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Mind your language: behaviour, exclusions and the language we use

Scrabble tiles that spell 'Choose your words'

There is a debate flaring on social media about the ethics surrounding exclusion in schools.

On one side, there are those who share their concerns for the impact of exclusion on those who are excluded in terms of immediate and lifelong outcomes and the fact that exclusion isn’t a well-evidenced approach if your aim is to support young people to change their behaviour.

On the other side of the debate are voices referencing concerns for those they refer to as victims of behaviours which have resulted in exclusion. A great deal of reference is made to an argument for exclusion to reduce situations whereby children being asked to continue to share a classroom with ‘their abusers’.

Of course as in any debate, both sides make valid points but as is also often the case, the two sides are not quite talking about the same thing and may therefore be arguing at cross purposes. Nonetheless, we imagine a shared goal for both sides would be for students who do engage in behaviours which result in exclusions to effectively reduce those behaviours. 

Situations, systems and behaviour

Putting aside for a moment the impact of behaviours that cause concern on others (not because it doesn’t matter but because it is a separate even if related issue), there is a great deal of evidence which indicates that in order to effectively address behaviours causing concern, a crucial first step is to first understand what the factors are underpinning it. There are also different ways in which behaviours that cause concern can be interpreted. 

Dispositional accounts of behaviour

One position is that behaviour causing concern reflects an individual making bad choices at a moral level or reflects something about their disposition (the way they are). Within such a paradigm, causality and accountability for behaviour which causes concern resides firmly with the individual. 

Situational/systemic accounts of behaviour

Another way to interpret behaviours that cause concern is that it arises as a function of environmental factors (situations) which may or may not interact with individual characteristics or needs. This approach to understanding behaviours (including those causing concern) is largely reflected in the ecosystemic accounts of behaviours proposed by Bronfenbrenner and is a lens through which much educational psychology practice is conducted. 

Systems of power

A third level at which behaviours causing concern may be interpreted is at the level of systems. Zimbardo, although not well known for his experimental rigour or ethics, names the impact of systems of power which create the situations in which people find themselves.

His infamous Stanford Prison Experiment and his experiences as expert witness for the Abu Ghraib trials provided insight into the role and accountability of those who create systems in which people find themselves unable to cope. He warns that none of us are immune to behaving in what we might otherwise consider to be unthinkable ways once we find ourselves in certain situations. Zimbardo (2011) also identifies the emphasis that those who create situations (the ‘guardians of the system’) place on dispositional accounts of behaviour (“a few bad apples in the barrel” as a defence buy the US army for the horrendous events that unfolded in Abu Ghraib) in order to distance themselves from their role in creating the situation. 

What’s all this got to do with exclusions in UK schools?

Government publications about behaviour policies in schools tend to emphasise individual dispositional accounts of behaviour and do not appear to make much, if any, reference to situational factors. As such, the onus appears to be almost exclusively on students (from age 4 onwards) to change and manage their behaviours themselves in response to reward and sanction systems in place. There is little to no reference in government behaviour guidance on considering the children’s situations, the situations in which the behaviour occurs and trying to work out why it is happening or what could be adapted in the environments. Understanding and addressing the environment and supporting skill development in behaviour change are not mutually exclusive aims as they are sometimes characterised as in polarised debates

Systems of power and schools

In reference to Zimbardo’s systems of power, there are factors introduced or encouraged by agencies in positions of power (Department for Education and Ofsted) which have resulted in increased rates of exclusion. In addition to more obvious correlations between zero tolerance policies and increased exclusion rates, the introduction of the Year 1 curriculum in 2014/5 led to a significant rise in exclusion for children of 5 and 6 years old nationally.

Either there was an epidemic of dispositional factors and/or moral corruption in children born in 2009 onwards or there was something about the situation imposed by a system of power that made it more difficult for children to cope. For example:

  • reduced flexibility in the curriculum
  • increased academic expectations
  • performance related pay (contributing to teachers feeling more stressed and less able to meet wider needs than they might have been able to in previous years)

What’s that got to do with language?

Seminal language and perception studies in the 1970s showed that asking eye witnesses to road traffic accidents how fast cars were travelling when they either ‘collided with’ or ‘smashed into’ another vehicle, resulted in significantly higher estimates of speed for the latter (e.g. Loftus & Palmer, 1974).

Studies asking participants how they would respond to a hypothetical crime spree framed within metaphors of a ‘beast’ or a ‘virus’, found that participants wanted to hunt down, enforce the law and punish crime when presented as a beast, but wanted to understand, address and reform in response to crime presented as a virus (Thibodeau and Boroditsky, 2011).

Finally, another ethically questionable study of the 1970s, found that participants were more likely to give higher levels of electric shocks to people who got questions wrong when they overhead them being described as a ‘rotten animalistic bunch’ than as a ‘good, perceptive lot’ or if they didn’t overhear them being described at all (Bandura, Underwood and Fronsom, 1975).

The language used to describe people and their behaviour has a significant impact on perceptions and therefore on how people respond to it. 

Ok, but what does that have to do with exclusions?

In our research, when we looked at the language being used by schools when referring students with behaviour that was causing concern to external services, we found that it could be categorised into three themes:

  1. What the behaviour was
  2. Why it was happening
  3. What the impact was.

Within descriptions of what the behaviour was, some gave a flavour but did not describe what it was actually happening (e.g. aggressive, abusive, noncompliant, violent), and in other cases specific examples were used of behaviours such as hitting, throwing tables, shouting, screaming, refusing, leaving the school site and so on.

Within descriptions of why the behaviours were happening, there were references to causality being the nature or choice of the individual (e.g. choosing, lacking, controlling) and other references to the environment, situation or experience of the young person (e.g. context, finding things hard, feeling overwhelmed).

Within our article, we propose that there is some language which lends itself to a dispositional and moral framing of behaviours causing concern (non-descriptive labels and reference to behaviour as reflecting character or choice). We explore the idea that framing descriptions of behaviour in this way makes it less likely, or at least more difficult to consider the situational or systemic factors that underpin the behaviour and therefore more difficult to address it effectively.

Hang on, isn’t this a bit ‘hand-wringing, Guardian-reading, everyone’s got to win on sports day’ apologism for terrible behaviour?

We don’t think so. We suggest that if framing labels can simply be avoided then we have a much better chance of working out what is going on and addressing it so that it can be changed, usually through a combination of environmental adaptations and skills based approaches, and therefore a greater chance of reducing the risk of exclusion. None of this means ignoring the behaviour or not addressing it, but it is likely to clarify that for individuals who reach the level of being referred to external services, what’s in place hasn’t been working and so it gives an opportunity to find more targeted alternative approaches which should include understanding what is happening from a young person’s point of view. 

What can we do about it?

As EPs, we can think about the language we use when describing children and young people’s Social, Emotional or Mental Health (SEMH) needs, always maintaining an acute awareness of the potential for the narratives we write to become interpreted as that young person’s truth. We can work with colleagues in schools and other external agencies to gently challenge the use of framing language and reframe descriptions more specifically, trying to explore why behaviours may be happening, but always with an emphasis on why it matters so that it’s not interpreted as an attempt to impose a new political correctness which runs a real risk of being received as frustrating, misrepresented and misconstrued.

Within our local authority we have reviewed our policy and guidance documents to identify and alter dispositional and framing language in relation to SEMH needs and we talk about this stuff with our colleagues in social care, early intervention services, across education services and into health.

For anybody who is more comfortable exploring behaviour through a lens of disposition or through emphasis on the impact on the behaviour on other people, not using framing language doesn’t preclude that, it just opens understanding up beyond that narrower spectrum which is not particularly effective in addressing or supporting behaviour change.

Surely that is an aim that both side of the exclusion debate can agree is a shared one.

The paper that Joanna and Emma have written can be found here, though you may need an institutional log in to view a full version.


Bandura, A., B. Underwood, & M. Fromson. (1975). Disinhibition of aggression through diffusion of responsibility and dehumanization of victims. Journal of Research in Personality, 9 (4), pp. 253–269.

Loftus, E., and J. Palmer. (1974). Reconstruction of automobile destruction: an example of the interaction between language and memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 13 (5), pp. 585–589.

Thibodeau, P., and L. Boroditsky. (2011). Metaphors we think with: the role of metaphor in reasoning. PLoS One 6 (2).

Zimbardo, P. (2011). The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil. London: Rider.

Stanbridge, J., & Mercer, E. (2019). Mind your language: why the language used to describe children’s SEMH needs matters. International Journal of Inclusive Education.

3 Comments so far:

  1. Sue Roffey says:

    Thank you for writing this Joanna – you address critically important issues in a highly accessible way. I have been sickened by the DfE focus /blame on the individual and total sidelining of underlying A.C.E.s. This is hurting so many children and young people. Re-framing language as you have done is a great model for others. Does this includes avoidance of psychiatric labels such as conduct disorder and oppositional defiance disorder?.

    • Joanna Stanbridge says:

      Thank you so much Sue for your kind and encouraging words. I think certainly those psychiatric labels have the same potential for framing as the language we discussed in the article, particularly in relation to descriptions of needs in a school setting and so our conclusions could in my view be extended to include them. I am doing some work at the moment with local colleagues in Health and raised those diagnoses you mentioned (for different but related reasons that were concerning me) and they told me they don’t tend to use them here anymore so I’m not sure if it that is a national move?

  2. Reni Landor says:

    So pleased to read this Joanna, thanks for sharing your thinking in this way, and these incredibly important points. I wondered whether you are familiar with the Power Threat Meaning Framework (Johnstone and Boyle 2018 BPS) and whether you have any thoughts about how similar the approach is with what you are advocating? For example there is focus on what language we use instead of diagnostic terms. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a national/international move in this direction?

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