I started my career working in a residential facility. Restraints and seclusions were common, almost daily experiences. So I have a long history with them. I am embarrassed to say that while I was in my 20’s trying to supervise extremely volatile and impacted children, I saw them as “sometimes necessary for safety.” I don’t think that anymore.
As an educator, I have worked relentlessly to decrease the use of these traumatic interventions.
The crisis prevention model used in my school is referred to as a “preventative” system of de-escalation. It does a relatively good job of identifying the different stages of escalation and some surface-level responses to each step. For example, an early escalation stage is identified as “questioning.” The trained response is to answer the question. However, I will say that these surface-level responses do not really feel like the focus. The overall focus in my experience has been on restraint.
Every single year, we practice restraints. Almost an entire day is dedicated to ensuring we know how to restrain children in a way that keeps us legally safe. I say legally safe because I don’t believe restraints keep children safe. That may ruffle some feathers, and I am ok with that. I believe that caring about your institution means stretching its thinking and practices so that it continues to grow. If the system can’t or won’t change, we need to beat the system.
It has been my goal to show people that seclusion and restraint do not have to be a behavioral intervention that there are better ways.
The program I work in is not a program that focuses on compliance-based practices. We are a program that focuses on building relationships with children and trying to help them heal from school-based trauma and build skills to help them survive the system. My first year in the program felt very much like my time in residential. Restraints and seclusions were common. A “tool in the toolbox.” During one restraint, I watched a student just sob, and something in me shifted. I didn’t see a violent student who was putting me in imminent danger. I saw a kid sobbing, not knowing how to manage his feelings. A child that did not understand why his feelings were so big.
That restraint did nothing to change that student’s behavior. It didn’t even de-escalate the immediate situation. It was traumatic for every single person involved. I vowed to be better.
Our program utilizes something called Collaborative Problem Solving when looking for triggers for escalations. What is it that is getting hard? Involving children in these conversations is imperative to find out the why for them. Some adults have a hard time listening to children. They may try and do it initially, but if the feedback bumps up into their belief system, I see them stop listening. Our entire team philosophy revolves around listening to our kids and putting their needs at the forefront of everything we do.
Reducing and Eliminating Restraint and Seclusion
Here are a few things that I have learned that are critical to supporting kids while reducing and eliminating restraint and seclusion.
Relationships are at the very forefront of our work. Schools can be fairly rigid, and if you don’t fit into the box, there often aren’t the resources needed to support you. This ends up causing a lot of trauma, and people focus on the extreme behavior. There is ALWAYS something under that behavior. Our job is to try and unpack that and understand what it is so that we can get the proper support in place and re-integrate them with those supports. Sometimes that can be a relatively easy process, and sometimes it is extremely complicated. Relationships are key to that work. Building trust and safety in our relationships with students is the foundation for all of the other interventions. Kids need to know they are seen, accepted, and nurtured. Nothing can happen until they begin to feel that. We teach things in a fun and engaging way. One of the ways that we teach routines may be a little unconventional. We like to make movies. It turns out kids love watching themselves in movies. So we make movies about targeted routines, and yes, we include unexpected ways in those movies. People are afraid of showing students how not to do something. They think it will just make them want to do it the unexpected way. I have found the opposite to be true. I think it provides context for them. How do you know what the unexpected way is if no one taught it to you?
The environment is critical in creating a warm space that promotes healing. I have worked very hard to transform the spaces in our classroom and use them effectively. Our break room doors actually have two doors so that we can avoid having to hold it closed during escalations and can easily initiate a staff switch. We have different tools in those spaces so that students can choose which tool they need when they have big feelings. One size doesn’t fit all, and humans need different things at different times.
Visuals are a key tool used in our program, but they must be used with fidelity. Our social stories are read daily and then changed when a skill has been met, so they stay relevant and evolving. We use visuals during escalation because when we have extremely big feelings, and sometimes we cannot process words for a minute. We practice using visuals to point to what break room tool would help us re-regulate. We also use visuals and hands-on practice following a challenging moment so that we continue to reinforce the skills and apply it to the next moment.
These are just some of the interventions that we use every day to help support our students in their growth. They are integral in significantly decreasing the need for seclusion and restraint. But what it really comes down to is a commitment to put their humanity first; to not dwell on the behavior itself for too long, but to constantly reflect on our practices and problem solving to help identify what they are thinking and feeling so that we can create an effective support. The change has not come from our crisis management training.
The change in our program came from having an amazing group of people who have a shared understanding that it’s our job to help kids identify, understand, and communicate their feelings.
Restraint and seclusion don’t do that. They only cause more trauma. The few times we have implemented very brief seclusions, I have gone home feeling like I failed that student. Because I did. Not on purpose obviously, but it was a failure and we have to learn from our failures, not deny or justify them. So I will begrudgingly participate in any mandated yearly training that protects us legally. But every single time I hear one of our trainers say, “it’s a tool in the tool box,” know that what is going through my mind is, “not on our watch.”