Children with challenging behaviors need compassion and calming, not restraint or seclusion

Today’s guest author is Mona Delahooke.  Mona is a child psychologist, speaker, trainer and author of Beyond Behaviors: Using Brain Science and Compassion to Understand and Solve Children’s Behavioral Challenges.

Max Benson was only 13 when he died in a Sacramento, California hospital in November of 2018. A day earlier, after school employees allege that he spit on a classmate, school staffers had responded by holding him in a face-down restraint for an hour and 45 minutes, according to court records. He never recovered.

Mona Delahooke author of Beyond Behaviors

Nearly a year later, authorities charged his school and three of its employees with felony involuntary manslaughter. The trial is pending, but whatever the outcome, Max’s death is just one illustration of how those working in our education systems can profoundly misunderstand children’s behavioral challenges.

As a child psychologist, I have long been troubled by the use of restraint. During an early internship at a school for children with developmental disabilities, I was taught how to use restraint on students who posed a threat to themselves or others. The school also featured a closet-sized “quiet room,” with padded walls that we were told was designed to keep children safe. It pained me to witness staff members taking down or secluding teens and children. Fortunately, I never had to participate, but I never forgot the experience.

I went on to specialize in neurodevelopment and, over time, came to question the way teachers and school administrators understood and managed the behaviors of children with autism and other developmental challenges. Notably, these children are more likely than their neurotypical peers to be subjected to seclusion and restraint.  

Why? The kinds of behaviors for which school staffers employ take-downs and isolation are almost always “fight or flight” behaviors. These aren’t intentional behaviors. Rather, they represent the autonomic nervous system’s reaction to a subconscious perception of threat.

These children aren’t misbehaving. Their actions stem from adaptive survival instincts.

We ought to respond to these moments of physiological distress not by overpowering or isolating children, but by calming and soothing them. 

Too many educators simply don’t understand this. I recently heard a school administrator explain to a parent that the parent’s child had defecated in order to “get out” of a seclusion room. I couldn’t have disagreed more strongly. A child losing control over his bodily functions isn’t purposeful misbehavior; it’s a sign of physiological distress. Such seriously challenging behaviors indicate human suffering at its most primal level.

Children with communication challenges—non-speaking individuals and those with trauma histories—are most at risk from such policies. These children display more behavioral challenges because they aren’t able to communicate their thoughts verbally. Their behaviors signal that the student needs support. Instead, we punish them as if the behavior is intentional.

To be clear, these children and teens don’t need to be taught a lesson, secluded or restrained. The adults around them should see the child’s actions as a stress response: their distress causes a lack of behavioral control. (As the child psychologist Ross Greene says: children do well if they can. When they can’t, there’s a reason.)

Given this understanding, what should we do differently in working with children displaying behavior challenges? We need to keep the child safe while re-engaging the child’s social engagement system. Instead of labeling behaviors as “good” or “bad,” we should track stress levels, then intervene compassionately, with techniques designed to soothe the child, easing the stress that underlies the behaviors. We should rethink the paradigm, devising answers that respect the human nervous system rather than ignoring it. We can best keep students safe by connecting with them, not isolating or overwhelming them. 

It’s time to do away with isolation and seclusion. Until we do, children will continue to suffer, or even die, from an outdated notion of how to help them. 

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