Posted in School governance, School Leadership, Self-Care

Seclude/Restrain and Other Pointless Forms of Discipline in Schools

[Image: eighteen wooden, red-tipped matches are lined up in a semi-circle (that presumably continues outside the frame) against a black background. The eighth match from the right is lit] image from Pixabay]
Not again.

We have a school district not too far away that keeps doing things that make no sense.

A few years ago, this district had a situation where the principal decided a meltdown didn’t end fast enough and she sat on an elementary student’s legs and held him down so she could, in her eyes, force the meltdown to “peak” so it could end faster.  That was about 2.5 years ago.

Last month, the district decided to hit the news again.  This time, a young child (this district only has grades K-3 in these schools, so these are little elementary kids besides) took one of the other students’ play-doh and decided to throw it at people.  The teacher called in the principal when the kid wouldn’t give it back, and the principal dragged the child down the hall and put him in a closet.  Okay, now it’s a “time out” space, but it was effectively built to be a closet, so…it’s a freaking closet.

For throwing play-doh.

Whenever I see another story about seclude and restraint, I want to go through these schools and pick up every single Neurodivergent child and drag him to my school quickly before he or she realizes that this is abuse and somehow internalizes that it is deserved abuse.  I realize kidnapping is not a solution to this, but when I see parents feeling forced to chose the public school and the public school does this nonsense, I get livid because this is patently unfair to the child and unfair to the parents to hold them all hostage since they don’t always realize other options exist.

Here is my solution to a child throwing play-doh.

Wait for it.

“Guess what, kids?  We’re going to the library!”

Yes, that’s it.  You move all the other kids out of the room and get them to a place where there’s another teacher, and then you come back to the room.  When you get there, you do not get into this child’s face.   You might stand by the doorway and ask if he or she is ready to come, too.  If the child is ready to come, you give a quick reminder that the librarian probably doesn’t want play-doh on the books and maybe you should put it away, so it doesn’t dry out.

If the kid hasn’t hit meltdown yet, I suspect 90% of the time, this child is going to the library with you without play-doh.

Alternatively, he finishes throwing it first, and feels like he needs to finish it (and no one is hurt) and then he wants to go to the library.  He may even help you pick it up first, since that’s the rule.

Or sometimes you might find that the child might need some time with headphones and an electronic game or a book or something because this is pre-meltdown and then all you have to do is run it off.  This should work great since the other kids are in the library so it’s pretty quiet.

In all of theses possible outcomes, 1) the child’s dignity as a human being with feelings and thoughts is respected and 2) the other kids do not see you dehumanize one of their peers.  At the same time, the child is learning that when melt-down is coming there are ways to stop it.  With very little children, this is difficult to do because they don’t understand their feelings too well yet (neurotypical or Neurdivergent, this is hard), but if you keep modeling this idea of having choices and options, kids do, over time, get better at asking for what they need.

But schools don’t seem to understand this, so moving right to throwing a kid in a closet is common.

See, there is a big difference between having a quiet place to calm down (heck, it’s wonderful they have such a place!) and treating it as a dungeon. See, the closet could be downright magical, with sensory-regulating stuff like those wands that have glitter in them and you can twist them and watch the glitter dance, and maybe it has some headphones connected to an ipad with a strong case on it that has some music and games like those hunt-and-seek ones or match 3 that force you to calm yourself as you focus on that and not whatever annoyed you.

In that reality, a child who was having trouble self-regulating could learn to ask to go to the seclusion room (give it a better name than that, though.  Maybe it’s a sensory room, or a room of requirement or whatever you want to call it).  This assumes, of course, the goal is to help him or her know when some time out is needed, and to ask for it, and not to just comply with whatever an adult says, even if it makes no sense to you.  (Of course, this is the real issue; my goal is helping a child develop life-long skills; their goal is to get the kid to listen first and foremost, and, if there is time, then maybe some skills to follow.)

The real reason this seemingly obvious solution isn’t followed is because the business of school is to teach compliance.  For these self-regulation focused solutions to be offered, the teachers would have to 1) accept that kids do not always need to be watched 24/7.  And that would involve admitting that how we watch kids too closely can sometimes cause these meltdowns in the first place and 2) that playing on a video game for a few minutes instead of being in class is a valuable thing.

But if you consider the time lost due to this drama of dragging a kid out and the psychological damage on the child, on the kids in the class, on the teacher who learns this is how you deal with a kid saying he doesn’t want to give you the play-doh, etc., etc., some extra iPad time is not really a big deal at all.

See, it gets worse as kids get older.

Another fun maneuver is yelling and getting in the face of a child or teen who is melting down.  Last year, I blogged about trying to help police officers who were forced to take a call where teachers of high school students inevitably fanned the flames of a meltdown and suddenly wanted them to go be their backup.  Here’s what I blogged then:

I’ve given a few presentations on Neurodiversity to teachers and librarians, but one time I gave a talk and some police officers attended.

They nearly broke my heart with their story.

The officers, who come from a reasonably small-sized city in the Upper  Midwest, are the type that I have in my home city.  They tend to talk to people a lot and get to know them more, so they tend to do more conversing as part of their jobs than confronting.  As such, when I finished my talk, one of them asked me a question.

“What do you do when you’re at the high school and the teenager’s already all worked up?”   He added, “We try to go to all these trainings, but it seems like the school isn’t understanding what to do with these kids.”

Teachers Often Believe They Know about Autism Because They Teach Autistic Kids

It was true that, while the librarian had invited the school and police officers to attend the library-based training, only the librarians and police officers attended.

I tried to get a little more information, and he told me the story of coming into a situation where the student was turning violent and the teacher was physically restraining the teenaged boy.  When he talked to the teachers, he found out that they had been following standard protocol, which was to put the upset student in a room, alone, but to come in every minute or so and ask if he was okay and couldn’t see why it was getting worse and finally had escalated so badly that the teacher and student were both sweating when the officer arrived.  It was clear something physical had occurred.

“But when you talked about how people need space to calm down, I didn’t get why they were doing that,” he said.  “And then when I get there, and it’s already a mess because they kept pushing him, what am I supposed to do?”

I’m a mom.  I said the first thing that came to mind: “I’d want you to see if you can convince him to get in the car and take him to mom or dad.  Get him home where he’s safe.”  In the end, the teen’s grievance was with the school and he needed to get out of there, but it would be hard to get him calmed down if he was dragged out to a police car or being harassed every few minutes while he was trying to get it together.

It would be hard to convince anyone using words and language (after all, our language tends to go when we’re stressed) and for some of us, uniforms are scary.  In this teen’s case, though, it sounded like the officers could have been his hero and gotten him out of there  which was all he needed after the school had pushed him too hard.

I backed up to explain.  “The teachers are following what they know to do for a neurotypical teen.  Usually, the big concern there is that they’ll hurt themselves or others if left alone.  For an Autistic student, the issue is that he or she NEEDS to be alone because that’s the easiest way to self-regulate. ”  I get that this situation is a catch-22 for the school because they’re worried about liability if the teen, left alone, hurts himself or others, but from what the officer described, they actually escalated the situation to the point where the teen had no options by getting in his face too often.  It sounded like their protocol might have pushed a neurotypical teen over the edge, too.

When children are younger, often schools will try padded rooms or rooms with swings so they can self-regulate, but so often teens don’t have options for safe spaces to go so they can get it together.  They continue to be assaulted by the sights, sounds, and smells and, well, chaos, of the school environment and add to that the constant interference in their self-regulation process by well-meaning adults checking to see if they’re okay.

Helping Autistic Teens though a Melt-down When the School Escalated It

I think if I were to advise the police officer today, I’d ask him to carry picture cards like maybe one with a house with him with limited words like “Go home?” on them.   Once the teen learns that the officer can just take him home, it might be that he would willingly go and be glad of the escape.  Often when we shut down, our language goes and we have trouble talking or sometimes even reading.  The cards would show that he’s a friend and will help, and that he’s not trying to drag him away…if the kid can get past the uniform which is code for AUTHORITY WITH A GUN.

I suggested the more the police officers could be around the school and those students in particular in friendly situations, playing games with them (in uniform) and teaching them that they can be a genuine neutral presence if the teachers seem to be screaming at them (sorry, but sometimes we need such allies and to us it’s the teachers who are the real issue), it’s more likely Neurodiverse people can be calm in the face of the uniform.

Of course, with all the news stories about police violence, that’s a really hard job for anyone to do, even these much more peaceful, friendly officers who I could tell were sincerely worried about the teen in the situation they witnessed.

But the biggest thing teachers need to do is to think about how THEY might react if they are overstimulated and stressed out.  Aren’t there times you just want to go and listen to your music and stare at the walls?  Doesn’t that help, after a long teaching day?

Let your students have the same luxury of de-stressing themselves.  Don’t expect Officer Friendly to do your dirty work.  It’s not fair to him or the students in your charge.



2 thoughts on “Seclude/Restrain and Other Pointless Forms of Discipline in Schools

  1. Wow. That’s a terrible situation in those nearby schools. Both of those actions would be illegal in the states where I’ve worked. I’m also happy that, in both public schools where I’ve worked, there has been training from the administration on how to de-escalate a student. For the most part, I think that the teachers at my current school are good at doing this, and I have seen it work with the autistic kids at the the school, with a few exceptions. That’s really great that the cops came to your training. I think it would be great to have something like that for our teachers. I feel like we could do more to prevent meltdowns in our autistic students. The problem might be that, with inclusion laws, it’s not something that the teacher can do unless it says so on the IEP. Some autistic kids don’t even have IEPs…. so, yeah… so much for all the laws that are supposed to fix this. They can turn into a ball of red tape that catches and frustrates everyone.

    1. Exactly! Just because you can mask doesn’t mean you’re not Autistic and couldn’t benefit from help in the form of, well, kindness. Kindness shouldn’t need an IEP, but people so quickly complain about “favoritism” without understanding that yes, every kid deserves to be listened to and treated with respect and that holds for all kids, with or without disabilities. Over time, good teachers kind of go dead inside because they can’t help the way they would if they hadn’t had it “trained” out of them not to do the right thing. That’s no way to treat the teachers, either. It’s just a big mess, isn’t it?

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