as easily be argued that the message taken by the child is it isn’t OK to feel that way. If I let my feelings get the better of me I will be rejected, nobody is interested in how I feel, what I feel is bad, I am bad. When we shame children for feeling bad we are completing a cycle that is never going to allow that child to thrive.
We have all been in a position where we have been scared, outraged or upset but not able to express those feelings. Whether the reason is to be strong for someone else or to save face or to not inflame a situation, we have all done it at some point. We also know how exhausting and difficult it is to do. For example when your boss is totally out of order having a go at you and you are outraged. The amount of effort that goes into self-control and stopping your feelings from overwhelming you is huge. We are angry and we want to tell them straight but we have to suppress it or we will risk being fired.
Imagine that every day, and in some schools all day long. Every encounter, every lesson. With the concentration required to suppress feelings, how can you possibly concentrate on the work? Well that’s just it, many children in this situation can’t. Some can cope just enough to tick along unnoticed in the background but never achieving what they are capable of, never thriving and never meeting projected grades. Rather than recognise this and support them, many schools will assume that they aren’t trying hard enough or they don’t do enough at home or its parents not pushing them. However, it is my belief that schools often create a culture of fear – which in turn creates another feeling for the child to suppress, something else to worry about rather than the lesson content.
In extreme circumstances children can’t access any of their thinking brain because it’s all about survival. For children hiding, survival is about accessing just enough!
How is it that children truly learn? They learn by making themselves vulnerable, they learn by risking failure and they learn by putting themselves out there. When you are focused on surviving and you are asked to embrace those scary feelings this isn’t going to happen. Putting up a hand, engaging in discussion or taking a lead aren’t going to happen in a culture of fear because if you make a mistake you will be punished, you will be shamed.
The reason these schools without zero tolerance are more successful in terms of behavior is down to safety and trust – the rise in progress is merely a side-effect. Children feel like they belong, they feel like they can take chances and won’t be shamed. Feeling something isn’t wrong even if it sometimes overwhelms you and you make a behavioural mistake. Those children, in those environments feel safe enough to be vulnerable and they don’t spend all of their time trying to suppress feelings and instead open their mind to learning – both academically and behaviourally. Instead of low self esteem leading to frustration, anger and aggression, it can lead to belonging, self-control and happiness.
For years I have been doing the fizzy pop challenge. The child has negative experiences and we shake the bottle. Eventually the bottle is visibly fizzing and will explode if opened. We talk about de-escalation and not opening the bottle because we can see the fizz. Too many schools are ignoring the fizz and doing too little to prevent the explosion.
What if the child doesn’t have the fizz?
What if everything is about suppressing that fizz?
Where does that fizz go?
It goes inward.
It goes in a box with all the other negative feelings they are overwhelmed by; all the anger, sadness, frustration all go in the box. Unfortunately they can’t differentiate so all the hope, joy, optimism and creativity go in the box, too. Feelings are bad, if I don’t feel anything l can’t feel hurt.
Or perhaps the fizz is released later, they can’t hurt others so they’ll hurt themselves. How many children in zero tolerance environments survive all day and self-harm at home? I think the figure would be worrying.
In the moment when I ask those staff which child would they rather have, they always want the fizz. Well then lets teach children that fizz is OK and that its OK to spill a bit sometimes. The great thing with spills is that if we clean them up quickly no harm is done. If we leave it whilst we tell them off, send them out or punish then it will leave a stain.
So why not hand them a cloth and teach them how to clean it up.
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