My very first job post-college was working in a residential center. The entire agency served kids across the spectrum. There was a locked subacute facility, a locked longer-term placement, a transition placement, and my cottage or “unit.” We had girls ranging in age, and our building was not locked. I applied for the position, not understanding what I was getting myself into.
I have often said I learned everything I know about behavior in that building. But now I know I had so much more to learn. As a 22-year-old in charge of kids, in some instances not much younger than myself, who had significant mental health challenges, I really had no business being there. I had no life experience or perspective that would prepare me for that job or the impact I would have on kids’ lives. I know I made some feel safe and cared for. I also know that because I utilized restraint and seclusion, believing that was just an ugly part of the job, I caused trauma to others, and I have a different role in their story. I have to live with that.
We used restraint and seclusion regularly. We had yearly trainings that were so problematic. Laughing and trying not to be taken down to the ground by our co-workers may have been a release, but it most definitely aided in our real desensitization of what we were doing. We were using prone restraint, and I am horrified now when I think back on it. We had weekly staff meetings where we problem-solved how to serve our clients better. We never agreed. We had the same discussions we still have today: what strategy would help? Do we need more consequences? Do we need more fun? Do we need more staff? I am grateful for that experience. I learned invaluable things about effectively creating a schedule and how important engagement is in planning for kids.
I would give anything to go back and recognize the value of relationship building and how much more effective I could have been.
Nonetheless, I was professionally successful. I did lower our restraints, focusing on planning activities and routines. I was good at managing a team. I was willing to stay late and cover whomever needed covering. I was a team player, and my team liked me. I became a supervisor, won an award, and felt really good about my professional growth.
When I think back on it, those things aren’t really what I think about now. I think back to the moment we initiated restraint because as we walked an older kid to the “quiet room,” she started to resist. Her unwillingness to walk to a place where she didn’t feel safe, where seclusion was almost always guaranteed when they escalated, prompted us to put her on the ground until she stopped resisting. She sobbed and yelled, “Is this what you like, Karen? You like to hold kids on the ground?” Her words startled me, and I had to switch out when a friend and co-worker noticed how emotional I was becoming. I was no longer “regulated,” and my team took me out after my shift to reassure me I had done the right thing and was not the monster she accused me of being.
I think back to the moment when my “primary” ( the client I was tasked with mentoring, who was a loud and feisty young Black woman) charged me. She had been screaming at me, although I don’t remember what upset her. She had been sent back from the school on campus and was very escalated about whatever had occurred. As was the expectation, if they were excused from school, they had to be in their rooms. She screamed at me from her doorway, and I calmly repeated, “ You need to go into your room and close the door.” I was calm, even, and unemotional. At the time, I had no idea why she attacked me. I had been calm. But I hadn’t listened to her, and it infuriated her. I should have listened. It infuriates me when I need someone to hear me, and no one listens. She charged at me, and the rest of the team flew into action, initiating restraint. I got hit and was encouraged to press charges so she would learn how unacceptable her behavior had been. I had no idea, as a white woman, how I was contributing to her future in that harmful way. I do now, and I regret it. I was completely desensitized and uneducated about racial inequality.
While I worked hard to create a fun environment, intervention during escalation was really all about compliance and control. Those situations felt unsafe and at the time, I believed restraint or seclusion was the tool to re-establish safety. But intention doesn’t equal impact. Fast forward to being a teacher in the offsite behavior program… I felt prepared. I knew I would be good at it. I know how to create programming and create safety. What I wasn’t prepared for was the internal shift I would make. The change in my thinking would make me a more impactful and effective teacher, but also would ultimately alienate me from the leaders of the behavior system who had not yet caught up.
After being instructed to restrain a student one day, a student I had deeply connected with and cared for, I was up all night. I couldn’t sleep; the look in his eyes and the tears rolling down his cheeks haunted me. That’s not safety. I didn’t make him feel safe. I betrayed his trust in me. I reinforced the cycle we were trying so hard to break. I was no longer desensitized. I was very much awakened. I would never be able to look at it the same again.
As we continued, that’s what happened. We would adopt a strategy and then eventually unpack how it may not be effective and could be causing more trauma. Our immediate team was in such a beautiful alignment with one another. It was safe to dissect any intervention and strategy and unpack its impact. So we all grew together. The Karen at the end of my time there looked nothing like the Karen who started. And I am insanely proud of that growth. I know how much more there is.
My intention in telling these stories is to normalize growth. So many people in this field have worked hard and have good intentions. But they also have fragile egos that resist change and self-reflection. Intensive behavior is complex and hard to figure out. There is no shame in thinking you are doing something to help, realizing that it isn’t helpful, and then changing what you do. If you intend to help support and not force compliance, stay willing to reflect. Stay open to learning from the very community you are committed to serving. Listen to kids when they tell you how they feel. Be okay with being wrong. We are asking our kids to change; adults must also change.