Monday Madness- Seclusion and Restraint

This is a big topic. B.I.G.

I have a lot to say about this topic. A L.O.T.

Because it is big and I have so much to say, I will share just a bit of what needs to be said and return to this topic in more posts this week and next.

I don’t even know where to start. I have so many examples of misuse of restraint and seclusion. I have such strong feelings about this topic that my heart pounds and races, I feel sick, outrage, overwhelming hopelessness.  But most frustrating is that I have solutions, but very few are willing to turn their back on behaviorism to embrace more humanitarian and therapeutic strategies.

For most teachers now, because of the PBS movement, finding a way to abandon the notion that students need to be controlled and rewarded or denied treats, trinkets and movie day, is almost impossible.  But this post isn’s about PBS.

It all boils down to our decisions about how to manage our students, how we treat our students, care for our students, construct each day for our students. It also has to do with how we honor our students, understand them, respect their differences and needs. It is really about giving up the notion that we need to control our students and exert our power over them.

Today I am just going to share a powerful story. It’s about a real kid in a real school with a real teacher, in real time. And even though we have federal laws about seclusion and restraint, this stuff is going on everywhere. I wish I could say this is a rare example.

Full disclosure. I have never used seclusion. At one school, I was actually encouraged to request a seclusion room be installed in my space. Sadly, this came from the principal. I declined.

I have, however, restrained kids. Very rarely. These are not my prouder moments even when it was necessary to keep a kiddo safe. Because I am convinced something was missed, some trigger that I should have been aware of.

The fact is, use of restraint and seclusion are expected in most schools. In some schools it is standard procedure. Too many times paraprofessionals are trained to use restraint for just about any act of disobedience. It’s alarming how restraint and seclusion are commonly accepted behavior management tools. As the law states, restraint is only supposed to be used as a very last resort and only when the student is a danger to self and others.

So, what does that mean? Danger to self and others. How are we defining danger? How about danger to self? And what about danger to others? Certainly we don’t want students hurting themselves. We don’t want students hurting others. Is throwing wadded up worksheets at others a danger? Is turning a desk over a danger? What if no one is in close proximity? How about grabbing a teacher’s clothing? What if grabbing the teacher’s clothing is in response to the teacher further escalating the kid because she is in the student’s sacred space? How about tripping a classmate in line? General education kids do this, but the assumption of motive and degree of danger to others is somehow always less when a general education student trips another. Just horsing around. How about sticking a paper clip in a wall socket? Spitting on a teacher? Running through the hallway? How about running through the hallway with scissors? Throwing the ball too hard at another during a recess game? What about hiding under a desk or table? What about daydreaming or lying on the floor? What about refusing to eat lunch?

You are probably thinking, it’s situational. It depends on the kid, the environment, the intent of the student. But I want you to remember this.

Nobody can possibly know the real intent of another or how they are interpreting the environment and actions of others. Nobody. 

If you take nothing away from this discussion but the following, I will feel hopeful.

Restraining and secluding students is a demeaning way to control. It is demeaning for the restrainer as well as the restrained. In general, it is simply strong-arming someone into compliance. In reality, it escalates kids, makes them feel powerless and very alone. It solidifies negative beliefs they already have about themselves. It is further evidence that they don’t matter, that what brought them to the point of communicating their stress in unacceptable ways is their fault somehow. They are being restrained and secluded because they are stupid or bad or out of control or dangerous. They don’t belong with the rest of humanity. That is exactly how it gets internalized by the restrained. One restraint leads to more restraints. It becomes their normal. And with every additional restraint, there is confirmation the student is stupid, bad, out of control, dangerous. The confirmation is not just internalized by the student being restrained, but by every witness. Soon the school community is defining the restrained as stupid and bad, out of control and dangerous. The student causes harm to others. Stay clear of him. You don’t want him as a friend or a partner in your group.

Restraint and seclusion define kids.

The following was observed by me just a few years ago. It haunts me still.

The door to the seclusion room was open and 3rd grader Eddie was sprawled on the floor across the entryway. He was calm, just hanging out. An adult was nearby. She had the posture of one just waiting for this kid to do something really awful. Prison guardish. Eddie had his feet up on the door and was engaged in a rhythmic pushing of the door against the wall. Back and forth, back and forth. He was daydreaming. It was not distracting, but it got louder with time. Eddie was not yelling, not swearing, not attacking anyone. It was not clear Eddie was even aware that the door was hitting the wall and was getting louder. Adult decides this is disrespectful of others in the room and deserving of locking Eddie in the seclusion room. Adult is full of self-importance and believes she is doing the right thing. This kid needs to learn how to be respectful and not disruptive to the learning environment. Right?

Keep in mind the room is huge. There were only 3 other kids working at their desks with the teacher and seemed to not even notice what their pal was doing because the seclusion room was actually across the hall. And because administration had brilliantly (dripping sarcasm) decided to assign this group classroom space at the end of a winding hallway far, far away from any other learning environments, no other students were affected.

Predictably, Eddie is now escalated. He is screaming, whaling, kicking the walls and door. The ‘disruption’ is now far worse than it was before seclusion. It is far more distracting to hear someone in distress than to hear a gentle rhythmic banging of a door against a wall. A teacher in another part of the room tries to carry on with his lesson over the din of Adult and Eddie screaming at each other through the closed seclusion room door. Teacher finishes his lesson and allows his students free time choices…. things that require the use of ear buds and headphones.

As Eddie was screaming, crying and thrashing about in the seclusion room from the other side of the door, Adult was telling Eddie he was making things worse and he could come out only when he was quiet and in control and ready to say he was sorry for making so much noise. Until then, he was in there indefinitely. Her tone was harsh and condescending. She was yelling and just as much out of control as Eddie.

Pause here. Maybe reread that.

The absurdities are too many to address at this point. What did Eddie hear? What does Eddie now believe about the world and his place in it?

Let’s take a look at the realities of 3rd grade Eddie’s life. He lost his mother (she was killed) just a year ago.  This is the anniversary month. He just had his first birthday without his mother.  His father is in jail.

No matter. Kids have to learn how to behave. They have to buck up and march along. This is school, for goodness sake! It’s been a year already! Do that emoting at home. Let’s keep on using behaviorist methods with this kid. Let’s make the consequences more intolerable, the rewards more enticing. Surely that will make Eddie more in control of himself.

Let’s shut Eddie down and teach him that nobody really cares about anything except that he get his work sheets done quietly, that he not disturb others, that he attend to all things school.

Maybe throw in a little shame while Eddie is thrashing against the pain he is in. Your mom would be very sad if she saw you right now.

She certainly would be sad.

Take a moment and really appreciate this 3rd grader’s life condition. He has feelings he can’t even identify or describe in words. There really are no words to describe grief of this significance. He is a 3rd grader, a 9 year old. He has no way of understanding any of what has already happened in his young life. And isn’t that about developmentally right, to not be able to deal with circumstances of such magnitude? Adults have enough trouble wrapping their heads around death, but a 3rd grader is supposed to come to school and carry on after his mother has been killed? Putting him in a locked seclusion room and telling him when he calms down he can come out is not going to help him in any way.  It is going to harm him. The cruelty is profound.

Eddie needed hugs and whispered sweet nothings.  He needed his mom.  He needed someone to care and understand that getting down to academics wasn’t possible for him because his grief was big.  BIG.  Because he doesn’t have a mom! Because that void is so huge he cannot even describe it.  He needed to be able to daydream and move rhythmically.

Rocking is a basic human response when one is stressed. Rocking and swaying, back and forth, back and forth.

Instead of locking Eddie in a cold room where ‘out of control’ kids go, how about putting a pillow or other soft item between the door and wall?

How about providing a rocking chair or a swing?

How about lying on the floor with the Eddie and just being there with him? No need to talk.

Maybe start humming a little ditty.

Maybe read a book to him with no expectation that he really attend.

Maybe just be kind. Just be with him.

One compassionate human being with a hurting kid.

And even if Eddie was living happily with both parents and engaging in the very same ‘disruptive’ behavior, he would deserve all the above just the same.

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