A teacher on a mission to reduce and eliminate restraint and seclusion

Today’s guest author is Brian Dalla Mura.

Brian is a special education teacher in Vermont. He holds a master’s degree in special education from Arizona State University. He has experience teaching students with emotional disabilities in kindergarten through high school. Brian began advocating for stronger and safer restraint and seclusion policies after witnessing prone restraints in his local school district where he worked and his child attends. 

“The student became aggressive.”

“He got mad when I gave him directions so he hit me.”

“There is nothing else I could have done.”

We’ve all heard those phrases, and in fact, there is a lot we can do differently if we stop blaming the students and reflect on our practices.

I’m a special educator with over ten years of experience working in self-contained alternative classrooms in Arizona and Vermont. When I began my career, I was a teacher who restrained and secluded young children. I was a teacher who couldn’t have done anything differently because I lacked skills. I was new and inexperienced. I didn’t understand the impacts that trauma and adverse experiences have on young children’s perception of the world. Unknowingly, I contributed to the trauma by using restraint and seclusion.

Restraint and seclusion never felt right, so I quit using them.

Quitting anything is a challenge. Quitting is even more difficult when you don’t have support. My first step toward quitting started with an idea of taking the door off the seclusion room in my Arizona classroom. I thought it would be easy, but the principal objected because she didn’t want the students to disrupt the school. A principal with decades of experience told me I was wrong, so as a new teacher, I second-guessed my decision. Over time, my gut told me she was wrong, so I was persistent and eventually got my way. That was it. I removed my ability to use seclusion by taking the door off the seclusion room. I continued to use physical restraints with the students I still didn’t have the skill to work with.

After my fifth year of teaching, I quit my job in Arizona and moved to Vermont. I landed a job teaching in a self-contained therapeutic classroom with a hands-off policy. I always had restraint as a tool in my box, so I was nervous that I didn’t have the skills required to work in this school. The fact is that I didn’t have the skills, but thankfully, others around me did and were able to teach me. When I encountered unsafe behavior, all I could do was allow time to let the crises run their course.

The hands-off policy removed my ability to use physical restraints and forced me to learn alternatives.

I had to debrief with colleagues, take feedback, and learn from my mistakes. I had to familiarize myself with neuroscience, attachment, human development, and trauma and move away from behaviorism that fails to differentiate between volitional behavior and autonomic stress responses. I had to understand the impacts of brain/body dysregulation.

After working without restraint and in seclusion for several years, I felt confident that I had the skills to work anywhere. I quit my job and started a new role as a behavior support educator in a school closer to my home. I knew something was very wrong within the first few weeks. Things were out of control, and I was witnessing at least one restraint per day. Physical restraints were being used to gain compliance. Seclusions were being used as punishment and going undocumented under the guise of time-outs. The administration blamed the problems on a high-needs population and students who lacked skills. I knew better than to blame the students. It was the school that had a high need, a high need for trauma-informed practices based on neuroscience.

It was the local mental health agency that lacked skills, skills in alternatives to restraint and seclusion. I found myself where restraint and seclusion were overused, and unsupportive administrators stopped attempts to improve the situation. I was told that I didn’t have the expertise to understand what I was talking about, that prone restraint is therapeutic, and to stop talking about restraint and seclusion altogether because the current policies allowed it. Quitting restraint and seclusion took time and was challenging, but getting others to quit felt impossible.

I left my last job after just one year to advocate for a prohibition of prone restraints, supine restraints, and seclusion through local and state policy.

I learned that some people will not change as long as the policy allows restraint and seclusion to be used without oversight. Without more robust policies, teachers and staff who want to quit restraint and seclusion are powerless under administrators who resist change. I encourage all teachers who wish to change to speak up and fight for better and safer policies.

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