Suspending 'Bad Kids' From School Can Trigger Long-term Mental Problems, U.K. Study Shows

'Though it may only last a day or two, exclusion often marks a turning point during an ongoing difficult time for the child,' says Exeter researcher

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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File photo: A boy looking at FacebookCredit: © Oliver Berg/dpa/Corbis
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Throwing misbehaving kids out of school usually doesn’t solve the root problem, and if anything may lead to long-term psychiatric problems and psychological distress, a large-scale study of over 5,000 children in the U.K. has shown.

Exclusion from school – which is short of outright expulsion – may lead to a new-onset mental disorder, say the researchers from the University of Exeter, published Wednesday in the journal Psychological Medicine.

Separately, they found the converse, too: that exclusion from school can be a corollary of poor mental health to begin with. Kids with learning disabilities, or evincing depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorders and “autism spectrum conditions” were more likely to be excluded, the study found.

“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,” stated Claire Parker of the University of Exeter Medical School.

Gone a day, feel it a lifetime

Among the mental disorders that excluded children may develop, warns child and adolescent psychiatrist Prof. Tamsin Ford, are depression and anxiety – and the problem may not be transient. “The impact of excluding a child from school on their education and progress is often long term, and this work suggests that their mental health may also deteriorate,” state the researchers.

Expulsion is a whole other issue; this study relates to being temporarily kicked out of school – a problem affecting mainly high-school kids. But, Ford found, even temporary exclusions can amplify distress.

Her suggestion involves prevention. Children generally get kicked out of school for behaving badly. She suggests that identifying pupils who struggle in school, supporting them and improving their success at school could be key to avoiding exclusion, which, it turns out, bears a heavy price. Apropos price, she also points out that persistent psychological difficulties require healthcare attention.

Make no mistake: The kid sent home may relish it, in the short run.

“For children who really struggle at school, exclusion can be a relief as it removes them from an unbearable situation,” says Ford. But then they go back, and may well behave even worse, so they can escape again. “As such, [exclusion] becomes an entirely counterproductive disciplinary tool as for these children it encourages the very behavior that it intends to punish,” she says.

The study – again we stress, in the U.K. – found that exclusion was mainly the province of boys rather than girls, high school pupils rather than elementary school kids, and the socioeconomically deprived. Poor general health and learning disabilities, as well as having parents with mental illness, is also associated with exclusion, the scientists said.

The bottom line is that exclusion was found to predict heightened levels of psychological distress three years later.

Ford presumably couldn’t help but add that better kids make for healthier teachers too. As she stated: “Given the established link between children’s behavior, classroom climate and teachers’ mental health, burn out and self-efficacy, greater availability of timely support for children whose behavior is challenging might also improve teachers’ productivity and school effectiveness.”

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