A common question from school staff, administrators, and members of local school boards is “if not restraint and seclusion then what?” In this article, we will address how the current approaches to behaviors of concern are failing and leading to the use of restraint and seclusion. We will also address some of the approaches that can be used to reduce and eliminate the use of restraint and seclusion.
Today many schools across the nation are dependent on classical behaviorism to control and manipulate behavior. Although reward and consequence models of addressing behaviors are failing many children they are widely used. Programs such as Positive Interventions and Supports (PBIS) have been implemented in many schools across the nation, yet the issue of behaviors of concern has not been improving nor has the issue of disproportionate discipline. In many cases, PBIS focuses only on surface behavior, which one can observe. The focus on surface behavior and the use of outdated, compliance-based, classical behaviorism methods continue to fail our students who most need help.
Over the past forty years, there has been a tremendous increase in the knowledge base about the brain, nervous system, human development, and behavior. This includes an understanding of the role toxic stress and trauma have on the structure of the developing brain and brain functioning. State-dependent functioning, the polyvagal theory, bottom-up versus top-down learning and control, and the differences between intentional behaviors and stress behaviors (flight, fight, freeze) are all part of this new understanding. However, despite all this progress students with disabilities and Black and brown students who are unable to meet the behavioral expectations are not supported or accommodated, but rather, they are routinely punished.
Today, we know the brain areas implicated in the stress response include the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. We also know that traumatic stress can be associated with lasting changes in these brain areas. The amygdala detects threats in the environment and activate the “fight or flight” response. The use of restraint and seclusion can lead to changes in the brain. Children that have been traumatized may not feel safe and may enter a hypervigilant state. This can lead to distress behaviors when the child becomes overwhelmed or triggered. When demands are placed on the child that they are unable to meet the situation may escalate. This may lead to fight, flight or freeze behavior, which may lead to punishment and retraumatization feeding the classroom trauma cycle.
It is time to shift to approaches that are relationship-based, trauma-informed, neuroscience-aligned, developmentally appropriate, individualized, biologically respectful, and collaborative to support all children in schools across the nation.
The solutions that will improve the educational system and improve outcomes for students are the same solutions that will eliminate restraint and seclusion in America’s schools. An honest, unbiased review of the principles and research upon which the policies and practices are built is the first step. This must be followed by courageous commitment and action to make the changes necessary to align educational and discipline approaches with current research findings, the goals of the educational organization, and principles of equity. We recommend several approaches to better support all children including:
Applied Education Neuroscience
The Applied Educational Neuroscience certificate program is specifically designed to meet the needs of educators, social workers, and counselors who work beside children and adolescents that are experiencing adversity and trauma. The certificate is intended to provide graduate and post-graduate students with an opportunity to become acquainted with the theoretical and empirical literature of educational neuroscience, trauma, and brain development as it relates to behaviors, relationships, and academic acquisition.
Beyond Behaviors highlights effective neuroscience-based tools to transform childhood behaviors. Time-out rooms, behavior chart consequences, and other methods that focus on correcting behaviors aren’t working for the simple reason that they don’t take into consideration the reasons underlying behavioral challenges: the child’s individual differences and the state of the child’s nervous system. Each child has a unique background, different strengths and challenges, and are at different points in their development. They require customized plans, rooted in science, that are specific to their needs.
Collaborative Problem Solving
Kids with challenging behavior are tragically misunderstood and mistreated. Rewards and punishments don’t work and often make things worse. Thankfully, there’s another way. But it requires a big shift in mindset. Helping kids with challenging behavior requires understanding why they struggle in the first place. But what if everything we thought was true about challenging behavior was actually wrong? The Collaborative Problem Solving approach recognizes what research has pointed to for years – that kids with challenging behavior are already trying hard. They don’t lack the will to behave well. They lack the skills to behave well.
The low arousal approach enables professionals, educators, and family members to deal with and manage challenging behaviors. The approach empowers the individual or team to focus on the ‘person’ in the situation, identify causes and use proven low arousal skills to reduce the aggression. This approach acknowledges that stress is an ever-present part of the lives of people with autism, and asks how we can best manage crises where the individuals may be experiencing ‘meltdown’.
The Neurosequential Model
The Neurosequential Model is a developmentally informed, biologically respectful approach to working with at-risk children. The Neurosequential Model is not a specific therapeutic technique or intervention; it is a way to organize a child’s history and current functioning. The goal of this approach is to structure assessment of a child, the articulation of the primary problems, identification of key strengths, and the application of interventions (educational, enrichment, and therapeutic) in a way that will help family, educators, therapists, and related professionals best meet the needs of the child.
Ukeru is a trauma-informed crisis management intervention that has successfully reduced and eliminated the use of restraint and seclusion in many schools across the nation. It is a trauma-informed approach that ensures a thorough understanding of the neurological, biological, psychological, and social effects of trauma and violence on an individual. Ukeru training is just the starting point; creating an environment of Comfort vs. Control requires a true cultural shift within a school, organization, or other behavioral health settings.
There are many better approaches to supporting children who are currently being traumatized by harsh discipline programs that are pushing them down the school-to-prison pipeline. Our schools should be working upstream to address the issues that are leading to the violation of civil rights for many children throughout the country. Our school districts and state departments of education should be providing guidance and technical assistance to promote brain-aligned, trauma-informed interventions to make our schools safer for students, teachers, and staff.