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Warning that excluding children from school can trigger long-term psychiatric illness

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Excluding pupils from school may lead to long-term psychiatric problems and psychological distress, a UK study including thousands of children has found.

It concluded that a new onset mental disorder may be a consequence of exclusion from school. Additionally, vice versa it found that poor mental health could result in exclusion from school.

“For these children it encourages the very behaviour that it intends to punish”

Tamsin Ford

The research, published in the journal Psychological Medicine, is thought to be the most rigorous study to date on the impact of exclusion from school among the general population.

The study authors noted that consistently poor behaviour was the main reason for school exclusion, with many students, mainly of secondary school age, facing repeated dismissal from school.

Relatively few pupils are expelled from school, but the Devon-based researchers warned that even temporary exclusions could amplify psychological distress.

Their analysis found children with learning difficulties and mental health problems – including depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum conditions – were more likely to be excluded from the classroom.

In addition, when they followed up on their progress, they found more children with mental disorders among those who had been excluded from school than those who had not.

“Exclusion often marks a turning point during an ongoing difficult time for the child”

Claire Parker

The researchers concluded there was a “bi-directional association” between psychological distress and exclusion.

Children with psychological distress and mental-health problems were more likely to be excluded in the first place, but exclusion predicted increased levels of psychological distress three years later.

The findings were based on a review of responses from over 5,000 school-aged children, their parents and their teachers in the British Child and Adolescent Mental Health Surveys, which are collected by the Office of National Statistics for the Department of Health.

Lead study author Professor Tamsin Ford, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Exeter, warned that excluded children could develop a range of mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety as well as behavioural disturbance.

She said identifying children who struggled in class could, if coupled with tailored support, prevent exclusion and improve success at school, but exclusion might precipitate future mental disorder.

Such severe psychological difficulties were often persistent and could then require long-term clinical support by the NHS, she warned.

University of Exeter

Excluding schoolchildren can spark long-term mental illness

Tamsin Ford

Professor Ford said: “For children who really struggle at school, exclusion can be a relief as it removes then from an unbearable situation with the result that on their return to school they will behave even more badly to escape again.

“As such, it becomes an entirely counter-productive disciplinary tool as for these children it encourages the very behaviour that it intends to punish,” she said.

“By avoiding exclusion and finding other solutions to poor behaviour, schools can help children’s mental health in the future as well as their education,” she added.

Study co-author Claire Parker said: “Although an exclusion from school may only last for a day or two, the impact and repercussions for the child and parents are much wider.

“Exclusion often marks a turning point during an ongoing difficult time for the child, parent and those trying to support the child in school,” she noted.

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