To Suspend - The Difficult Decision
The challenge faced by those who must initiate a suspension, usually the principal, is how to balance two opposing issues, the needs of the offending student being considered for suspension, balanced against the rights of the rest of the students and staff to operate in a safe physical and psychological environment. Those who follow these essays understand our work is always been to assist those students whose dysfunctional behaviour is the result of their troublesome childhood; these kids deserve all the support we can give them. However, the decision to suspend is made by the principal who must consider the whole school community.
Those on the ‘outside’ invariably regard the decision to suspend a student for disruptive behaviour as the easy option. Anyone who has worked within a school will understand that to place a student on suspension is never taken lightly. The latest proposed version of a new Student Behaviour Strategy sharpens the divide between education practitioners and observers. It would not be unreasonable to conclude that the Department, in the service of the Minister are firmly in the camp that principals are using suspension as an easy fix for an extremely significant problem in schools that serve low socioeconomic areas.
All external reports I have examined, particularly the recent one the Department commissioned with the Telethon Kids Institute has an undivided focus on the child in question, somehow, they are in isolation. Of course, they pay lip-service to the needs of the whole school, as does every review I have observed over the last thirty years. For example, the latest ‘Strategy’ states, ‘we are working to create safe inclusion and participation for all students. To do so, we recognise we need the right support structures in place to ensure all students can learn and thrive’.
They continue with, ‘that addressing student behaviour is ‘integrated within a strategic, system-level approach to learning and wellbeing’. These are empty words; there has never been anything that resembles such an approach that is experienced at the school level. Again, schools were promised day 1- 2021:
- ‘a suite of foundational and specialist professional learning, tools and resources on behaviour support and management
- a new workforce of behaviour specialists to facilitate integrated service support through advice, collaboration and complex case management
- access to a panel of behaviour support service providers will be streamlined to support evidence- informed interventions and enable local decision-making.
- will ensure our workforce has access to the tools and supports they need to manage behaviour across the spectrum of student need, including promoting positive, inclusive and respectful behaviour and responding to and managing complex, challenging and unsafe behaviour’.
Further, ‘We will ensure our workforce has access to the tools and supports they need to manage behaviour across the spectrum of student need, including promoting positive, inclusive and respectful behaviour and responding to and managing complex, challenging and unsafe behaviour’.
These words are meaningless; I suspect policy makers believe that once they announce something, it has happened; their work finishes when the glossy report is printed! Of course this is never the case; unless these supports are not only provided, they must be effective. As someone who has been very active in the field of behaviour management, I have yet to find a program offered to schools that effectively deals with the levels of behaviours that result in most suspensions.
The case for the removal of the offending behaviour to benefit the rest of the school community appears to be straight-forward. The recent misgivings of John Hattie’s work is fashionable however, his seminal work underlined the significance the absence of disruptive students had on learning outcomes which should not be questioned. This conclusion is hardly surprising, any analysis of the time teachers focus on student management compared to learning instruction is directly proportional to the number of disruptive students present. You would think the removal of such students would be advantageous if the aim is to maximise learning outcomes.
The difficulty is that like me all teachers, including principals genuinely care about these damaged children and even if all the promised support was available these kids need to experience consequences if they are to change their behaviour.
The delivery of a negative consequence for students whose actions are unacceptable is difficult within the social and ethical restrictions that reject older, ‘traditional’ penalties. In fact, it is hard to think of any form of ‘punishment’ that teachers can impose that is not a form of ‘time out’ including suspension. Effective time out is a form of short-term rejection and that is a very powerful motivator.
This brings us to the difficulty of the decision on ‘whether to suspend or not’. I have said ‘suspend or not’ because in the current climate, if I had said ‘suspend or what’ for severe behaviours as prescribed by the policy;
- continued disobedience
- aggressive behaviour
- physical violence
- possession of a gun, knife or prohibited weapon
- use of any object as a weapon
- possession of illegal or restricted drugs
- serious criminal behaviour related to the school
- persistent or serious misbehaviour, without the mythical supports outlined in policy being readily available at the school at the time required then suspension should be the only option! So what is the difficulty?
At a superficial level there is the threat implied through the policy that if you suspend you are failing the system. This is a real fear because the ’system’ does have a position of perceived power over the school and in my opinion the ‘system’ may pay lip-service to the welfare of the student however, the real motivation is to placate those whose judgement comes from a perspective that is outside the school, the academics and parents who assume sufficient in-school support is available.
I do sympathise with the principal when faced with this decision as I have done so on so many occasions during my 27 years as a principal. Remembering that I never had the suite of in-school supports, over the years I became more confident in my judgement based on a foundation belief that the decision must be the best for the school and all members of my school including the offender. To facilitate that decision requires a resilient, structured set of consequences for behaviours and that students had a confident expectation that those consequences would be imposed. This is not to say I was not subjected to pressure from the parents of the students or in fact from my direct supervisor to not suspend, when it was appropriate the decision, although never easy was part of my expectations.
Throughout these Newsletters, I have almost inevitably concluded with my principles of behaviour management, structure, expectations and relationships. When students are suspended, if the structure and expectations are known to both parties then the student can develop a sense of personal responsibility and consequently a feeling of self-control; eventually they will come to understand they made the choice! This realisation takes a long time, the reason persistence and consistence is so important but I believe this is the only way schools can have the student take control of their behaviour.