You may have seen the comments on a recent Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint social media post about seclusion rooms. We saw many responses to that post. Some of the responses to the post were troubling, some from people who genuinely don’t know how to keep all children safe, and others looking for meaningful dialogue and education.
I have been circling around this question for some time. How do we teach people other ways of preventing the escalations we are seeing in classrooms? It has taken years and so much training and self-reflection to get to where I am personally in my career. How can I share what I’ve learned in my journey so that other professionals can hear it and apply it? Because, let’s be real, public education is in a crisis. People are stretched past their capacities, caseloads and class sizes are outrageous, people need to be paid a sustainable or, in the case of paraprofessionals, a living wage, and there is no planning time. During a time when we are losing teachers, we are seeing increased administration pay and positions and knowing that when people, in this case, the adults, are in a crisis, how do you provide learning?
I obviously can’t de-escalate the adults, which is the first step in any escalation. I am going to do my best to provide some regulation, problem-solving, and planning, knowing that it may not be received because of adult dysregulation. I know that statement may not be a popular sentiment. But if you read, as I did, a commenter suggesting in exasperation that we cannot “put students down like feral animals,” you would understand why I am saying the adults are dysregulated.
One of the main issues I am seeing is no preventive planning or proactive intervention happening. Because there is a crisis, we are stuck in reaction mode. If you have repeated escalations, you have not gotten in front of the behavior. You have not provided skill-building opportunities. You continue every day as you did the day before, hoping that children with an unmet need or a skill deficit will magically figure it out. And I ask you respectfully, why do you think that? You wouldn’t expect a first grader to pick up a book and read without direct instruction. Why do you think a student with a disability or a trauma history should know what to do to regulate themselves without instruction? You don’t have a plan. You have a crisis response, but without a proactive strategy, you will stay on the escalation hamster wheel. It is exhausting and traumatizing for all involved. Here are my thoughts on how to get off the hamster wheel.
Step 1. Identify the Unmet Need or the Lagging Skill
Identifying the behavior is the first step. This is relatively easy and is what the rage we see on the internet is about. But, you not only need to identify the problem behavior you are targeting, you need to identify the unmet need or the lagging skill. Unmet needs include food scarcity, housing instability, or active trauma in the home. A basic human need is unmet, making it impossible for that student to access learning. A student having a lagging skill or a skill deficit is also an underlying reason for the behavior. Those may look like gaps in foundational academic information, a disability, difficulty with transitions, low problem-solving skills, a low threshold for mistake-making, etc. Throwing the chair is the symptom. It isn’t the cause. Children who are communicating big feelings by demonstrating big behaviors are not doing it on purpose to hurt anyone else. It is a stress response. It is our job to help them learn other ways of expressing themselves and teaching them what TO do, not posting on the internet what NOT to do.
Step 2. Direct Instruction
A. Student Voice in Problem Solving
Now that you and your team have identified the lagging skill or unmet need, it is time to make a plan. It is easy for adults to get together and decide what the problem is and what the plan should be. I can’t tell you how often well-meaning adults, myself included, are wrong. This way of planning changed for me after receiving Collaborative Problem Solving training. I went into this training not incredibly open. I was still operating from a compliance lens, and the training outline of involving the child in these conversations felt ineffective. I was wrong. This method has single-handedly changed how I see behavior. Think about it: as adults, having ownership over our plans and schedules is much more effective than the micromanaging boss who tells us what to do and has no room for our voice. People taking away your voice doesn’t work. It also doesn’t work with students. That’s compliance. Education is about creating critical thinkers, problem solvers, bucket fillers, and collaboratively minded adults. It should not be about blind compliance.
You have identified the problem, you have problem solved with the student, and now you’re ready to make a plan. A plan should include any accommodations identified in the IEP or 504 and, again, student voice. What do they think would help? Our intention is to help them in learning how to problem-solve for themselves. That’s how we build resilience and independence. Are there sensory tools the student should have unlimited access to? Is there a break space (not a seclusion room, a calming corner, or a space) incorporated into the classroom? Is instruction modified to be at their instructional level? These may sound overwhelming if you are dysregulated, but they are not difficult to implement in a general education classroom or a special education environment.
C. Replacement Behavior
While we are learning new skills, it is important to have replacement behavior. For example, if you have a student who elopes (runs out of the classroom), embrace that and make a replacement behavior of running to a designated space. If you have a student who hits when escalated, redirect that to a bean bag or a boxing glove. If you have a student who crawls under the desk, get a tent. Replace the unexpected behavior with a more expected behavior that supports their needs.
Making a plan, utilizing accommodations (tools and supports), and implementing a replacement behavior require direct instruction. You should have positive, engaging activities to teach and practice your plan. Practicing the plan when the student is regulated is critical in making that new pathway they can access when they begin to feel dysregulated. If you make a plan and then simply expect the student to do it, you are setting yourself and that student up to feel like plans don’t work.
Step 3: Connection
A. The plan worked or may need more practice!
You must have a safe and connected adult for your plan to work. Adults who are dysregulated, stuck behind a compliance lens, or burnt out will not be the adults who can help successfully implement the plan. The moment the plan doesn’t work, it will be confirmation bias for them. You HAVE to find the regulated adults committed to this process. When you are in the trenches of intensive behavior, it is vital that the adults take their breaks and utilize their tools as well. In order to co-regulate, you have to be regulated. There is no shame in self-reflection, knowing that you are triggered, and finding someone else to help. That takes a high level of integrity and care for that student.
Two things will happen after you identify the problem and the underlying cause, make a plan with the student, use the tools, and practice the plan. Either they are going to follow it successfully, or they will not successfully follow it. You need that connection for both. I look at supporting behavior like taking a hike. There is a well-worn and predictable path. That student has a pattern or response that is instinctual, familiar, and, in some cases, deep. You are helping to show them another path. That path has unfamiliar bushes; they can’t see it, and they don’t feel safe taking it. It’s your job as the educator as they learn how to trust this new path and hold space for old responses. So many of our students with challenging behavior have been othered, vilified, and ostracized. They have internalized shame and grief. The system has been oppressive and abusive. It will take time. When they try the new path, they need recognition, support, and celebration. This may seem obvious, but adults can fall into the “I’m not going to reward expected behavior everyone else is just doing.” That is not a safe adult, and you need a different one to help support this student.
When the behavior resurfaces, our first step is to de-escalate. Brains that are in crisis cannot take in information. If you have an escalation, making demands and verbal directions is ineffective. You need to bring the temperature down. This could look like lowering the lighting, putting on soft music, using soft language, or no language, but rather some visual prompts. You can do this with the entire class, or you can evacuate if you truly believe the other children are unsafe. This can be stigmatizing, so it should not be overused and handled with care. But before you can move on, you need to de-escalate the student. When I hear educators complain about admin handing out candy or snacks, what I immediately think is that we ended on the de-escalation step. De-escalation is not the final step; it is simply the first step during an escalation.
Once you have de-escalated the student, the next step is to co-regulate. I put these in two different categories. In my mind, de-escalation is about putting out the fire. The chair is no longer being thrown. However, that doesn’t mean the student is regulated and ready to problem-solve. It simply means that the fire is out. The easiest way to co-regulate is to be an active listener. All feelings and perceptions of experience are valid. When you are in an argument, what happens when you try to explain your feelings and someone just tells you that you are wrong? It’s escalating, isn’t it? Validating someone’s perspective is not about agreeing with them. You don’t have to agree to listen and validate. I promise it will go so far in building that trusting relationship and achieving regulation.
D. Therapeutic Reconnection
Once you have de-escalated the student, you have maintained regulation and can problem-solve again. What went wrong? This is what I noticed; what was happening for you? What got hard? Any of those prompts will work to dose a student with self-reflection skills. Circle back to the plan. There may be some repair needed. Repair is not about punishment; that’s a compliance lens. It’s a natural connection: if we made a mess, I can help you clean it up. If we said some unkind things, we may need to make a card with kind things, etc. Repair is about re-establishing the connection between action and accountability, not punishment and consequence.
Step 4: Assess
You identified the problem, made a plan with student input, and practiced the plan. How do you know if it’s working?
Data is your friend because it isn’t (or shouldn’t be anyway) emotional. I suggest making a set time frame for practicing the plan. Teams can often make the mistake of changing the plan the moment it doesn’t work. I like to stay with plans for 4-6 weeks pending something really catastrophic that happened. Ride all the highs and lows, and at the end of the timeframe, look at the data. When you are “in the trenches,” it can sometimes feel like progress is not being made because it is not dramatic. Small progress is progress. If your student started out hitting you ten times a day and is now only hitting three times and then, when prompted is using their tool or strategy, you, my friend, have an effective plan. Keep going. If you don’t see a positive trajectory, it may be time to circle back (with the student) and make another plan to try. Plans take time, and when you are in a crisis, that is hard information to take in. The answer is not to continue to implement traumatic interventions because they feel more immediate. That is dangerous and dysregulated thinking.
It is essential for teams to debrief, particularly after an escalation. I strongly urge you to be cautious of the verbiage you use when debriefing. Negatively, “venting” about a student is like poison. If there is bias or burnout in the room, that venting becomes a narrative. Once adults have a narrative about a student, it is an uphill battle to rewrite it. Vent about the system, and keep your debriefing sessions as safe places where big feelings are validated and the focus remains solution-based, not problem-focused.
This is not easy. Human beings are complex. What we’re asking is for a systemic change of thinking, and that is going to take time and effort. We must collectively hold onto our humanity if we are going to be helpful. Being an educator is being a helper. Helpers do not refuse to help because they don’t know how to. They dig deep and figure out how to.
I was able to reduce and eliminate the use of restraint and seclusion in my classroom, and you can too.