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?