What does suspending young children achieve?

In recent weeks there’s been some press about the increase in number of prep children in South East Queensland being suspended. As a school principal, as a parent and as an advocate for early childhood readiness for school, I’d like to offer a few comments and reflection upon what this data may, or in fact may not, mean. Initially it could be quite alarming that the significant increase in the number of prep children that have been suspended in recent years. On face value educators and parents alike should be concerned at the behaviours that have warranted such a significant response from school leaders. Now the suspension rate can mean good news and it can also mean some sad news. Let me elaborate.

The good news is that school leaders are being more responsive to the significant behaviours from young children which are unacceptable in our classrooms. It also indicates that school leaders are being responsive to the needs of teachers and keeping teachers (and other children) safe in their workplace from unacceptable behaviour from a small group of children. Both of these interpretations are good examples of leadership from school principals and deputies, in saying that we have standards to which all children must comply and hence if they do not comply, then there will be significant consequences.

I trust that teachers are pleased with the response from school leaders to support them in their endeavours to expect high-quality behaviours and if children fail to meet those behaviours then there will be some significant consequences.

However let me offer a few words of caution. Without knowing the reasons why children in prep were suspended in recent years, I will make the assumption that their behaviours were that extreme that it warranted that response from principals. Having said that, I do ask the question what behaviour could a 4 or 5 year old display that would warrant such a significant response as to effectively remove them from school for a couple of days? Now if the principal is responding to a teacher and child safety, then a child does need to be withdrawn. Parents also need to take some responsibility for their child’s behaviour. Having said that I still wonder what could a 5 year old do that would warrant such a significant response from a school principal? It would be sad if a principal was responding to the demands of a parent or of a teacher if they had said “I will not tolerate such behaviour and hence this child needs to be out of my classroom.” As a school principal I had teacher say to me “I will not tolerate that behaviour and I would expect a child to be suspended.” I’ve also had parents say to me “I will not tolerate such behaviour towards my child and hence the perpetrator needs to be suspended” (or in extreme cases, expelled) Having said that, I have never had those conversations with teachers or parents of children in prep.

I believe that parents need to take some responsibility for their children’s behaviour. At the age of 4 or 5 at child is only learning social graces and behaviour which is acceptable in a social situation. The majority of our children would be in Daycare centres or kindergartens before they come to a prep classroom. I did note that Associate Professor Michael Nagel from the University of Sunshine Coast (South East Queensland) recently quoted in The Courier-Mail as saying that the children weren’t naughty, they just aren’t ready for school. 

As an advocate for having a comprehensive and thorough school readiness program in place for kindergarten children prior to them starting school, I believe I have some insights as to what is acceptable and what behaviours we would anticipate the children attending school should have, which may be an indicator for their readiness (among other factors). Let me say at this point it relies on the cooperation and the collaboration of the parents with the school and with the kindergartens to ensure that their children have been taught appropriate behaviours so that they can face the challenges, both social and academic, that the prep classroom will provide for them. Hence parents and teachers and early childhood educators need to work together so that we have similar expectations on children and families to ensure that children are ready for prep. This is not suggesting that all the behaviours that warranted suspension of 1400 children in recent years in prep classrooms, or all 1400 children were not ready for prep. 

As I’ve already stated I do not know the reasons why these children were suspended but it must have been relatively extreme behaviours. Extreme behaviours may be as a result of a child not being ready but I suspect that would only be a very small percentage of the reason why many prep children were suspended in recent years. My message is to the educators and to the parents and the message is very simple. Let’s build a culture of trust and collaboration so that children will be ready for school and so that parents and teachers are on the same page about the expectations, the behavioural expectations of our children. So that when there is a behaviour displayed that is unacceptable, the parents and the teachers will know what the consequences will be and that the child will understand the rationale for them being told to stay at home for a day a week a fortnight.

I think it is important that we discuss the purpose of a suspension. A suspension for a primary school child is given for a number of reasons. It may give the school some time and space the to put in place appropriate behaviour management strategies to work with that child. A suspension maybe to send a message to the child, and to their parents, that their child’s behaviour is completely unacceptable and hence it is a disciplinary measure. This may, or may not, inconvenience the family and give the message to the family that they need to be involved in this journey and hence they need to act and do something, in conjunction and collaboration with the school, so the child’s behaviour will improve. A suspension may also give some breathing space for the teachers and children in the class. They may just need to re-set before the child returns to the group. 

An unintentional message from a  suspension may be the message to the other children and the other families, that the school is proactive in responding to children’s behaviour. The school has certain standards and will not tolerate behaviours that are extreme and outside the boundaries of what that school expects. While a school may never admit that the suspension has that purpose, it certainly does send a clear message to other children and to other parents that this school is proactive and has high standards.

I do have a fear and a reservation about suspending children in prep. I am unsure what a prep child would understand as to why they are having to be away from their school for a day, a week or longer. If a child was in higher grades they may have the cognitive understanding that what they did was completely unacceptable and hence they need to re-evaluate their behaviour. They hopefully understand the need to reconcile and show some remorse and apologise. Older children will have some reflecting time while not at school. Does a 4 or 5 year old have the cognitive ability to do that? – I would question. So suspending children who are 4 and 5 years of age will certainly send a message to the parents and will certainly send a message to the teachers. It will certainly give the school sometime and some space to put in place strategies which may make it possible for the child to return and for the child to attend to learning. I suspect if a child has been suspended from prep, in fact any year level, upon their return they will need significant support.

As we are about to start the school year for 2020 it is critical that parents and teachers work together so that all children can attend to learning. If and when a child’s behaviour becomes that extreme that the school determines that a child needs to be suspended from prep or any grade, then the parents and the teachers must work together so that there can be an understanding of the consequence. There can then be a re-entry process and the opportunity for reconciliation. There can be the opportunity for an apology and there can be the opportunity for the child to be welcomed back into a school community and continued our learning journey. Parents and teacher must work together in a culture of trust, collaboration and enquiry so that all children can access the curriculum and have a great 2020.

Contributor: Andrew Oberthur

Andrew Oberthur is the father of two teenagers and a primary school principal with over 30 years experience teaching and leading primary schools in Brisbane.

In 2018 he published his first book “Are You Ready for Primary School This Year? which is about building a culture of trust, collaboration and enquiry between parents and teachers. His book is available from his website www.creativecollaborativesolutions.net

He has been on ABC Brisbane radio a few times this year, as well as doing podcasts for PakMag.

Author: Sim K