The use of school suspension and expulsion to exclude students from school presents a major dilemma for staff, writes student wellbeing expert Sheryl Hemphill. She discusses recent research that aimed at reducing school exclusion.
When a student engages in behaviour that threatens the safety of the student themselves or others, leadership teams need to use approaches such as exclusion.
But excluding a student from school is inconsistent with the aim of school communities to be inclusive. There is also the risk that if the excluded student does not want to be in class (as is often the case), the problematic behaviour is rewarded.
On top of this, research has shown that there are a range of negative consequences of suspension for the suspended student including increased antisocial behaviour, alcohol and drug use, delayed graduation, and not completing school.
School leaders continue to use suspension and expulsion because they are the highest level of response available to them for serious problem behaviours. Sometimes, school staff find other ways of handling serious student behaviours that fit with the circumstances of their local communities. However, these approaches may not have been evaluated.
To date, the research literature has not provided clarity on effective ways to reduce the use of school exclusion. This may now have changed.
In a recent systematic review and meta-analysis of 37 studies of school-based interventions that aimed to reduce the use of school exclusion, a short-term (six months) reduction in school exclusion was found. Reductions in the use of school exclusion for 12 months or more were not found.
In the review, school exclusion was defined as removing students from teaching for a period of time and included in-school and out-of-school suspension and expulsion. The latter two approaches remove students from the school setting, whereas the former removes students from the classroom. Students included in the review were aged four to 18 years of age andattended mainstream schools.
Published online in March in the Journal of Experimental Criminology, the review was conducted by Sara Valdebenito and colleagues at the University of Cambridge and the RAND Europe research institute.
The review showed that 73 per cent of the interventions focused on changing students’ skills or behaviour, whereas 27 per cent focused on changes at the level of the school or teacher. On average, the interventions lasted for 20 weeks. Interventions were more effective at reducing
in-school suspensions and expulsions.
Several potential school-based approaches to reduce school exclusion were identified. The two interventions with the strongest and most reliable effects were:
• Mentoring/monitoring for students; and
• Skills training for teachers.
The mentoring/monitoring interventions were structured and supportive relationships between students with academic, behavioural or emotional problems and non-parental adults such as teachers, counsellors, and other members of the community. The specific role of the mentors differed in each study but, in general, they were role models. They also provided support, assisted students with academic tasks, supervised academic performance, and gave students advice or counselling. There were five studies on this form of intervention included in the review.
The skills training for teachers comprised establishing clear rules in the classroom, facilitating mutual respect between teachers and students, and strategies for teachers to work with parents to encourage students’ participation in school activities. A total of four studies on this intervention were included in the review.
Two other types of school-based interventions were promising:
• Improvement of the students’ academic skills (two studies in the review); and
• counselling/mental health services for students (three studies in the review).
The researchers cautioned that the number of studies in their review on the specific types of school-based intervention was small. Only randomised controlled trials were included in the review. These are studies in which participants, classrooms or schools are randomly assigned to a treatment or a control group and are the gold standard for tests of interventions.
Another caution about the findings was that most of the studies had been conducted in the United States of America so we do not know how well the findings apply in other countries like Australia. An important area for future research is to conduct studies in a range of countries around the world.
The results of the review did not show a reduction in students’ antisocial behaviour following participation in school-based interventions compared with a control group. This is not surprising since the interventions focused on reducing rates of exclusion rather than changing student behaviour.
The authors of the review called for more intervention studies that seek to understand how the intervention may impact on the use of school exclusion – what are the key elements of the interventions that show reductions in school exclusion?
In addition, the review authors encouraged the use and study of innovative approaches to the reduction of the use of school exclusion.
Although the results of the systematic review and meta-analysis are instructive, further high quality research is needed to address the question of how schools can reduce their use of exclusion. Ensuring that any reductions in exclusion continue beyond six months is an area that needs to be addressed.