School Suspensions Tied to Poor Mental Health

Children who are suspended from school are more likely to develop a range of mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety as well as behavioral disturbances, according to a new study published in the journal Psychological Medicine.

Researchers at the University of Exeter in England investigated the impact of exclusion from school among the general population and found that suspension may lead to a new onset mental disorder, and that, separately, poor mental health can lead to suspension from school.

The findings show that consistently poor behavior in the classroom is the primary reason for school exclusion, with many students, particularly those in middle and high school, facing repeated dismissal from school. Relatively few pupils are completely expelled from school, but the researchers warn that even temporary exclusions can exacerbate psychological distress.

The researchers assert that identifying and supporting children who struggle in class could prevent suspension and improve their success at school.

“For children who really struggle at school, exclusion can be a relief as it removes then from an unbearable situation with the result that on their return to school they will behave even more badly to escape again,” said Professor Tamsin Ford, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Exeter’s Medical School.

“As such, it becomes an entirely counterproductive disciplinary tool as for these children it encourages the very behavior that it intends to punish. By avoiding exclusion and finding other solutions to poor behavior, schools can help children’s mental health in the future as well as their education.”

Suspension is more common among boys, secondary school students and those living in socio-economically deprived circumstances. Poor general health and learning disabilities, as well as having parents with mental illness, is also associated with suspension.

The study involved analyzing the responses of more than 5000 school-aged children, their parents and their teachers in the British Child and Adolescent Mental Health Surveys. The research team omitted children who had a previous mental disorder from this analysis.

The findings show 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. In addition, during the follow-up, the researchers found more children with mental disorders among those who had been excluded from school, than those who had not been excluded.

The researchers conclude that there is a “bi-directional association” between psychological distress and suspension: Children with psychological distress and mental-health problems are more likely to be suspended in the first place but suspension predicted greater levels of psychological distress three years later.

“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,” said Claire Parker, a researcher at the University of Exeter Medical School, who carried out doctoral research on the project.

Source: University of Exeter