School Suspension Linked To Problems Later In Life

Young students are often being suspended for "disruptive" rather than extreme behaviours, according to new research.

What you need to know
  • Young students who are suspended often face exclusion and/or incarceration later in life, research finds.

Education researcher Dr David Armstrong is concerned a policy of 'zero tolerance' in America, highlighted in a recent study, could reach Australia, with damaging effects for often vulnerable children.

"If these practices of three strikes and you're out are imported here, that will worsen the problem and create more excluded kids," the lecturer from the School of Education at Flinders University told ten daily.

School students are often being suspended over disruptive behaviours, American study finds. Image: Getty

Researchers from the University of Michigan on Monday published a study that looked into the predictors and gender distribution of suspension in elementary schools. Boys -- disproportionately those who were African American --  rated by teachers as aggressive, defiant and disruptive were more likely suspended than girls, for whom disruption and lack of parental involvement were main predictors.

For Armstrong, emphasis on suspension over disruptive behaviour was a concerning trend linked to further suspensions, school exclusion or possible incarceration later in life.

"These are children not performing extreme behaviours, but quite often difficult ones that we expect teachers to deal with," he said.

"It's evidence of a zero tolerance approach where these behaviours are being problematised as grounds for suspension or exclusion."

While noting different cultural contexts, Armstrong said similar trends have been found in Australia where the number of students being suspended or expelled is on the rise.

Last year, a parliamentary inquiry recommended schools in South Australia should avoid using suspension or exclusion to manage challenging behaviours, while a separate paper published this year found Indigenous students were at a disportionately higher risk.

Suspension linked to exclusion, incarceration later in life

The latest study adds to a growing pool of research suggesting the practice is ineffective, with younger students often likely to be suspended again in later years, opt to drop out or -- in some extreme cases, face incarceration.

"We know that for some kids who are suspended, it doesn't work. In a good number of cases, suspensions make things worse. Why are we using this practice when we know it isn't a good one?"

Armstrong has spent years in the field as a teacher and academic, both overseas and in Australia. He views suspension as a predictor of "very expensive problems" including incarceration and "a symptom of our system's failures".

Suspending younger students also risks future success in school. Image: Getty

"When you look into them, often you find there are a set of problems and/or inefficiencies in place before the decision was made," he said.

"We should always aim to prevent those issues that lead to suspension through early intervention before it escalates."

However, often teachers feel under-prepared to respond to difficult or disruptive behaviours, with a 2013 Victorian Ombudman report  recommending additional support for schools and teachers to respond more effectively -- particularly to children with special needs.

"It's a difficult job. We need to support teachers through investment from state and federal governments," Armstrong said.

The right practice early can save a huge amount of problems later on.

"You can't undo trauma but you can provide a safe, structured environment which reduces the chance children will resort to these kinds of disruptive behaviours in the first place."

Contact the author: ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au