Elimination of restraint and seclusion in schools is not only possible, but it is also morally and ethically imperative

The use of restraint and seclusion in our nation’s schools has been debated for decades; these procedures continue to be used today despite reports of psychological and physical harm, including the deaths of students; and they are disproportionately used with disabled children and Black, Brown, and Indigenous children. Use of these procedures causes psychological harm to observers and physical and psychological harm to the individuals doing the secluding or restraining, including death. Restraint means restricting the student’s ability to move his or her torso, arms, legs, or head freely, and seclusion is confining a student alone in a room or area that he or she is not permitted to leave. In a letter submitted for consideration at the 2019 hearing on Classrooms in Crisis: Examining the Inappropriate Use of Seclusion and Restraint Practices, The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) stated that the harmful use of aversives, restraint, and seclusion in our schools deny students an equal educational opportunity and violate their civil and human rights.

Research and personal stories indicate that the belief that restraint and seclusion keep students and staff safe is not true. The opposite is true: the use of restraint and seclusion make students and teachers less safe. Grafton Integrated Health Network eliminated the use of seclusion and reduced the use of restraints by 97% between 2003 and 2016. Neither restraint nor seclusion are used in their day treatment school programs. Employee injuries dropped to 0 in their community programs. Organizational costs for lost work time, employee turnover dropped dramatically. During the same time period, there was a 133% increase in outcomes achieved by the individuals served.

In 2018, the NAACP, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and 56 other legal and social justice organizations issued a joint statement calling for a federal ban on the practice in public schools. Two Hundred ninety-five (295) organizations have signed on to this statement as of July 1, 2020. Principle eight addresses the elimination of restraint, seclusion, and corporal punishment. “Creating a safe and inclusive school climate requires stopping counterproductive and overly harsh punishments, including corporal punishment and restraints and seclusion, which impact our most marginalized youth and lead to long-term behavioral and mental health impacts.”

Why then, do these practices continue? Why do teachers threaten to resign if they are not allowed to restrain or seclude children? Why do teachers’ unions and educational leadership unions defend the practices, and fight efforts to regulate or ban restraint and seclusion in the face of extensive and continuing reports of abuses?

A number of reasons are likely. Change is hard, even when people agree upon the value of changing. The situation with restraint and seclusion is complex. Most parents, and even most teachers, not to mention the general public are not aware that restraint and seclusion are being used with students. It is not unusual for parents of students who are restrained and/or secluded to be kept in the dark, despite regulations that require parental notification. Children do not tell their parents because they internalize the message that they “are bad,” and they fear getting in trouble with their parents. Students who are unable to communicate are not only at an exponentially increased risk of being secluded and/or restrained, but they are unable to tell their parents, even if they wanted to. When parents do become aware, they are threatened with the message that the police will have to be called to deal with the behavior or that their child cannot attend school if the school is not permitted to restrain or seclude them. Parents are usually isolated, unaware that this is occurring with other children, that other children and parents are suffering. They are gaslighted by school personnel. Gaslighting is a form of deception that causes someone to doubt their sanity or perceptions. It is usually used in situations where there is a power imbalance.

Restraints and seclusion are used disproportionately with students with disabilities and with Black, students.

While the aggregated data for all students in the United States does not show glaring disproportionality for Brown and Indigenous students, there is disproportionality in locations across the country. According to the most current report from the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the United States Department of Education, children with disabilities comprise 13% of the school population, but 80% of the students restrained and 77% of the students secluded. Black students comprised 15% of students, but 27% of students restrained and 23% of students secluded. Indigenous populations comprised 1% of the student population, but 3% of the students secluded. Young students and non-speaking students are often the recipients of these procedures.

On the other hand, proponents of restraint and seclusion are strong and influential, including educational organizations including the School Superintendent’s Association (AASA), the Council of Administrators of Special Education (CASE), and the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC). Teachers Unions also support the use, as do many state agencies that have the power to eliminate their use, if they had the will. The strong support for the right to restrain and seclude children is cloaked in messages about keeping teachers and other students safe and protecting the rights of the other students to learn. These arguments assume the false narrative that without restraint and seclusion, students will be disruptive and dangerous. There is no recognition that there are schools across the country supporting students with the same diagnoses and challenges that have found effective ways of supporting the students so that they do not reach the point of disrupting the class.

Questions have been raised about financial incentives for promoting the right to restrain and seclude students. Certainly, the companies that provide training have a financial stake in seeing that they continue to be permitted.

The use of “positive behavioral interventions and supports” (PBIS) is written into the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). However, IDEA does not require that a behaviorism approach be used. School-wide behavior management programs based on behaviorism use principles and practices that are not aligned with the last thirty years of research in the fields of neuroscience, attachment, human development, and trauma. The use of rewards and consequences feature prominently in programs based on behaviorism. Yet research continues to indicate that the use of external incentives destroys internal motivation. Additionally, such programs punish (from failure to receive the rewards up to and including restraint, seclusion, suspension, expulsion, and corporal punishment) students who are not capable of meeting the requirements. Programs based on behaviorism fail to acknowledge or differentiate between volitional behavior and autonomic stress responses and fail to recognize the impact of brain/body dysregulation on the student’s ability to control their emotions and behavior and to learn. There is often a lack of understanding that self-regulation must be preceded by co-regulation which is learned through repeated experiences with a trusted adult. These issues contribute to a culture where the most vulnerable students are at risk of being punished (including through seclusion or restraint) rather than having their needs met through trusting relationships, co-regulation, as well as appropriate supports and accommodations. In essence, students are punished for their disabilities, rather than being supported and accommodated as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In addition to the students who are identified as having a disability, there are students with disabilities who have not been identified, for a variety of reasons. The process for determining eligibility for IDEA is inconsistent across the United States and even within the same district within the same state. Research reports and personal accounts document a late diagnosis of autistic girls, but also diagnoses of men and women as adults.

In accordance with IDEA’s direction that positive behavioral interventions and supports be made available to students, the National Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), was established to provide technical assistance to states to (a) improve outcomes for students with or at-risk for disabilities, (b) enhance school climate and school safety, and (c) improve conditions for learning to promote the well-being of all students.

However, many parents of children who have been restrained and/or secluded have indicated that PBIS practices harmed rather than helped their children, despite the purposes stated above.

There are currently no federal laws or regulations regulating the use of restraint and seclusion in schools across the nation, though the “Keeping All Students Safe Act (KASSA)” has recently been reintroduced in Congress. Individual states have passed laws and regulations, and many continue to review, revise, and/or pass new regulations and laws. However, even in states where there are strong laws and/or regulations, restraint and seclusion are often used in response to behavior that doesn’t rise to the level the laws/regulations specify as criteria for usage. Investigative reporters across the United States (and throughout the world) have uncovered the dangerous use of these traumatic procedures. See The Quiet Rooms (Illinois), Restraint and Seclusion Series (Virginia), Parents, regulators left in the dark over school behavior management techniques (New Mexico), and The Trauma of Coercion: Disabled Elementary Students and ‘Isolation Boxes.’

Facts are not sufficient to change an individual’s or organization’s beliefs about restraint and seclusion. According to Tolstoy, “The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him.”

In the 2009 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on seclusions and restraints, it was reported that “GAO did find hundreds of cases of alleged abuse and death related to the use of these methods on school children during the past two decades.” The abuse and deaths have continued since 2009. Yet even the death in 2018 of 13-year-old Max Benson and the April 2020 death of 16-year-old Cornelius Frederick at the hands of employees implementing prone restraints in response to trivial infractions has not sparked the public outrage seen with the death of George Floyd, which also was a result of prone restraint. Clearly, there is much work to be done to change hearts and minds when it comes to the treatment of children and youth.

How can this be changed? There needs to be a national awakening about how children are perceived and treated in school, as well as recognition of the tremendous pressure that is put on students through the continuous emphasis on academic achievement and compliant behavior.

Too many schools have not let go of the discredited practices of zero tolerance. Too many schools are quick to judge students as unmotivated or badly behaved without understanding the root cause of the students’ challenges. Educators often fail in recognizing that students’ brains are in the process of development; that the executive functioning skills required for impulse control, perspective taking, anticipating the outcome of one’s actions, and problem-solving are not fully completed until age 25 or even later. Rather than recognizing that much learning occurs through mistakes, students are penalized for mistakes. Students are expected to apply an unconditionally constructive approach when interacting with adults, but the same does not apply to adults. For example, students are expected to demonstrate respect for teachers and staff, no matter how disrespectfully the student is treated. Questioning is treated as defiance. Disabilities and neurodiversity that result in behaviors such as limited impulse control, questioning why, and the need to stand or move to process what is being taught are treated as noncompliance and are punished rather than accommodated. There is little recognition of the role the adults play in escalating minor behaviors, or in the possibility of responding to students with compassion and support rather than demands and challenges.

Ending restraint and seclusion requires changing hearts, minds, and systems – including changing codes of conduct, policies, and procedures. It requires that individuals supporting these practices update their knowledge base to include an understanding of the neuroscience of human behavior, the impact of trauma on brain development and brain responses, and the research of the past 20 years documenting that restraint and seclusion have not been reduced in the 20 years since PBIS has been implemented in America’s schools, that compliance-based behavior management programs are counterproductive, and that many schools in America do not use restraint and seclusion and have also eliminated or greatly reduced suspensions through collaborative, neuroscience-aligned, trauma-informed, relationship-based, individualize approaches to supporting students.

Changing requires self-reflection, courage, and determination. It requires empathy, humility, and an acknowledgment that there may be better ways and that mistakes may have been made in one’s approach. It requires consideration that what one has always heard or done may no longer be appropriate (and in fact, may not have ever been). It requires collaboration with co-workers, leaders, parents, and especially students. It requires self-confidence in their ability to do things differently. It requires a recognition that they, being human, will make mistakes, and when they do, a willingness to admit their mistake and make repairs, just as this is asked of students. It requires self-compassion.

And it is completely possible! The benefits of such a change are well worth the work required!

Changing hearts can occur in a variety of ways. For some, it is experiencing life with a child who struggles. In this “Dear Educator” letter, Sandi Lerman, experienced teacher, founder of WingBuilder, LLC, and the creator of the HEART-STRONG™ Parenting Program writes about how raising a son she adopted from Guatemala when he was 10 opened her eyes to what she didn’t know about the impact of trauma. Dr. Ross Greene, the originator of Collaborative and Proactive Solutions speaks of his observation during his early years as a clinical psychologist that the children who were struggling had siblings who were thriving. This observation led him to recognize that children’s behavioral challenges were not a result of bad parenting. After years of practicing as a pediatric psychologist and raising her children, Dr. Mona Delahooke, author of Beyond Behaviors, Using Brain Science and Compassion to Understand and Solve Children’s Behavioral Challenges, realized that what she learned in graduate school was outdated. As she pursued infant mental health training, learning about the polyvagal theory, and listening to teenage and adult autistic individuals, she saw the value of a paradigm shift from blaming kids and parents to offering love and compassion supported by an understanding of the underlying science. Teachers have written about how Dr. Bruce Perry’s book, The Boy Who Was Raised as A Dog, And Other Stories, gave them a new perspective on behavioral challenges, the children who struggle, and their parents. Many parents and teachers have had that “ah-ha” moment from reading Dr. Ross Greene’s books, The Explosive Child, and Lost at School. In the introduction to Self-Reg, Dr. Stuart Shanker writes a particularly compelling account of a teacher seeing a student she has written off as hopeless change before her eyes when Dr. Shanker turned off the bright, buzzing overhead lights. Others see kids in a new light after reading Dr. Delahooke’s books and her blog have experienced a change in their perception through reading Dr. Delahooke’s book. Learning about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) has opened many eyes. Once a parent or teacher recognizes that there are better ways to view and support children, there are a multitude of resources to support their learning.

You Don’t Rise to the Level of Your Goals; You Sink to the Level of Your Systems”

To eliminate the use of restraint and seclusion, systems must change. Educational leaders and administrators hold tremendous power in what is allowed, supported, encouraged in each state’s schools as well as what is no longer acceptable. This power needs to be recognized and used for the benefit of the students and our society. On a system level, superintendents, administrators, school boards can do the following right now.

  1. Make a commitment to stop practices that have been shown to be abusive, harmful (even deadly), and ineffective. Encourage your school or school district to update its policy and practice to reduce the use of restraint and prohibit the use of seclusion.

  2. Provide the information, training (content and time), and support (staffing levels, consultants, coaches, mentors) for school personnel to learn the basic neuroscience underlying behavioral responses; the impact of stress, toxic stress, and trauma on the developing brain; the impact of the brain state, a power differential and emotional contagion on students’ and adults’ behaviors; brain/body regulation, including co-regulation, a prerequisite to self-regulation; recognizing that a student is becoming dysregulated through observation of facial expression, tone of voice and body language; understanding that prevention is not the same as de-escalation; how to integrate preventative strategies throughout each day, individualization of expectations (in accordance with students’ developmental level and needs); and individualization of supports and accommodations. Provide training about implicit, as well as explicit racial bias.

  3. Make a commitment to collaborate with students and parents to ensure a school culture that is welcoming to all students. Commit to viewing disagreements as an opportunity to find a better way. Commit to an unconditionally constructive approach. Work together to identify barriers such as lack of resources, lack of funding, lack of staff training and support, and to finding solutions to those issues.

  4. Recognize that IDEA has not been revised to reflect the results of the past 20-30 years of research and commit to finding ways to meet the requirements in ways that are aligned with current research and knowledge. For example, the Functional Behavioral Assessment as described in IDEA is based on a behaviorism approach. The Assessment of Lagging Skills and Unsolved Problems (ALSUP) created by Dr. Ross Greene can be used instead – leading to a focus on problem-solving rather than manipulation of behaviors.

  5. Review policies, procedures, guidance documents, codes of conduct, and programs (including disciplinary and/or incentive programs) for alignment with current science, equity, and inclusion. Revise to eliminate racial and disability biases, expectations, and assumptions as well as anything based on outdated science. Include representatives of people most impacted throughout the review and revision process, including students, parents, advocates, as well as people representing different races, ethnicities, cultures, national origin, gender, gender identity, and socio-economic backgrounds.

  6. Commit to transparency.

  7. Commit to living the values of respect for and appreciation of diversity in terms of race, culture, ethnicity, national origin, gender, gender identity, and ability/disability. Commit to inclusion for all students – with appropriate supports and accommodations.

According to Peter Drucker, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

It’s time for leadership to come forward to do the right things for American students!


  • Beth Tolley

    Beth retired in 2018 from a leadership position in Virginia’s lead agency for early intervention for infants and toddlers and is a mother, grandmother and advocate.

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