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There is a school of thought that suggests that all behaviour is communication. This may cause you to believe that certain students in your care are communicating, in no uncertain terms, that they do not wish to attend your school!

Anti-social behaviours, bullying, property damage and persistent disruption all communicate quite strongly to you, as a school leader, that you will need to exclude a student either temporarily or permanently in the not so distant future.

You will also, no doubt, have the message to reduce exclusions communicated quite loudly to you by your local authority or governing body. Exclusions send the message that behaviour is poor at a school and, this can sometimes be lost sight of in the politics, are also highly detrimental to the educational and social development of the child. So, how can you prevent the need for exclusions in the first place?

Understanding the behaviour

Even in a secondary school, you will find children who are emotionally and socially unready for the challenges of day to day life. Some children will simply not have learned the necessary social skills to deal with larger groups, less supervision and unstructured time. For others, the changing emotions and relationships of adolescence will create challenges they are not capable of meeting.

These difficulties create anxiety which can be turned both inward and outward. For others the challenges will be academic – coping strategies that hid their difficulties from staff in primary school are no longer up to the task and again, lead to anxiety which can be directed both internally and externally.

Inward turned anxiety manifests in ways such as depression, frequent illnesses, social withdrawal and even self-harm. These are all fairly clear to understand and many pathways to pastorally support exist; they are unlikely to end in exclusions. Outward turned anxiety can manifest itself as aggression, disruption, refusal to engage, internal and external truancy, bullying and even violence. The world becomes an equally scary place but, rather than withdraw, they lash out.

In contrast to the process behind internalisation, anxiety is often turned outward when emotional literacy is poor and the sensation or feeling of anxiety is therefore not easily identifiable to the young person. The feeling is therefore externalised and blame is placed at the outside world for causing what can only be identified as emotional discomfort.

We would hope our pastoral systems were up to the challenge of dealing with the more obviously recognisable cases of internalised anxiety and depression in young people. Perhaps it is time to take a similar approach to more outward displays of possible anxiety?

Not every student exhibiting poor behaviour will come under this banner, but many will. The rest of the article will hopefully give you a few ideas to support those with outward anxiety before exclusions become necessary.