Sarah Martin-Denham, Associate Professor of Care and Education at the University of Sunderland and the Programme Leader for the Postgraduate Certificate National Award for Special Educational Needs Coordination, shares some insights into her research on children who have been excluded and the importance of giving children a voice:
I’ve been doing research with children for the last five years and during this time I have had conversations with over 200 children and young people who have been excluded from school. Gaining an insight into their world has been crucial not only to finding solutions to the problem of increasing suspensions and permanent exclusions but more importantly giving them a voice and a platform to be heard.
Working with children and young people
My first participatory research project (#seeme) brought together two alternative provision schools to participate in a performing arts project; they scripted and performed a film called #seeme. Since then I’ve gone on to develop further art based projects such as #pullupachair, which saw 130 children aged 5-16 years engaging in a creative arts project with four artists, Frank Styles, Hannah Gawne, Jo Howell and Angela Sandwith. The artists modelled how to create artworks using their approaches and the children and young people set about creating pieces to express their feelings.
Co-creating research, art projects and films with children is a gift. To be accepted into their space and for them to feel safe and enabled to give an insight into the world is an honour. I have thought about how I support children not only to open up to me and my team but also to agree that others can hear their stories. I believe it all comes down to building a relationship with them, helping them understand the whys. Why they matter, why we need to learn from their experiences, why they are the ones who hold the answers, why they decide how their stories are shared.
How you get them to open up
My intention from the outset is to give children control over how they share their voice (artworks, audio, film). Some are very keen to be filmed, others less so, instead choosing to share their experiences and contribute comments for others to perform. Others choose to create props or to support the film production. Consent is so important, what they are happy to share can change, checking and re-checking this matters. The children I work with co-design the project and name the project, it is theirs not mine.
One Head Teacher commented that in the #seeme project students felt they had been given ‘a safe space to feel confident enough to share their thoughts and feelings without judgement and had, more importantly, been heard’.
In terms of practical considerations, bringing children into an unfamiliar environment requires thought beyond the usual risk assessments – for example offering a pre-visit for those who need it. Letting them have a say in the activities, where they sit, the formation of the tables, the structure of the day and the snack choices. Adults wearing clothes that are casual, not wearing perfume for any children who have sensory sensitivities. They need to feel safe with familiar staff from the school to accompany them and provide additional support when needed
The kinds of challenges they are facing
When I had conversations with the children about their artwork, they shared their experiences of mainstream school: “When I was in mainstream, they just thought I was bad. One of the teachers turned around and said, ‘Do you think you’re a gangster speaking like that,’ because I was stuttering and that.” When asked about the biggest difference between mainstream school and their alternative provision school the need for better dialogue with teachers was highlighted: “Expectations, really, and the teachers. All different. With them, you can talk to them about stuff, and actually be able to tell them what you want to say. With the mainstream, you have to filter it to what they also want to hear.” Another child was placed in isolation due to their behaviour in mainstream school: “I was getting really stressed and I was getting anxiety because of it as well, because that room was really small, and obviously, I’m claustrophobic so I didn’t like it.”
When asked what would improve mainstream schools, many mentioned class size as an important factor: “I think it was the bigger classes, because there were 30-odd kids in the class, and sometimes, you had them same people all day, and it was just stressful. I was like, ‘I can’t do this.’ Coming here, with all the support in place, smaller classes, I think if they had something like that in mainstream it would be much better.”
Often, exclusion from school doesn’t improve behaviour and in many cases, makes it worse. There can be a perception that these children are problematic or deliberately misbehave. Determining and responding to the underlying causes of behaviours is one way to prevent exclusion. Children need enduring relationships and for their needs to be identified and met. Mainstream schools are under immense pressure, with large class sizes and a lack of training and resources. In addition, waiting lists for health assessments can be years. So many children remain ‘unheard’ but what I’ve learnt through my research over the last few years is that we have to give children a voice if we are to truly be successful in accommodating for their diverse needs.