Behaviour – a dirty word?

Around this time last year, I wrote this post – High School Visits – about our experiences of looking around high schools for BB, and how, although it wasn’t about him, I began to think about LB’s future needs and how they would be supported by the schools on offer. I drew the difficult conclusion that the boys may well end up at different secondary schools.

BB – my first born, my baby – is approaching teenage-hood fast. He’s officially in the final year of primary school and now we really do have to choose a high school for him despite this all having happened far too quickly (and me not being ready and wanting to weep into my cup of tea). We are re-visiting schools A and B from last year’s post as well as adding school C into the mix, to help us choose before the October deadline.

It’s looking like a choice between B and C for BB but in reality, he could go to any of them and I’m sure he’d be fine. Although we are going to have some worries about catchment areas and places filling up, the reality is that the world is BB’s oyster. All options are open to him and its largely going to come down to preference.

However, the more schools I view, the more concerned I become that LB will not have such a choice. The picture I’m getting is that schools are inclusive to a point, but not beyond. None of the schools we have visited are ‘selective’ though one is independent. They are all therefore, theoretically, inclusive. However, when you scratch even lightly at the surface, you soon realise that they are not. What they are is inclusive with exceptions, which is pretty weird when you start to consider it more deeply.

What I feel they’re really saying is that some special educational needs are more acceptable to them than others. That if your child has Dyslexia or Dyscalculia or Autism (certain presentations only), or a physical disability, perhaps a mild vision or hearing loss, they’re ok. They can come in. However, as soon as there’s a whiff of the unspeakable ‘b’ word, no thank you very much.

I touched on this in last year’s post – that some schools see behaviour issues as selfish, disruptive to others, and stemming from a flaw within the child displaying them. I can tell they do, from the way they lean forward conspiratorially when they mention it, lower their voice slightly, just automatically assume that you will agree with their view point that we don’t want Them in This School. It is always delivered in such a matter of fact way that you know the deliverer can’t possibly envisage a scenario where the child with ‘the behaviour’ is anything other than a huge problem, to be avoided at all costs.

Today, we presented smartly, we talked about BB with his good academics, his good social skills, his extracurricular activities, his all-round sunny disposition. We must have seemed a safe bet for the ‘not in our school’ behaviour chat. We evidently didn’t present as the sort of people who would have another child with behaviour challenges. But we do. That’s because there are many reasons for a child to struggle with their behaviour and generally it is not that they come ‘from a bad family’ or whatever it is people assume.

I get that schools want to cultivate a certain image and maintain certain standards. I get that if it is a fee-paying school, other parents will expect certain learning conditions for their children that perhaps don’t involve disruption from a classmate.

However, as a parent of a child with behaviour challenges – which, incidentally, he gained from having a really shitty start in life (very much not his fault) – it all feels pretty exclusionary. The reality is that neither school B, nor school C will be welcoming towards LB and his specific set of needs. Grizzly assures me it’s fine, because we will consider each boy individually and attempt to get them into the best school for them.

While this is all well and good, another part of me wonders why it is ok for BB to have three good options available to him but LB, so far, has one. It makes me feel that his background continues to limit him because as hard as we work to improve things for him, and as prepared as I am to fight for his needs to be met, he isn’t going to have the same choices. For me, a school that talks about behaviour like it’s a dirty word is never going to be appropriately understanding of it. Those schools may be inclusive on paper but they aren’t in reality. And if they’re not truly inclusive, they’re not truly an option.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing if you went to view a school and when they talked about behaviour they said something along the lines of being committed to understanding the underlying roots of it? Something about how they see the potential in every single child, no matter how they present? How they are committed to tailored approaches and working in partnership and thinking about the things children can excel in, rather than excluding them for the things they can’t help? What if they said every child is a success waiting to happen?

What if it wasn’t just the occasional school, but every school which had that opinion?

What if, and imagine this, children with any additional need could be supported to have an equal chance at life?

What if we ditched this weird concept of a hierarchy of acceptability of need? Stopped thinking that struggling with literacy was in some way more okay than struggling with emotional regulation. As a society we don’t appear to blame children who can’t read – it’s pretty obvious to most that it’s due to brain differences or lack of appropriate support. Why, then, do we think it acceptable to pin the blame for a children struggling to regulate their behaviour on the child themselves? Why don’t we think it’s due to brain differences or lack of appropriate support for them?

I suspect it’s just more convenient this way. Children who can’t read impact other people a lot less than children who struggle to regulate their behaviour. That’s an unpalatable but true fact. Children with behaviour challenges can disrupt classrooms, they can be hard work, they can hurt people, they can turn people grey, but do we really think that they are less deserving or worthy of the right support than a child with literacy difficulties? And if we do, what exactly is the justification for that stance?

Our recent visits to schools would suggest that the prevailing viewpoint is just this: that children with behaviour challenges are less deserving of a good education. As a society, we seem to think it’s acceptable to keep them away from others, to isolate them, to exclude them, to send them to schools where restraint is regularly used and when all that fails, lock them up in an Assessment and Treatment Centre (ATU).

I’d say we’re failing them.

We’re thinking of the majority and excluding those who don’t conform enough. Shouldn’t we be thinking of each child as an individual? The herd mentality is not really any good for anybody – just one approach is never going to work for all. But if we had many approaches that could be moulded and tweaked for individuals as needed – might that not be inclusive?

It’s really about a shift of attitude. These children with behaviour difficulties aren’t at fault – they have neurological or emotional or sensory or psychological reasons behind their behaviour. We are not affording them empathy. We are not getting things right for them. Schools are not getting things right for them. Inclusion is not including them.

These children are some of the most vulnerable in our society. They are already at risk of poor life outcomes so why do we think its ok to alienate them further?

I don’t know the solution but I know I’m pretty fucking mad about it.

Behaviour – a dirty word?