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The Line on Restraints


The New York Times has published a compelling article about the use, and misuse, of restraints with students who have behavior disorders.

In dozens of interviews, parents, special education experts and lawyers who work to protect disabled people said they now regularly heard of cases of abuse in public schools — up to one or two a week surface on some parent e-mail lists — much more often than a decade ago. “In all the years I went to school, I never, ever saw or heard of anything like the horrific stories about restraint that we see just about every day now,” said Alison Tepper Singer, executive vice president of Autism Speaks, a charity dedicated to curing the disorder.

The issue is politically sensitive at a time when schools have done a lot to accommodate students with special needs, and some have questioned whether mainstreaming has gone too far. “Some parent organizations, they’re so grateful to the schools that their kids have been mainstreamed that they don’t want to risk really pushing for change,” said Dee Alpert, an advocate in New York who reports on the issue in the online journal specialeducationmuckraker.com.

Are schools adopting some of the same institutional policies that parents committed to mainstreaming hoped to avoid? What stands out for me in this article is how little oversight there seems to be on restraining techniques. If school personnel are using the same techniques as workers in psychiatric hospitals, someone should be paying just as much attention to this.


There is a great need for all teachers (special and regular education) to understand behavior and what drives it. The NYTimes included the "behavior plan" of a kid who was the victim of over the top physical restraint. The plan was actually somewhat better written than many I have seen, in that it looked like someone actually had an intention of the kid knowing what the plan was--it was very graphically oriented. Basically it said that he would act right in the classroom ("choose to follow the rules") OR he could walk quietly in a designated area to prove that he was ready to return OR (if he "chose" not to follow these rules) he could sit quietly in a chair (to demonstrate that he was ready to return to the classroom) OR (if he "chose" not to follow this rule) he could lie quietly on a mat (and this is where the restraint occured--holding him until he could "lie quietly" on the mat.

The problem here is that there is no focus on the understanding or prevention of whatever behavior that they were dealing with. This is a series of escalating sanctions--spelling out increasingly more limited situations in which to contain the child(s behavior). This is the level of understanding that I have generally experience in working with students with and without disabilities. There is some language about choice-making and a series of escalating consequences, the fear of which, are supposed to manipulate the student into the desired behavior.

It ignores any of the literature on Positive Behavior Supports, and particularly Functional Behavioral Analysis. Behavior has meaning. In the plan cited, we have very little sense of what the behavior is, let alone what it means, why it is occuring or what triggers it. We don't know if the problem is that the kid has over the top responses to various stressors (like interactions with other kids, difficult assignments or transitions), or if the kid has a mood disorder that contributes to how he perceives things that are going on. If there were a greater sense of what is going on, the plan could incorporate the development of meaningful replacement behavior (a safe space or safe adult to retreat to when stress rises--if that is the problem; or lowering stress through building relationships with other students or altering assignments).

These aren't bad things for all teachers to know. It turns out that many of the things that work for students with disabilities also work for students without disabilities. It is too sad that frequently a parent has to choose between a classroom where learning is going on or a classroom where her child won't be hurt. Seems like we should be shooting for both.

i've been a spec.ed. teacher for almost 24 years - and have focused the majority of these years on working with students who have challenging behaviors that significantly impact their learning and safety, along with the learning and safety of others...

because their "meltdowns" are often quite quick and intense, it can be quite challenging to meet their needs in what, for many, is their least restrictive setting (with their general education peers)

on-going training for staff - both gen. ed. and spec. ed is needed in order to share effective methods and strategies

it's also important that districts are able to fund the hiring of extra special ed. staff who specialize in working effectively with these students (although often the 'student-staff' ratio is difficult to justify when budgets are tight)

please keep in mind that there are many of us who spend endless hours working towards better behavioral solutions for our students (along with many sleepless nights)

it's equally frustrating for us to know (read, hear, see) examples of when things go wrong.......for me (and many of my peers in the profession), being a special education teacher isn't a "job" - it's our life's choice...and we never forget that we are serving families whose challenges are often many and last 24/7

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