An Educators Perspective: Stop restraining and secluding disabled children in the name of safety

Today’s guest author is Karen Bures.

Karen Bures is a special education teacher working with students who may display intense behaviors in Oregon. Karen started her career working in residential treatment care, transitioned into child welfare through the state, and then took a hiatus to be a stay-at-home parent. Once Karen’s children began school, she moved into the education field primarily to be on the same schedule as her children. Karen soon discovered that she was passionate about helping kids navigate the system. She began as an educational assistant in the behavior program before obtaining her special education licensure and becoming an instructional teacher. 

Last summer, I wrote an article about my evolution with the impact of seclusion and restraint on children with disabilities. I am a special education teacher specializing in intensive behavior. It may or may not be surprising to some, depending on your development, that I believe that we should not be restraining or secluding children to the extent that we are in the name of safety. As I continue to grow and advocate, I remain taken aback at how controversial that statement can be. I know because I faced repercussions after I made it. If you want to know more about my progress and pedagogy, you are welcome to find the previous article; that’s not what this post is about.

This post is about the long-accepted belief that restraint and seclusion are essential tools to keep kids and staff safe during an escalation and what happens when educators push back against that belief.

After demonstrating that proactive interventions utilized consistently and with fidelity decrease the frequency and severity of escalations, I spoke to the school board to share an overview of some of the key strategies we used in our classroom. I received a lot of positive feedback and celebration of the work. I decided to formally request that our district either adapt the crisis prevention program in place or consider alternative programs that did not have restraint or seclusion attached to them. After witnessing countless problematic moments and situations concerning restraints and seclusions, I hypothesized that if you couldn’t change the rigid beliefs of specific administrators, then maybe you could change the vehicle they used to justify outdated and harmful practices. 

The Department of Education outlines that restraint or seclusion may be used as a last resort when faced with imminent harm. The problem is that everyone’s feeling of imminent harm differs depending on the adult’s own regulation. When feelings, and thus, behaviors, become escalated, adults also can become dysregulated. This is not a critique; it is fair that if you are being hit, kicked, spit on, bitten, etc., you may also have big feelings. We’re human. Being in tune with your own emotions during these moments is incredibly difficult and requires a level of conscientiousness that is actually the very thing necessary to keep everyone safe. Because not knowing what else to do is not what “imminent harm” means. Initiating restraint because you do not know how to make a child comply causes more harm than any safety you feel you have provided. 

We are learning much more about trauma and how that impacts the brain. I will not pretend to be an expert in this area and have much more to understand. But I do intuitively grasp that students cannot learn if they are in active trauma. The shift that has not yet happened is applying what we understand about trauma to how restraint or seclusion creates added trauma for our students and, thus, the long-term ramifications of that experience. Experiencing restraint and/or seclusion and then returning to school the next day with little to no mental health support and then being expected to follow a schedule and learn math is not trauma-informed. Not only does restraint or seclusion not prevent any future escalation, but we are also now compounding trauma.

So one could argue that using restraint and seclusion increases escalations, which is not keeping anyone safe. 

There are some obvious obstacles for educators here: Lack of training in special education for general education teachers, lack of adequate pay and staffing for paraprofessionals, extremely high caseloads for special education teachers, rigid ideology regarding behavioral outbursts, and finally, fear of retaliation for speaking truth to power on these issues. Some of these obstacles are large, systemic, and beyond individual educators’ control. However, creating spaces for open dialogue around restraint and seclusion and effective proactive interventions that can shift our collective understanding of trauma seems a worthy endeavor. Although, as I mentioned before, I learned that even dialogue has consequences if you do not have secure and competent leaders. I always knew there was this culture of teachers not speaking out very often on controversial topics. I attributed this to playing a role in society, which also pushes back on educators, with not always as much context as they sometimes need. That may be true for some. But what is also true is that if you do speak out, if you do make noise, and you do have insecure or toxic leadership, there are, in fact, repercussions. 

Following the board meeting presentation and the official program proposal, I received backlash from my administrator. Much like our students can face from compliance-focused adults, I was categorized as insubordinate. I was told to comply with “keeping the policy in place” until any formal changes were made. While my certification in the crisis prevention program that our district utilizes was up to date and still in place, I was told I had to attend another training prior to the lapse of the certification, including the restraint portion, or I would be terminated.

In the same letter, I was told that I was not to discourage the use of any tools staff needed, including restraint or seclusion—this was a game changer. 

They say there is always a moment when you know it’s time to leave a situation. And immediately after reading that one line, I realized I needed to leave. I was being directed to do something that was in direct violation of not only the training we received around restraint and seclusion but possibly IDEA law. If you are regarding restraint or seclusion as a “tool,” if you add it into their behavior plans, if we cannot even have a discussion openly advocating to do everything we can to prevent it, and if we threaten educators with termination if they challenge any problematic statements…are we really trying to avoid it? The union representative explained that this was a “gotch-you” trap, and I knew it. I asked for a week to contemplate and for the wording to be changed to be in alignment with the law, but I already knew. I just needed time to work myself up to do it. I would have to leave the program I was integral in building, I would have to leave the students I advocated and worked so hard to care for, and I would have to leave my team. I was up against an administrator who not only refused to engage in meaningful problem-solving or dialogue around the issue, but was continuously threatening me whenever I questioned something.

So I resigned. And for a minute, it broke me. 

I was so angry and felt so powerless. How was I going to change anything? Then a dear friend pointed out to me: she tried to take away your voice. It wasn’t just a difference of opinion. It was quite literally a demand to stop talking about it. So I won’t stop talking about it. In fact, I have amplified my experience. The only people who do not want you to tell anyone what happened are the people who know what happened was not ok. So that’s what I can do, along with obviously continuing to evolve and grow and change when I need to change in my instruction and support of students with disabilities. I can be a voice for them and for myself, and you can too. You can use your voice to start having these conversations.

To my fellow educators, I know how scary it is. I know that if you run into someone who thinks you are being too loud, you become more vulnerable to professional repercussions. Do it anyway. Say it anyway.

I did not leave teaching altogether as so many others justifiably have. I’m not ready to walk away. I hope that I have found a progressive, forward-thinking district that is open to the changes that so many are pushing for. At one point in a discussion around services for a student, my previous administrator accusingly asked me, “Are you a teacher or an advocate?” 

Both. I am both. We all should be.

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