Skip to main content

News

Study reveals that exclusion from school can trigger long-term psychiatric illness

Posted on July 21st 2017

Excluding children from school may lead to long-term psychiatric problems and psychological distress, a study of thousands of children has shown. Research by the University of Exeter, published in the journal Psychological Medicine this month, found that a new onset mental disorder may be a consequence of exclusion from school.

The analysis by a team led by Professor Tamsin Ford of responses from over 5,000 school-aged children, their parents and their teachers, found that children with learning difficulties and mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, ADHD and autism spectrum conditions were more likely to be excluded from the classroom.  

The study is the most rigorous study of the impact of exclusion from school among the general population so far and included a standardised assessment of children’s difficulties. It coincides with the publication today of official statistics showing the number of permanent and fixed exclusions from school in 2015/16.                             

Consistently poor behaviour in the classroom is the main reason for school exclusion, with many students, mainly of secondary school age, facing repeated dismissal from school. Relatively few pupils are expelled from school, but Professor Ford warned that even temporary exclusions can amplify psychological distress.

Claire Parker, a researcher at the University of Exeter Medical School whose doctoral research (part-funded by PenCLAHRC) informed a substantial part of the project, said:

“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.”

Professor Ford, who practises as a child and adolescent psychiatrist as well as carrying out research, said identifying children who struggle in class could, if coupled with tailored support, prevent exclusion and improve their success at school, while exclusion might precipitate future mental disorder. These severe psychological difficulties are often persistent so could then require long-term clinical support by the NHS. She explains:

“For children who really struggle at school, exclusion can be a relief as it removes them from an unbearable situation with the result that on their return to school they will behave even more badly to escape again. As such, it becomes an entirely counterproductive disciplinary tool as for these children it encourages the very behaviour that it intends to punish. By avoiding exclusion and finding other solutions to poor behaviour, schools can help children’s mental health in the future as well as their education.”

The paper, which will be published in Psychological Medicine at the end of July 2017, is available to download as a pre-print.  

For more details of the research including methodology and a summary of the results, visit the University of Exeter news page