The inquiry conducted by the mental health charity, Mind has concluded that behaviours indicative of trauma are being misunderstood as misbehaviour, leading to an escalation of disciplinary measures, which potentially only intensifies the underlying mental health problems.

Zero-tolerance approach to behaviour is failing to understand young people’s mental health

According to 2020 statistics published by the Department for Education, in England, 12.1% of all pupils have secondary educational needs (SEN), including mental health problems. But while these young people only make up a tiny proportion of all students, they account for almost half of all permanent and fixed period exclusions, overwhelmingly due to disruptive and aggressive behaviour.

This state was underlined in Mind’s inquiry which found that many young people were not being supported with their mental health. Instead, in response to behaviours related to stress, anxiety, and trauma, schools are routinely using methods such as isolation, physical restraint, or exclusions.

The study found that nearly half (48%) of young people had been disciplined at school for behaviour that was related to their mental health, one in four (25%) school staff members were aware of a student being excluded due to their mental health, and three in five (62%) students had received no support from school for their mental health.

Behavioural problems are widely recognised as a normal response to trauma, particularly in young men – who are more commonly diagnosed with a conduct disorder rather than having their trauma identified and treated.

Similarly, one young person told the inquiry: “My behaviour leads to me swearing, rubbing my face to make it sore, punching walls or headbutting things and refusing to calm down when asked. I can’t keep a friendship for a reasonable amount of time; I shout at staff and walk off… They don’t really help me. They just leave me to get on with it.”

Racism still widely experienced at school

As well as focusing on behavioural control rather than the causes of that behaviour, concerningly many young people told Mind that schools are currently failing to address instances of racism. Over a third of young people (36%) from an Asian or Asian British background had experienced racism at school, and 55% of young people from a Black and Black British background, and 57% of students from a mixed ethnic background had been similarly affected.

Discrimination was also linked to warped perceptions of behaviour and to how it is responded to by teachers. A young person highlighted this point: “When a White girl at school gets angry, she’s passionate. When a Black girl gets angry at school, or when she speaks about something she’s passionate about, she’s labelled as a token angry Black girl.”

Naturally, instances of racism or othering at school negatively impact how these young people feel about their education and contributes adversely to their overall wellbeing. Reflected in the response of the majority of young people (70%) who said that schoolyard racism has negatively affected their mental health.

Mind’s recommendations

To help support young people through secondary school and beyond, Mind has called on the Department for Education to take action to explore what young people are communicating in their behaviour rather than continuing with the educational model of discipline and punishment. Arguing that a 'trauma informed' approach to education will make a more concrete difference to the lives of young people struggling with their mental health and prevent these problems from spiralling into their adult lives.

Also, Mind recommended that there needs to be urgent reform of the current national system for managing and recording school attendance so it doesn’t continue to stigmatise and disadvantage young people experiencing mental health problems.

In addition, Mind has recommended that the Department for Education make it a legal duty for all secondary schools to monitor and report on racist incidents to ensure they are held accountable for effectively tackling racism.

David Stephenson, senior policy and campaigns officer at Mind, commented: “The UK Government’s failure to require schools to report on racist incidents means the true scale of racism in schools remains unidentified and the full impact unknown.”

“We know that many teachers feel overstretched and work incredibly hard with limited resources. We are not asking teachers to be mental health professionals. However, we need to think again about how we address behaviour in schools, so those with the greatest need receive help, not punishment.”

“There needs to be more support for schools to meet the needs of young people experiencing mental health problems and a radical rethink of discipline.”