Seclusion: We can and must do better

A recent post on social media elicited a response from an individual, who indicated that they has 25 years experience in the field of education, who seemed to disagree with our assertion about seclusion rooms which stated:

Nothing is calming about a seclusion room. Children don’t learn to self-regulate by being thrown into an empty room against their will and having the door held shut. This is torture!

The individual shared their experience and opinion that there is not a one size fits all solution and that “calm” rooms can help students. We believe there are far better ways to support children than forcing them into seclusion rooms. Below is the comment from the teacher and our response.

Our response

Thank you for taking the time to share your experience. In fact, we do have many educators in our community that work with children that may exhibit stress behaviors that may be challenging in both public and non-public school settings. Like you, we want to see safer schools for students, teachers, and staff. We recognize that no one wants to restrain or seclude a child. We recognize that people choose to work in education to help children. However, we believe it is possible to create safer schools while reducing and eliminating practices like restraint and seclusion. No one wants to see a teacher hurt, but we also know that teachers and staff are more likely to sustain an injury while restraining a child or forcing them into a seclusion cell. Even when staff members have received training in the use of restraint and seclusion, there are still significant risks. During restraint and seclusion events, both the child and adult(s) involved are likely to enter a fight or flight mode, which increases the likelihood of injury to those involved.

As you are likely aware, children with disabilities, Black, Brown, and very young children are disproportionately restrained and secluded. According to the most recent Office of Civil Rights Data 80% of restraints and 77% seclusions are done to children with disabilities. Many children that are restrained and secluded have a trauma history. You describe these children as violent and destructive. However, when I talk to the parents of a child that has been restrained and/or secluded it is most often the case that the child’s individual needs are not being appropriately met. Behavior is communication, what is the child communicating with their behavior? Restraint and seclusion are not therapeutic nor do they provide any educational value. In fact, they can lead to significant trauma, injuries, and even death. We need to ask questions like “why” and “why” now. We need to understand that kids do well if they can, and if they are not doing well understand what is getting in their way. We need to understand that not all behavior is volitional, some behaviors occur when a child does not feel safe.

Restraint, seclusion, sending a child home, or calling the police are not the answers. These approaches are not helping a child that needs help and in some cases may be violating state laws. There are far better ways to support children who need help, it is not just a matter of more consequences. I understand that you have more than 25 years of experience in the field and you state that you know all of the de-escalation tools. I would hope that as a teacher that you are a lifelong learner. We should never reach the point that we don’t think we can learn more or do better. There is a lot of amazing work out there that you could use to reduce and eliminate practices like restraint and seclusion. There is always more to learn. Are you open to other ideas and approaches?

To be clear when we are talking about seclusion we are referring to the involuntary confinement of a student alone in a room or area from which the student is physically prevented from leaving. This is being done against a child’s will, often they are first restrained then forced into a seclusion room. In a seclusion room, a child may feel terror and panic. Children sometimes urinate, defecate, or remove their clothing – a traumatic stress response. There is nothing calming about being placed in a room against your will. Imagine for a moment someone put you in a room against your will. In fact, children often lack the developmental capability to self-regulate and need a well-regulated adult to help them, not one to close them in a confined space. Whether you call it the safe room, cool-down room, quiet room, or blue room there is nothing humane about being closed in a seclusion cell against your will. There may be times that a student would benefit from a quiet space or even a sensory space. However, students should not be locked in rooms alone against their will.

You mention when “safety” is a concern that a “safe room” might be appropriate. Did you know that federal guidelines suggest that seclusion rooms should never be used except in crisis situations that involve a high risk of “imminent serious physical harm”? That phrase “imminent serious physical harm” means the same things as “serious bodily injury” which is defined in IDEA as:

  • A substantial risk of death;
  • Extreme physical pain;
  • Protracted and obvious disfigurement; or
  • Protracted loss or impairment of the function of a bodily member, organ, or mental faculty.

This is a very high bar, it is not just about safety but rather a life or death situation. Do they use seclusion in your school only in life or death situations? Why is the bar so high? As the United States Senate found in 2016 “seclusion or restraints in non-emergency situations poses a significant physical and psychological danger to students.” Restraint and seclusion are dangerous. Knowing that these interventions are dangerous and can lead to significant trauma shouldn’t we do all we can to reduce and eliminate these practices? There are far better things that can be done. Did you know five states have already banned the use of seclusion in schools, and more are working on legislation? Did you know that there are many schools and districts around the country that work with children similar to the children in your program without using restraint and seclusion?

If you are interested in learning more about programs that have been used to reduce and eliminate restraint and seclusion please feel free to reach out. We also have a number of interviews and presentations on our YouTube channel from experts in the field. Additionally, I would encourage you to reach out to individuals that have themselves been restrained and secluded. We have many individuals in our community who have been restrained and secluded. Many individuals that decades later still feel the trauma associated with being restrained and secluded in school. These are important perspectives to be heard.

While the world may not be a one size fits all world, there are some things that should never be done to another human being, such as seclusion. We can and must do better.

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