A Uniform Approach Won't Fit Everyone

Posted on 22 May 2015 by Justin Roberts

Justin Roberts, Leading Teacher at MacKillop's Flexible Learning Centre Geelong, reflects on the importance of digging deeper for the underlying cause when a student doesn’t comply with uniform or dress policy.

School uniforms were a daily inconvenience for many of us in our youth. Those who had to wear one will remember how much time we spent figuring out how we could ‘modify’ them to keep up with fashion (I use this term loosely as I’m not sure how much it actually applies to the 80s and 90s), whilst avoiding a lunchtime detention! The dress code was even harder to manipulate; it’s tough to hide and/or undo a ‘rebellious’ haircut or a brand new piercing. For me and many others it was simply youthful rebellion that allowed us to test our boundaries and find our place within society’s rules. The detention, or often the threat of one, was enough to have us toeing the line for a week or two, no harm done. However, for some young people the school uniform can be an obstacle that makes school extremely challenging.

As a graduate secondary school teacher I liked to think of myself as a reluctant enforcer of the dress code. Thoughts such as, “what makes a 50 year old teacher in a suit think that he can judge an ‘appropriate’ haircut” resulted in telling my students such things as, “hide it and don’t let Mrs Grumpy see”. As I moved into positions that required me to be the enforcer of the code, this silent protest shifted to frustration with students who would be wearing the wrong thing all the time. I now found myself asking questions like, “what is so hard about keeping only one piercing in during the day, they know it will get them another detention”? Sadly, I was asking myself the wrong questions. I will try to illustrate how complying with a dress code can be impossible for some of our students.

Let’s take a young person who has experienced trauma, such as abuse. They are highly anxious at most times, constantly looking for dangers around them. It is often impossible to focus or think when the brain is so aroused. Survival is the main motivator for all decisions. A simple cap isn’t such a deviation, but as it sinks low over their eyes it allows them to block out some of the threatening world around them. It makes them feel a little bit safer, maybe even concentrate for short periods of time. Safety is worth more than anything, as it can take away some of the fear and dread they feel inside. Yet, at school, caps are not allowed inside. It would be great if the young person could just speak to a teacher so that they could understand, but the shame is too deep. The words cannot possibly be expressed because the young person has no way of communicating how they are feeling. Neither does their family who were witness to the abuse. The young person is trapped; however, no school consequence will ever outweigh the need for that cap.

Now let’s think of a young person with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), or more specifically, Asperger’s Syndrome. There has been no diagnosis yet, as they have learnt to mask their difficulty reading social situations by observing others and memorising a social script that they use with enough success to get by. Emotions and corresponding body language are confusing. Sensory sensitivity means that a sound or texture can cause great discomfort. The texture of the school shirt is unbearable. Teachers keep asking them why they always wear the wrong shirt; however, the young person only knows that it cannot be worn. They cannot give a reason, especially not one that would be understood. It cannot be worn…period. Their frustration just leads to more punitive consequences.

Lastly, let’s imagine a young person who lives in a tough neighbourhood. A criminal element is always present in the area that they call home. Standing out will make them a target, showing weakness attracts predators. News travels really fast in these parts. Piercings are a symbol. The piercing tells others in the area that they are one of them, which is important if they end up sleeping rough tonight. They don’t know who, or how many people will be in the house from one night to the next. Academic smarts do not mean much in this environment; most people despise schools due to their bad experiences, however, street smarts count. Yet, the young person knows that education is a necessity if they are going to live the life they dream of. The problem is that taking the piercing out at school is a sign of weakness. Word could spread and it could be the start of them dropping down the pecking order. Middle class teachers find it difficult to understand this pressure. School consequences are nothing compared to the beatings the weak might cop in the place they call home.

The point I am trying to make is that, when frustrated by a student who was constantly breaking the dress code, I should have been asking, “what is happening for this young person that results in their inability to meet the school’s expectations”?

At MacKillop Specialist School we hold a firm belief that all young people do well if they can. No young person makes a preconceived, deliberate choice to do poorly. It is our objective to find the barriers to success and not just treat the resulting behaviours. I am actually a believer in the school uniform and its benefits to school identity, the strengthening of community and the equality it can provide. However, for school dress codes to be inclusive they must be flexible. For those who believe that allowing some to have a different code will result in a mass rebellion by the majority, please try to remember-- young people do well if they can. Most adolescents understand that individual needs are wide and varied. Implementing punitive measures for repeat offenders can result in further alienation of those students whose wellbeing is of highest concern.

If we truly believe that education should be accessible to all it is important that we ensure that this is reflected in our contemporary school policies.