Damaged Children: Emma & Molly

Emma was known throughout the school.

Staff, parents and pupils all knew that she could be unpredictable and violent. She was only in Year 4, but quite tall and strong for her age, and with a fierce determination to inflict damage when she felt inclined. Unfortunately, this inclination increased as time went on.

Emma’s parents didn’t want to believe there was a problem. She was the eldest, and in their eyes, she could do no wrong. It had taken three years of meetings, letters home and anxious phone calls before they had agreed that Emma needed an IEP. It was another year before her parents would allow her to be assessed for autism.

In that time she had caused numerous problems in her class, yet it was largely left to the class teachers to deal with. And very often they couldn’t deal with it effectively, partly because for a long time they didn’t actually know what they were dealing with.

Emma’s behaviour for the day could be judged by her mood when she entered the classroom. If she acknowledged the teacher’s greeting, then there was a small chance that she would remain in a good mood (and by extension, well-behaved) throughout the day. If she ignored the teacher, scowled at her or shouted some obscenity, then the day would usually be difficult for all in the class. Sometimes her mood would be good when she arrived at school, but if they had run out of her favourite cereal at Breakfast Club her outlook would change dramatically.

Emma enjoyed reading, but if she was in a poor mood, she would refuse to follow the class routines and would attempt to disrupt the normal running of the school day. The session of quiet reading that usually started the day would be lost to screaming and shouting, often accompanied by objects being thrown. Intervention by an adult could result in bites and scratches, punches too if she was particularly riled. Throughout this, the rest of the class were expected to continue as normal.

Other lessons followed a similar pattern, some days no discernible learning or teaching took place, as repeated disruptions from Emma were followed by repeated placating from the adults. If her behaviour was very bad, she would be sent into another classroom for a maximum of five minutes. And no matter how much good it would have done the class for this time to have been extended, five minutes was always the maximum.

The Headteacher was very proud of the school’s ‘inclusive’ ethos. She had never excluded a child, and didn’t want Emma to be the first one. She believed passionately that keeping a child out of the classroom was bad for them, and that removing them from their normal environment would have a detrimental effect on their education. Occasionally, due to Emma’s violent outbursts, she would keep her in her office for the duration of a lesson. When Emma threw a brick at another child’s head, she was kept out of class for the rest of the day. But the following day she was back.

The Headteacher seemed genuinely immune to the cries of frustration from parents of scared and hurt children, and the despairing pleas for assistance from beleaguered staff. She believed that excluding Emma, even for a day, would reflect poorly on both the school and her leadership skills. She was reluctant to pursue Emma’s assessment, as she felt this would alienate her parents. It was only the dogged determination of the Senco that brought this about, and led to the eventual diagnosis. The full details of the assessment were never shared with Emma’s teachers, as her parents objected, and the Head felt that full disclosure might prejudice them in their dealings with her. Despite the objections of the Senco, she was over-ruled by the Head and Emma’s parents, and could do nothing other than say ‘there are more issues too’ when concerned teachers went to see her.

Teachers are used to dealing with children on the autistic spectrum, an although every child is unique, there are generally accepted methods of ensuring they feel settled in the classroom. Emma confounded most of these attempts. When a teacher tried to talk to her individually, she would lean towards them and shout “I know what you’re doing! You don’t have to treat me differently!”, before running off. To make matters harder, she would often declare that she wasn’t part of the class, so didn’t have to listen to general class instructions. Both approaches to giving her instructions were, therefore, often rendered unworkable. Emma continued in this way until one of the parents made continued and sustained complaints about her behaviour.

Molly was a charming child – helpful, polite, hard-working (although not high-achieving), joyful and kind to those around her. She also hated making a fuss. Over time, Molly became quieter and more introverted, showing a reluctance to speak up in class and a marked aversion to group work. When asked if anything was wrong, Molly would simply shrug her shoulders and say “Oh, nothing.”

Concerned at the change in her, Molly’s teacher spoke with her parents and called a meeting with the Senco. Molly’s parents were very worried about her, she was displaying the same characteristics at home, and they couldn’t understand why. She would be quiet and withdrawn during the week, only becoming animated at the weekends. By Sunday evening however, she was back to being a shadow of her earlier self. Her parents had tried talking to her, but were met with the same response as the teachers. During the course of the discussion it became apparent that Molly’s withdrawn periods coincided with time in school, during the holidays she was the same lively child she had always been.

The Senco asked us all to keep an eye on Molly, to see if there was anything discernible that could be the cause of her unhappiness. Detailed notes were kept, and when I was in the class for PPA cover, I watched her closely. Being asked to keep a close eye on one particular child, with a definite purpose, can make things which one would normally dismiss, suddenly of the utmost importance.

Molly’s reluctance to join in with group work was only really evident if she wasn’t working with her friends. If she was in a group that she had chosen, she would work happily on any task that was set. However, if she was put in her usual group (ability) then she became reluctant and withdrawn.

In the playground at break time, I saw her constantly on the move some days, clinging to the teacher on duty on others. I also noticed that she never ventured too far from the front of the field – almost as if she was scared to go to far from the school building. Watching Molly playing, it soon became apparent why.

Wherever Molly went, Emma would follow.

Sometimes Emma would try to play with her, sometimes she would simply trail her all playtime. Occasionally, she would pick a fight with her, resulting in Molly running for the comfort of closeness to an adult. It was clear that she didn’t really enjoy playtime, as she had no real freedom to play without Emma being in close proximity.

It was the same in class. Molly would try to keep out of Emma’s way, but in a small room it was difficult. The children were re-grouped so that Molly and Emma were no longer in the same group, but Emma would often ignore instructions and try to push her way in. It became very difficult to keep them apart, and Molly became more and more withdrawn.

Concerned, Molly’s parents took her to a psychologist; she no longer slept through the night, and had begun to lose weight. He diagnosed extreme stress. Worryingly, Molly also told him that she was scared to stay away from Emma as she would get into trouble.

In an effort to stem Emma’s unmanageable outbursts, she had been assigned a ‘buddy’, someone who would try to engage her at playtimes, thereby giving her less reason to become violent. Molly was that buddy.

Unwittingly, the determination never to exclude, in fact to ‘include’ at all costs, had come at a cost, the price of Molly’s well-being.

In desperation, Molly’s parents threatened to withdraw her from the school unless something was done. The Headteacher explained that steps would be taken to keep Emma away from Molly at playtime, and that she hoped that would solve the problem. Emma was also assigned a part-time TA who would work with her in class. The Headteacher stressed that as an ‘inclusive’ school, they were concerned about all pupils, Molly and Emma alike. As Emma had problems, she couldn’t be disciplined for something she had no control over, a disability.

But of course it made no difference. Emma still tried to follow Molly in the playground, and in a small village school, Molly was stuck in the same class as her. Molly’s work began to suffer, and her parents reported that her health was deteriorating too. Eventually, they couldn’t bear to watch their daughter suffer whilst nothing appeared to happen, and they decided to send her to a different school.

Although relieved to be away from Emma, Molly was sad to leave her friends and confided to the Senco that she felt is was unfair that she was the one being punished, in having to move, whilst Emma stayed in a school Molly had once been very happy at.

Molly was 8 years old. How do you explain to an eight-year old that they are in no way to blame for their removal from school, and the loss of their friends?

Who, in the end, was the most damaged child?

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12 Responses to Damaged Children: Emma & Molly

  1. Phil H says:

    That’s a beautifully described story. And I fully accept that, as your question implies, Molly was damaged by the situation.
    What I don’t accept is that this is an open and shut argument for exclusion, or for changing the policy of inclusion. Because, as you note: it’s not “fair” for Molly’s education to be compromised by the fact of Emma; but it’s equally not “fair” for Emma’s education to be compromised by the fact of her disability.
    What I don’t like about this post – and the similar ones that I saw on Redorgreen, is that there seems to be a sense in which you’re blaming Emma. It sounds like a moral comment, that she *should* be the one to suffer exclusion, because it’s her disability. And I disagree with that.

    There’s a utilitarian case to be made: in a mainstream school, Emma’s disability compromised both her and Molly’s (and others’) educations. You could argue that harm would be reduced by excluding her or placing her in a special school. But that’s been tried, and there were some very bad consequences.

    As an individual case, this is interesting, thought-provoking, and frustrating. As a policy argument, it doesn’t cut it.

    • Alexander R says:

      What I find frustrating Phil, is that you are clearly a thoughtful, compassionate person and yet you can’t see that Emma’s (and other children like her) education IS being compromised. As we’ve discussed before, the average teacher cannot handle an Emma and 20 odd other students with fairness.
      I accept that you are against separate schools; how about separate classrooms, where a specialist can work with Emma, a situation which helps Emma and frees her classmates to learn as well.
      I think any notion of blame is entirely in your reading of the post. The author is clearly as compassionate and frustrated as you are, the difference is, she is actually having to deal with it.
      Molly was effectively excluded from her school; is this the lesser evil?

    • I disagree with you on the point about inclusion. Whilst Emma’s problems were not her fault (and I certainly do not blame her for them), they did cause marked problems within the school. She needed particular, specialist help, which the school were unable to provide. By using the ‘buddy’ system, the role of monitoring and controlling Emma’s outbursts had effectively been placed on the other children.
      Unfortunately, when Molly was the buddy, Emma had become unreasonably attached to her, to the extent that when the buddy was changed (usually half-termly) Emma still sought out Molly’s company, much to Molly’s distress.
      Assigning a buddy also didn’t address the real problems Emma’s condition presented. Her outbursts still continued, but the school could claim that it was ‘doing something’ to help integrate her. However, she was never truly included, was she? The other children tried to keep away, and the only way she could play with someone was if the Head had assigned that child as Emma’s buddy. I don’t think that was fair to Emma, nor to the child who was coerced into playing with someone they didn’t want to.
      Also, I think that the ideals of inclusion were seen as the ultimate goal by the Head – a worthy state to aspire to. The fact that the school was poorly equipped to deliver this was never considered. It may be that by providing full-time one-to-one support and a room where Emma could be removed to when needed, may have helped, but this was not an option. In providing such facilities, Emma would effectively have been excluded from class anyway.
      Unless schools have specially trained staff, keeping Emma in mainstream education will always be a problem – for both Emma and all the Mollys around her. And at some point, we have to accept that the ideals of inclusion may not always be attainable.

      • Phil H says:

        Thanks, Alexander and ModernMiss.
        I don’t really come with an agenda – I’m not categorically against separate schools. I’ve heard/read comments from parents of children with disabilities that they would prefer special schools. And I would certainly be open to arguments for separate handling within the same school. But someone would have to make the arguments, and I’m not seeing these arguments made on the blogs. All I’m seeing is stories of the problems with the current system. That doesn’t convince me that separate schools/separate provision would work this time, because my understanding is that they didn’t work in the past. (Things may have been easier for children in mainstream schools, but those in special ed got very poor treatment indeed.)

        What I’m really against is two things. 1) Bad policy arguments – and I think that MM’s post here is a bad policy argument for the reasons stated. She sees the problems with the current system, but doesn’t include any assessment of whether any proposed alternative would be better or worse.
        2) Excessive concern for the “innocent” – the quiet, the hardworking – at the expense of concern for the more difficult children. Perhaps you’re right, and I am reading the moral angle in myself. But here’s how I read this blog: MM has noted a problem – Emma’s disability is causing problems for herself and Molly. She implicitly proposes a solution – exclusion of Emma. But this is *only* a solution for Molly. It’s not a solution for Emma. Now, that’s not a criticism of a blogpost – they’re meant to be short, informal and incomplete. This story is valuable on its own merits. But if you’re trying to turn this blogpost into a policy argument, then it’s a dreadful gap. An argument about what policy can be cannot be based only on solutions for one type of child, and not for another.

        I’m going to try to diversify my reading a bit, because I realise it’s a bit much to expect MM or anyone else in the mainstream system to argue the benefits of a separate special ed system. I’ll see if I can find more information about their relative merits. But given that I don’t yet know anything about special ed, for the time being I feel compelled to accept the consensus, that inclusion is the most desirable goal.

      • Phil, thanks for your comment.

        I think I need to clarify my position. I have not included an assessment of any proposed alternative to inclusion, because for the children I have described, I haven’t come across any. That is, although I have worked in mainstream primary, secondary, middle schools, independent schools and special schools for the disabled, I have not worked in one for children with behavioural problems. I am therefore not in a position to assess whether they provide a suitable environment in their present form.

        However, I do believe that those who present a danger to others in the class, either physically or emotionally, should be removed and put in alternative provision. I would expect this to be modelled along the lines of the special schools I have worked in, although the focus would be different. In those, specially trained staff were on hand to provide speech therapy, feeding tube help, mobility therapy (in an adapted gym and a therapy pool), councelling, psychotherapy and personal hygiene issues etc. In other words, the staff were explicitly trained to deal with the type of children the school catered for. Additionally, class sizes were small, with an average of 8 per class, and usually with two TAs to help. Obviously, some of the children I have described (and those that will follow) may have SEN which mean that they are not solely ‘behavioural problems’ and may also be considered ‘disabled’.

        For children with behavioral issues, the support should be given at the same level. Many of them require psychotherapy or councelling, yet have limited access to either. They are placed in a class with around 29 other children and expected to cope, often without one-to-one support. This is impossible for a large number of them, and so problems such as those I have described arise.

        If each school had the facilities I mention, then it would be possible for those children to remain in mainstream school. However, realistically it isn’t going to happen – the financial burden would be extreme, in order to support maybe 5% of the school population. Are there really that number of trained professionals available anyway? To me, it makes economic sense to bring the children to the professionals, not the other way round.

        I understand that in the past specialist provision for behavioural problems was inadequate, but that is no reason to assume that all future provision will be the same. Consider the analogy with mental health – 300 years ago the public could go to Bedlam to ‘view the mad people’, now neither the Bethlem Royal Hospital nor any other mental health provider would dream of treating their patients this way. Just because a previous system was inappropriate, it does not mean that all future ones will be.

      • Phil H says:

        Thanks again, MM.
        That does sound like an ideal system, you’re right. I have my doubts about how feasible it is, but you’re right, things can change. So if I was presented with credible policies to create a well-funded special ed system which wouldn’t just be about passing the buck or a dumping ground for difficult children, then I would definitely be willing to support it. At the moment, those credible alternative policies don’t seem to exist, and I don’t really know who would start developing them. If and when it happens, I’ll be reading and watching with interest.

  2. HeatherF says:

    I met a Yr R teacher on a course today who says the child that used to bite and scratch her every day is still in the school (the teacher has moved on) but the child has to sit behind a perspex screen in class to protect the other children from her outbursts. I am not sure I can even believe anyone could think this is the appropriate solution or that inclusion is a reasonable answer.

    • That is appalling!
      It’s no way to treat the child sat behind the screen, and it certainly isn’t ok to promote this in front of the rest of the class. If the child really cannot refrain from hurting those around, then she should be educated separately.

  3. anon says:

    Excessive concern for the “innocent”

    Why the scare quotes around “innocent”? In what way is Molly in this story only “innocent” and not, as most decent people would say, simply innocent? How can you have “excessive” concern for the innocent? You appear to be another adult who is willing to allow children to be threatened and assaulted in a way that you would be for a second tolerate yourself, because you are more concerned about the attacker than anyone else.

  4. chestnut says:

    What’s all this about seperate schools in the past? There are specialist schools where I live and they have amazing reputations. The problem is not just about exclusion but the fact that it was not recognised that despite Emma’s disability she still needed firm discipline and five minutes time out is not enough. What is this little girl learning about how to behave and function in society – nothing of any use to her, she is being set up to fail. Good intentions are not enough.

  5. Rachel in Kent says:

    From my experience as a parent, I suspect that Molly will be only the first of many children to be driven out of her school by the presence of a disruptive child in her class. I have seen this happen.

    No, it isn’t “fair” that Emma should suffer because of her disability. But, as I am constantly telling my children, life isn’t always “fair”. It isn’t fair that some children are clever and some not. Some are sporty, some not. Some have great parental backing whilst others have almost nothing…

    It is perhaps a somehat utilitarian view but, to me, what is most unfair of all is that the education of twenty-nine children should suffer for the putative benefit of one.

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