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A Teacher's View on Seclusion


I wrote a blog post in December that referred to a CNN.com report on seclusion in schools. A poster called "NYS Teacher" posted a comment yesterday that I thought was worth bringing to the top:

You know...this really makes me mad! We have had 'chill rooms' as you call them, for years. In some cases, we have had to use restraint. What are we supposed to do as Teachers??? Any ideas?? Do we allow students to throw things at us, spit at us, hit us, kick us, pinch us, bite us, punch us, use an instrument to attack us? If it was in the community, we would have them arrested, would we not? And these things go on in a classroom with other students! And these things are also done to students in our classrooms! Is that okay for a student to bodily harm others? Come on people!!

In my opinion, as a Teacher, I am to keep the student safe and the other students safe as well. AND... do you think that we don't have other strategies that we use BEFORE the escalation of the behaviors occur?? We are all taught to de-escalate the behaviors!!!! BUT sometimes with our best taught training, our strategies still do not work and a child HAS to be taken to the 'chill room' for his/her benefit or the benefit of the other students.

Without a 'chill room' where would the student go to talk his/her anger out? Once he/she is under control and able to express his feelings then he/she is able to return to the classroom. We do not use seclusion rooms, but have well-trained staff to handle such situations. Special Education is individualized education for a reason!

I appreciate you sharing your thoughts, NYS Teacher. I think part of the issue here is defining terms. What is a "chill room" in New York state (I'm assuming that's where this poster is from)? Is a student in that room monitored? Are there rules about how long he or she should stay there, or how often he or she should be sent there? What kind of training do teachers get to de-escalate violent behavior? What kind of training do teachers get who are using restraints? Are parents notified when these options are used with their children?

If a student is left alone in a room long enough to hang himself, as was noted in the CNN story, or if she's restrained so severely that she suffocates, as 17-year-old Faith Finley did earlier last month, something is going terribly wrong.

Do teachers feel that they have the full range of tools to de-escalate a situation, or prevent a "situation" from occurring in the first place? Is seclusion/restraint a first choice, instead of a last resort?

Teachers and parents, feel free to jump in and add your thoughts.

Edited 1/13: A reader emailed me the regulations in New York state for use of time-out rooms and "aversive interventions" like restraint.



Thanks for bringing this forward because I think that the subject of discipline--particularly when it includes either physical contact or isolation is one that doesn't get enough responsible dialogue. I hear a lot of the kinds the frustration that NY teacher expresses as: "Do we allow students to throw things at us, spit at us, hit us, kick us, pinch us, bite us, punch us, use an instrument to attack us? If it was in the community, we would have them arrested, would we not?" There is an easy theoretical answer, which is that when student needs are being met, the likelihood of those things happening decreases considerably. I am saying that the answer is easy, not the implementation. And humans being human, meeting the needs of a growing and developing student who is encountering an environment over which we have limited control, under the best of circumstances, well, things happen.

I say this from my experience as a parent raising a child with extra special needs, but also as a social worker who has spent time in residential situations that included children with a wide range of needs. In this situation, funding realities (that is social work dollars flowing through mental health agencies) combined with mission consistency (meaning that we were very open to including all kinds of kids) meant that we had, from time to time--even very regularly--some of the most interesting and special kids you might want to meet.

It is true that sometimes an adult needs to step physically into the middle of something to prevent a tantrum making another child a target. Sometimes a kid needs a break to regroup--or to rant. Sometimes a group of kids needs to be made aware that the adults are on to them and if they would stop aggravating Johnny, he would stop having his entertaining tantrums and we could all get on with something more meaningful. Sometimes we have to draw kids into the process--providing a friend, or an escape plan, or a means of de-escalating rather than escalating problems.

I believe that this teacher has been trained--but that phrase can cover a broad spectrum from a one hour workshop to a degree in psychology. And sometimes a little knowledge can be a very damaging thing. When teachers (such as those in the incidents cited) get the idea that a time-out room is an acceptable place of punishment, or long-term containment, and set up the kinds of conditions that lead to suffocation or suicide, then the training is not sufficient.

I can attest that my son has been in at least one setting that used a time-out room. I observed it in use and observed my son there. The door was open and a staff person present. The terms and conditions were made clear (you must stay here until you...). Even in this setting (not in a school), I think that there were other preventive strategies that were under-used. What is really frightening is the school settings in which such things existed and I may not have been informed of their use, and they may not have been used in accordance with any notion of appropriate practice.

The biggest problem that I have with the easy availability of such options is that they frequently stand in the way of developing more appropriate strategies. What should be used only as a last resort becomes a preferred option (or the option placed at the end of a list of fairly meaningless interventions that are run through quickly). And let's face it--popping a kid in and out of a time-out room for five or ten minutes isn't going to solve anyone's problems--so the tendancy is to go longer and more frequently, because the objective is aversion, not using an aid for "chilling out."

Let me just add that in my experience, "the community" is somewhat LESS, not MORE likely to arrest children who behave inappropriately, even if violent. Police, in the community, are reluctant to enter into conflicts that they do not witness, particularly when children are involved, but also among family members, between neighbors, etc. The typical response is a referral to civil court (an option that is also open to teachers who believe that they have been attacked). This doesn't offer much in the way of a solution, either.

How to work with students who experience episodic emotionality in the general education setting is an important topic. Although I am keenly interested in doing the work and have high levels of training, education, and experience in doing so, this work is still quite challenging.

Changing the adult's behavior first is a necessary prerequisite to a successful intervention. Three other points: (1)Behavior is complex, (2) Behavior requires time to shape, and (3) Expecting a child to exhibit higher levels of behavioral control than the adults who are intervening is unrealistic. (I wish this last point weren't necessary to state, but I have consistently found this to be a problem.)

Teaching the child, and entire class, coping skills to use in the general education setting is critical. Coping skills are taught along with the curriculum, and are just as important. Creating a safe, supportive classroom environment helps tremendously. In my experience, creating a specified safe place to decompose in the classroom is preferable to a safe place outside the classroom. I agree with Margo that it is all too easy to set up a pattern where the child is outside the classroom "chilling", and missing valuable instructional time. I recommend collecting data to determine the function(s) of the student's behavior, and creating a behavior intervention plan based on function.

Finally, as I have said repeatedly, hesitating (or refusing) to identify students for special education assessment, as is all too prevalent as RtI picks up more and more steam, is creating increasingly more situations where students with hidden disabilities, such as emotional disorders, are suffering. Arguing stigma and overidentification when research for at least the last 40 years shows students with emotional disorders are grossly underrepresented in receiving special education services is exacerbating the problems of our students, families, communities, and world. People with mental disorders have real disorders, and deserve treatment and respect, just as do those with physical disabilities. I do not support using an RtI model which, in my opinion, adds barriers to students receiving much needed special education services.

Hi Kim! I'm going to throw out a question for the sake of discussion: you say that you're concerned that the RTI process delays identification, but one thing I've heard from RTI supporters is, what is the big deal about identification? If a kid is getting the services that he or she needs to be successful, does it really matter if there is not an official label for that child? Supporters suggest that is what RTI is actually doing; getting services that kids need to them regardless of identification, so that they aren't suffering for a long time. I think they see it as lowering barriers, not raising them. I was wondering what you thought about that....


Here's an interesting and related article about a prevention program that has been implemented in pre-school/child care settings. It not only gives a picture of strategies and success rates, but also some indication of the appropriate intensity required.

Good point, Christina. Many reason that we don't need the labels, so long as students receive their services. I argue that without disability categories, how will the rights of those who are disabled be protected? I further reason that language has power and, although an imperfect symbol system, it is what we humans use to communicate. How will members of non-dominant groups, in this case people with disabilities, receive justice if no one acknowledges their existence?

Hi Everyone-

I am currenlty teaching a resource room for students with "severe emotional disorders". While I am not new to special education, I am new to this position and working with this demographic of children.

I have two children who are aggressive. One has autism, the other does not. The only reason I mention this is because I believe that the aggressive behavior from the student with autism is a function of the autism, while the other student's aggressive behavior is a function of his emotionality. I feel the distinction is important in addressing the needs of each.

Anyway, both students have become aggressive within the regular classroom, one student grabbed the collar of one of his classmates. The other student punched a wall and we were afraid he had broken his hand. One swung at a pregnant instructional aide, and I have been hit numerous times (comes with the territory, I know).

We are using lots of different interventions, and I feel confident with the progress they are making (aggressive instances have significantly decreased since the beginning of the year). My concern, however, is that I am human, my administrators are human, the regular educators are human, and so are the students: mistakes are going to be made, and when that happens and the result is an aggressive student, what do I do until he is calm?

I have to remove the student from the general education setting. I can bring him to my resource room where he is able to use the sensory items we have, play a game, or do a puzzle (whatever he needs), but I have study carrels, tables, books, a laptop, and computers, all of which have been knocked of desks or flipped over, and present a potential harm to the student.

I have used district-approved restraints on which I have been trained, and it works as long as these students are smaller and not as strong as I am. My concern is when I am no longer physically capable to do so.

I have thought about a room within the resource room that I think of like a sensory room, except without the apparent overwhelming stimuli a classroom presents. It is a room, likely padded (I know-- I'm even uncomfortable typing it), where a student can de-escalate himself. It is not a punishment, and I would direct students to use it voluntarily: teaching them to recognize their own anger levels, escalation, and "triggers", and "taking a time-out" before they burst (we've done anger management lessons on anger levels, triggers, taking a time-out, and "the volcano"- a physical de-escalation activity we use where the students push their hands together and breathe slowly outword while bring their hands down).

Anyway, after reading these posts, I'm not as sure how confident I am in this idea, but would love some advice on how to keep these kids safe, other students safe, and aides and teachers safe when all else fails and these students become aggressive.

Thank you.


I think that you bring up a good point, which is, when does a strategy become a punishment. Back in the day when I was doing a lot camp counseling, we distinguished between consequence and punishment--and acknowledged that the same thing might be either. Example: an expectation that campers had to hang up their bathing suits before dinner might lead to a stand-off that made them late to dinner. That would likely be a consequence. If kids didn't do as they were supposed to at some point in the day and their counselor made them wait 10 minutes after dinner started to eat--a punishment.

At one point I refused permission for my son to wear a harness on the school bus--as he didn't always stay in his seat. Again, just a gut reaction, but I didn't see the particular bus driver being able to see this as a safety measure and not a punishment for bad behavior. In the end, placing him in a seat with an older, calmer child was successful.

I sincerely hope that you have assistance in your resource room. Giving individual attention when needed and maintaining a class would be quite a challenge.

Let me just share a couple of gut reactions. One has to do with the necessity of removing the kid from the regular classroom to de-escalate. I have been there with my son and my big worry is that it is easy for the resource room to provide a means of avoiding what is going on in the regular classroom--for both the student and the regular ed teacher and class. So--I would want to be pretty careful about everyone having a sense of what generally precedes the need for you to take him--and whether there are environmental changes that can be made (more appropriate and less frustrating assignments, resolving conflicts with other students, better de-escalation within that setting).

I like the sensory things that you are doing, and I wonder why the "sensory room" has to be a "room" at all, as opposed to a corner, perhaps, with something like a bean-bag chair, or even a punching bag (just sort of brainstorming here)--essentially the kinds of things that cannot be hurt or hurt others. Perhaps the kids could help with the set up.

Good luck.


Thank you so much for your comment.

You're right, we are definitely looking at what to change within the classroom. The sensory material is used within the resource room, placed conspicuously in different areas of easy-access, but not so that it is distracting. Students may ask to use it, or use it on their own accord as long as they use it appropriately. I love using the sensory material, and teaching the kids to recognize what they like best and what best suits them in given situations.

What we're trying to do, though, is to develop a flow-chart, of sorts, so that we know exactly what to do in a given situation. For example, when we see signs of anxiety, we might take a break or do what we know will decrease the anxiety for that particular child. If the anxiety persists and starts to manifest in a behavior, we'll move to a different strategy, like removal or a walk or a sensory activity. If it persists until the student becomes aggressive, however, we're trying to figure out what to do to best keep the child safe, keep other children safe, and teach life skills about what to do when "anger takes control". As a teacher, I really just want to know we're prepared. I don't expect this to happen, but I would feel responsible if it is forseeable and I don't have a contingency plan. I want to be able to develop something that is plausible, comfortable for parents, comfortable for the student, while simultaneously teaching the student how to be emotionally responsible.

Going with what you said about having a corner of the resource room for sensory, I currently have a divider I use to create an area with reduced stimuli. Unfortunately, with some of my older students, the divider has become...well, somewhat a jungle gym, they'll push it, and throw things out of it.

Switching gears for a second, on the weekends I work at a group home for "juvenile delinquents". A skill that I try to teach them is to remove themselves from situations that will probably get them into trouble, most specifically those that might be particulary emotional or temper-provoking. What this looks like in action is they typically go to their rooms, listen to music, draw, or write until they are able to calm down.

Back to the divider: I would like to be able to do the same thing with the elementary students with whom I work. I want to teach them the valuable skill of simply taking a break in order to approach a situation calmly. I was trying to use the divider to create a space that would act someone like the rooms of the teens I work with at the group home. However, given the portability of the divider, I would still like to be able to use a section of the resource room for this purpose. It would not in anyway be a punishment, but as a safe place a student would ideally remove himself to for the purpose of de-escalation, a skill he or she would hopefully employ independently (with appropriate guidance). What this looks like when a student is aggressive (back to the flow chart), would be removal to the room that has little to no stimuli, nothing the student could hurt himself or others with, an open ceiling (so we could hear everything going on), and a window in the door we could see into. It would be used the same way the divider is, except without the possiblity of the student hurting himself with the move-able divider. In an instance where a student is already aggressive, it would also not be voluntary at this point: but again, not a punishment, just a safe place to be and a tool for de-escalation. Also, hopefully the student would eventually begin to use it independently.

Thank you again for your comment. Your input on this is important to me as an educator. I would never want to suggest something that would make a parent uncomfortable (as I don't have kids yet, I find a parent's intuition invaluable).


Bless you!

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