“Behind every behaviour, there is a need”: does suspension really rehabilitate students?

“Behind every behaviour, there is a need”: does suspension really rehabilitate students?

Suspension might be a norm in schools, but – for both students and their superiors – is it actually an effective tool? (Image: The Raymond Foundation)

By Sarah Herrmann@sarahherrmann_

They’re at the bottom end of the high school hierarchy yet receiving the most attention – and not the good kind.

Data SA shows over 50 per cent of suspensions in South Australian public schools in 2021 belonged to students in years 7, 8, 9 and 10.

Years 8 and 9 students alone made up almost a third of suspensions last year and have consistently been the most suspended throughout the past decade.

But does suspension solve irregular behaviour in schools, or is it an exercise in disempowerment instead of rehabilitation?

Years 8 and 9 students made up 32 per cent of suspensions in SA public schools in 2021, according to Data SA. (Image: Sarah Herrmann)

The age and the stage

Lutheran Care family and schools counsellor, Mary Raschella, says year 8 and 9 students are learning to adapt, and this likely affects their behaviour.

“There are many changes going on both physically, both with hormones and body structure, but also psychologically and emotionally,” Raschella says.

“A lot of that stems from a brain remodelling around that time.”

Neural connections formed in childhood are “pruned”, making space for further identity development.

An increased presence of reward drug dopamine, and the vulnerability of the pre-frontal cortex responsible for decision-making, creates “susceptibility for impulsivity and hyperrationality,” Raschella says.

“It’s also a time where we separate from our families and start to form our independence and we rely a lot on our peers.

“This is where the rebellious streak can tend to show itself.”

An anonymous teacher expressed similar sentiments when writing for The Guardian, calling year 9 “a poisoned chalice” for students, with social issues filling the “in-between” stage of their high school experience.

University of South Australia’s Centre for Research in Educational and Social Inclusion (CRESI) director, Dr Anna Sullivan, agrees, telling ABC Radio Adelaide she believes the structure of secondary school is a factor in behavioural issues.

Students need time, empathy

Sullivan is one of many education academics also concerned with the “disproportionate” number of vulnerable and disadvantaged students handed detentions, specifically those who are Indigenous, male, or living with a disability.

Raschella experiences the same worry for her own son who has learning difficulties, saying suspensions can negatively affect adolescents’ neural connections and opinions of themselves.

“[Suspension] is not a healthy way of responding, because behind every behaviour there is a need,” Raschella says.

“Every child has a right to education, but also a right to feel worthy and connected.”

Policy and culture

In 2021, then SA education minister, John Gardner, committed $15 million over four years in extra funding to reform exclusionary discipline in state schools.

The Department for Education South Australia’s media unit says, “While suspensions and exclusions remain an option principals can use to encourage behavioural change, the department is committed to reducing their use”.

But their policy language is very different to Raschella’s.

Raschella counsels with a “holistic family systems approach” to understand the triggers of adolescent behaviour and create partnership between school and home to support wellbeing.

She also commends the restorative justice system approach, which engages an adolescent in reflective conversation with the aim of “repairing a rupture” – similar to Dr Justin Coulson’s “explain, explore, empower” – instead of excluding them from their own learning opportunity.

“[It’s] a framework that supports creating a safe, supportive space in schools … and builds capacity for emotional and social development,” Raschella says.

She says schools are very busy but also very powerful places, and treating “the system over the symptom” in a “restorative, supportive, fair and equitable” way must be prioritised.

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