Can School Punishment Policy Harm Children’s Mental Health?

Can school policies harm children’s mental health? Schools that implement punitive approaches to children’s behaviour as opposed to addressing the root causes harms children’s mental health, a new report published earlier this month states.

Punitive school behaviour policies are causing damage to children and young people’s mental health according to a new report by the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition.

The report also states that in some cases these punishment policies are at risk of contravening schools’ duties to equality and diversity.

The findings are based on a year-long inquiry led by the Coalition into behaviour and mental health in school. A young person who took part in the research said:

“[Punishments] affect my mental health by putting the idea in my head that no-one sees my worth and I deserve to be in pain.”

The inquiry asked young people, parents, carers and professionals their views on current approaches to behaviour management and mental health in schools and how they can be improved. This involved a total of 840 responses to an online survey. Out of those responses, 111 were from young people, 495 from parents and carers and 234 from professionals. On top of this, five evidence sessions were held with representatives from education and the charity sector.

According to the report, whilst it is imperative for schools to have clear expectations and boundaries in place, punitive approaches to behaviour management damages children and young people’s mental health. Behaviour management strategies such as removal rooms, exclusions, and fines or penalties for non-attendance were cited by those who took part in the inquiry as some of the techniques with the worst impact. A parent who took part in the research said:

“A huge number of detentions led to a breakdown, my son withdrawing from school and eventually admission to a mental health unit. School only ever treated him as being naughty.”

Young people who’d experienced these sorts of strategies and who took part in the report described feeling worthless and invisible, with increased feelings of anxiety, particularly when simply attending school. The children and young people who already had existing mental health problems or special educational needs and disabilities found that punishments like these exacerbated these difficulties and that ignoring the root causes of children’s behaviour is not effective in improving behaviour in the long-term. Dr Mary Bousted, General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:

“The report highlights the result of government policies that have failed young people by insisting on a content-laden, over- prescriptive curriculum, an exam driven culture and an underfunded SEND support system. Many young people are being driven to a mental health crisis point and schools are expected to deal with the educational and psychological consequences.”

The report also revealed some groups are disproportionately impacted by school behavioural policies. Those with special educational needs and disabilities, those from racialised communities including Black and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Communities, and young people from low-income backgrounds were some of the groups most impacted.

Dr Sarah Rees, Associate Professor at Swansea University, says:

“We should understand the behaviour of children and young people not in isolation, but within the context of their individual needs, their family, home and wider social environment, and the challenges with which they may be dealing. This is important for all children and young people, but is particularly so for those from communities that have been subject to stereotyping and discrimination, such as Gypsies and Travellers. Children and young people from Gypsy and Traveller backgrounds have higher rates of school exclusion, and lower attainment, than any other ethnic group, and their school experiences may have lifelong consequences.”

(You can read more about the research that is supported by MQ into the mental health of children and young people from gypsy and traveller backgrounds here.)

Some schools use blanket approaches to behaviour which do not accommodate individual needs and disabilities. Such approaches risk being discriminatory and could even violate the Equality Act 2010. Amy Whitelock Gibbs, Chair of the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition notes:

“Schools are on the frontline of responding to rising mental health needs and widening inequalities, yet reduced school budgets and a lack of access to specialist services means that schools are often having to support pupils with very little resource to do so,”

A culture shift in how behaviour is treated in schools is being called for by The Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition, with the idea that difficult behaviour is an opportunity to identify children’s unmet needs and intervene and a call for development of supportive and inclusive environments with implementation of educational approaches to mental health and wellbeing.

Schools cannot do this alone, and the report calls for greater investment in specialist services to mean children, young people and their families can access support for their mental health. Sir Norman Lamb, former Chair of the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition, summed up what is needed:

“Education plays an important role in children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing. But current approaches to behaviour management in schools are doing more harm than good. We need a much more sophisticated and coordinated approach to identifying and supporting needs in schools in order to intervene early and prevent behaviour from worsening.”

The report sets out recommendations for government action to ease pressures on school staff and students and to replace a punitive approach to behaviour management with one that responds to the suggestions in the report.

Swansea University’s Dr Sarah Rees is positive about the potential the report holds for being a catalyst of positive change:

“We welcome the report’s call to shift from a punitive response to behaviours of concern to an approach which sees behaviour as a means for communicating unmet needs.”


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