From Paraprofessional to Restraint and Seclusion Advocate

Today’s guest author is Molly HoffardMolly is a mother from Lakeville, Minnesota. She’s a Partners in Policymaking graduate, an end of life doula, a nonprofit director and an advocate for developmental disabilities.

As a college student, I was sent by a temp staffing agency to work for the public schools as a paraprofessional. On my first day on the job, I was pulled aside and told, “This is how you hold them down” and briefly shown how to perform a restraint. I was to cross the child’s arms across their body and hold their hands behind their back, and place my legs around them and them on top of their legs, using my weight to immobilize them. I spent the majority of my days in that position with children with severe emotional behavioral disorders and developmental disabilities like autism. I was urinated on, severely bruised from them banging their heads into my chest and bitten. Worst of all, most of these children would cry out for their mothers, and plead to be let go of. I was a temp employee, making less than $10 an hour, and I was never once given training on de-escalation techniques or even how to properly handle these children during an outburst.

One third grade student with bi-polar disorder spent entire days at a time in a padded seclusion room. I was made to sit with him and was subjected to kicks and punches as the hours went on and started to aggravate his mental health issues. Most of the days he would peek through the small window looking into the special education room and promise to be good if they would just let him out. Most often, they didn’t.

Eventually, I was hired as a school employee and sent to work as an aide for a pre-schooler with emotional and behavioral issues. Again, I was tasked with restraining him when his behavior escalated. This child was 5 years old and the center of a very upsetting custody battle. Pre-school should have been where he could let his burden down and receive comfort. Instead, we reacted to his emotional outbursts with physical restraint.

No behavior was ever improved by restraint or seclusion. If anything, behaviors became more extreme as school became an unsafe place for these children. They would get to school, see me or the other paraprofessionals, become anxious and upset, escalate, and the whole ugly cycle would begin again. I knew this was wrong.

The majority of the paraprofessionals I worked with were good, caring people. They didn’t enjoy restraining children, but we were not in a position to change or challenge decades-old methods for dealing with outbursts in school. I believe today that we do know better, and we can do better. No child development expert or disabilities expert stands by these awful practices. We have positive and proactive interventions and supports today, we have a better understanding of autism and other disabilities, we have functional behavioral assessments, we have sensory tools. We don’t need restraint and seclusion as a behavioral modification.

These experiences were so severely damaging to me both physically and emotionally that I left the job and never returned to work as a paraprofessional again. I strongly believe now, that these methods of behavioral intervention are nothing less than child abuse and I am ashamed to say that I participated in the physically aggressive and dehumanizing treatment of young children. To this day, I remember the names and faces of these children. I wonder how they feel when they look back at their elementary school years. Being part of their trauma is something I will always feel shame over.

Molly and her family on a recent trip to Colorado.

Today, I am the mother of a child with non-verbal autism and the thought of my son experiencing what these children went through is a thought I cannot bear. My experience as a paraprofessional and a mother of a child with autism drives me to keep working to remove these barbaric practices from our classrooms. I have met with U.S. Representatives from my state and I will meet with more until we see a reintroduction of the Keeping All Students Safe Act. I owe it to the children I worked with and my child.

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