Today’s guest author is Jeana Weise.
Jeana is from Kansas City, Missouri. Currently Jeana lives in Nebraska with her husband and three kids. Her oldest daughter was diagnosed with autism at age two. Jeana has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Sociology from Northwest Missouri State University. For twelve years she has been an advocate for her daughter, and four years ago Jeana created her own blog/Facebook page called Seasons of Autism where she found her calling as an advocate, and voice of support for other families.
Our nation’s schools use seclusion rooms for students as young as five-years old. They don’t call them that of course. It doesn’t sound nice to call them what they are. They sometimes call them alternative learning rooms. Let me pose a question here – how much ‘learning’ can take place in a padded room with nothing inside? Let me pose another question, as these are also referred to as ‘calm down’ rooms.
Who in the world could calm down by being shut in an empty padded room? Where’s the bean bag chair? The sensory soothing items? A swing? A soothing weighted blanket? How about some fidgets?
Recently our paper did an article on these rooms. I had hoped it would shine a light on what’s happening behind our school doors. Instead, it glossed over things like how many of these rooms have been built into our schools over the past 5 years, quite a few is the real answer. The reporter glossed over the quote from the Department of Education here in our state where they outright admitted these rooms impact children with IEPs more than other children who attend school. How does that statement not lead to more questions? If I had been interviewing that person, who had nothing to do with special education so let’s get that sorted, and they told me students with disabilities are the ones most often impacted by this ‘behavior plan’ that statement would give me pause. That statement would concern me. That statement means that the very existence of these rooms screams discrimination against special needs children. Yet nobody seems to even care. The reporter glossed over the fact that the school claims the doors don’t lock, yet if you look there’s no handle to open the door from the inside. It makes me feel physically sick to my stomach to see actual photos of these rooms. It’s like these kids are institutionalized.
Understand me when I say that I do not blame teachers for bad policymaking. There are people above our teachers who control the behavior plan and how it’s implemented. I’ve spoken to plenty of teachers who don’t like these rooms but also don’t have much support or training in how to handle meltdowns. Our schools here weren’t like this in the past. They didn’t have these rooms when my daughter was in elementary school, they built them later. It’s a lazy way to not get to the heart of the behavior struggles, and it comes from those at the top. Leaving the teachers and paraprofessionals stuck in the middle of this mess.
Hear me when I say that I’ve seen major meltdowns. My daughter is 14, it has happened. When she was 6, 7, and 8 years old these things could be handled in a way that didn’t traumatize her. To this day her meltdowns can be handled in a way that supports her and isn’t traumatic.
These rooms, if they do exist in a school, should be a last resort. They should be rarely occupied. This is not how our rooms are being used. My hope and prayers are that more teachers will step out of the shadows and come forward to shine a light on what’s happening behind those school seclusion room doors.
So what could schools do? Stop building more seclusion rooms and start finding better ways for starters. It’s 2022 and this is our answer? Seriously? Please educate your staff. Send your teachers and paraprofessionals to the autism conferences and training. There is a wealth of information out there, and so much is available virtually for the past couple of years! How simple would that be? They deserve to receive the training and tools to help all their students.
Bring in a therapist who knows autism (or their disability), because once you put a kid in this room then you are in for a world of trouble. Ever heard of a fight or flight response? These kids are going to respond even more dramatically if they know they are headed to that seclusion room. How are we thinking this is a solution to any problem, especially at such young ages?
Communicate with parents and the child’s previous teacher. Our schools often have an “us vs. them” mentality and it is a disservice to our children. Ask the parents about a child’s triggers, and how to identify when the child is becoming overwhelmed. What soothes the child at home? My daughter was allowed to choose to take a walk with her paraprofessional, or she could go to the sensory room for a break. What happened to sensory rooms? Why aren’t those being used? Take responsibility. If a child is put in a seclusion room parents should be notified. If a child is struggling and you as the adult believe it’s the child’s fault they cannot cope, there is a problem. We are asking kids to sit for hours at a time with no breaks, and we expect them not to have issues? Administration, curriculum directors, you all need to take some responsibility for these choices in the child’s school day. If it isn’t working it’s broken and needs to be fixed. Admit the problem.
We have to address how these rooms are disproportionately impacting special needs children. Do you want kids to be afraid of autism? Well, you guys are doing a pretty good job of treating autistic kids like they need to be feared.
There are better ways. There’s a reason why this is considered a dated technique. Am I saying they should never be used? Well, I guess I have to wonder if the adults reading this would want to be restrained and trapped in a room with the door held shut. I’m thinking the answer to that question is no. Many schools around the country function without the need, so I ask why so many of our schools believe they need them? Especially because there is no positive data to support their use. I believe they are a lazy behavior plan. I believe that for many kids they are traumatic. For my daughter, something like this would have been traumatic. Thankfully my daughter has never seen the inside of one of these rooms. Thankfully.
Last, parents make sure you put in your IEP that YOU are the first call in case of an emergency. These are your kids and you have rights. Your children have a right to free and appropriate education (FAPE). These rooms are far from serving our children and their rights. I’ve spoken with a lawyer for disability rights and this is something they have been fighting against in our state. They believe it is in direct violation of FAPE. The state of Nebraska is one of the worst states when it comes to the use of these rooms. We have no laws to protect our students here concerning seclusion and restraint.
I know I have a fight on my hands that goes higher than our school district. I’ve not yet begun to fight. We all have to fight.
For now, I think if you are a parent it is time to make your district understand your feelings on the use of these rooms. If you aren’t okay with it don’t just silently comply. I refuse to stay silent any longer, especially while the school and paper fluff these up as if they are a good thing for a six-year-old kid. They are putting out a narrative that our kids are dangerous, and I won’t stand for it. I do understand that the age of a child plays a part in what behavior strategies should be used. No matter what age I believe more education for the adults would for the most part prevent a need for this dramatic and dangerous response. Behavior is communication.