School punishments 'worsen vulnerable children’s mental health'

Joe Lepper
Thursday, January 9, 2020

Vulnerable children suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are being further traumatised through school punishments such as being secluded and excluded, according to a mental health charity.

A third of children in England and Wales are exposed to trauma, the report says. Picture: Adobe Stock
A third of children in England and Wales are exposed to trauma, the report says. Picture: Adobe Stock

A Centre for Mental Health report found that around a third of children in England and Wales are exposed to trauma, such as neglect and abuse, before they are 18. A quarter of this group of children will go on to develop PTSD, it says.

Those who are violent and showing challenging behaviour such as stealing and ignoring rules are more likely to have been affected by trauma, the Centre adds.

But too often schools are failing to understand the effects of trauma on children and are responding to their challenging behaviour through “restrictive action” that is leaving them further traumatised.

This includes being restrained by staff, secluded from their fellow pupils or being excluded from school.

“In some cases, challenging behaviour is a symptom of trauma,” states the report.

It adds: “Exclusion and seclusion can echo relational trauma and systemic trauma; while physical restraint can echo physical and sexual abuse.

“As a result, these interventions may cause harm and potentially drive even more challenging behaviour.”

Instead schools are being urged to better understand the effect of trauma on children and promote positive behaviour.

Such “trauma-informed schools” can help to “minimise the trauma causing potential of the school environment”.

This includes teaching pupils about mental wellbeing and focusing on the school being a “safe and caring environment”.

Centre for Mental Health chief executive Sarah Hughes added: “Attempts to improve school discipline through restrictive interventions and exclusions will not work. For some of the most vulnerable and marginalised children they will entrench behavioural problems with lifelong consequences for them and their families.

“Helping schools to become trauma-informed is much more promising. As part of a ‘whole-school approach’ to mental health it has the potential to benefit everyone, to make all children feel valued and understood and prevent exclusions and their devastating consequences.”

The government’s December 2017 Children’s Mental Health green paper introduced measures to improve support within schools through closer links with local child and adolescent mental health services.

But only around a third of schools and colleges will benefit from improved mental health services by 2023 and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services has criticised the move for not being ambitious enough.

“Our school years have profound and lasting effects on our mental health,” added Hughes.

“The government has recognised this by investing in new mental health teams to go into schools and putting the subject on the curriculum. It must now take the next step and help schools to boost children’s mental health in the ways they manage behaviour and create a safe and consistent learning environment for all,” she said.

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