What are restraint and seclusion?
Some general definitions can be found on this page. Restraint and seclusion are methods often used to control children to exhibit challenging behaviors in school or treatment centers. Research shows that such methods – which include forced immobilization, sensory deprivation and physical harm – are more akin to torture and can be harmful to a child’s cognitive, social and emotional development. Research also shows that the use of these practices is damaging for both students and the staff performing them, and can result in physical and emotional harm for school personnel.
Why are these practices so dangerous?
Restraint and seclusion can cause physical, psychological and emotional damage, and may result in serious injury or even death. The use of restraints can place staff as well as the student being restrained in a highly confrontational, physically dangerous situation. Restraint and seclusion can escalate a student’s agitation and increase the chance of harm to either themselves or others. Researchers have also documented the lasting effects of restraint and seclusion well-after the initial incident. See our Resources page for additional information.
Are there alternatives to using restraint and seclusion?
Yes! Methods do exist that are backed by research and proven to result in positive outcomes for students and school personnel. These positive alternatives, known as Positive Behavior Supports, seek to understand the underlying cause of a child’s behavior and develop a positive plan for intervention that focuses on the student’s individual needs, as well as socially meaningful supports. Research shows that these positive supports are effective in reducing challenging behaviors by 80 percent in two-thirds of cases. Positive Behavior Supports also include a collaborative effort that involves families, educators and health care providers working together to understand challenging behavior and develop a personalized plan for support.
A complimentary approach known as Trauma Informed Care emphasizes the need to assume that challenging behavior may be a manifestation of previous trauma, and calls for a shift in school culture, from punitive to positive approaches. This change in culture to calming and supportive responses allows for healing and experiencing school as a safe place, rather than retraumatizing a student unnecessarily.
Can this be handled at the state level?
The nation’s leading education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, includes a requirement for states to articulate in their state plans a framework to support districts and improve school conditions by reducing the overuse of disciplinary practices and aversive practices (e.g. seclusion and restraint). A non-binding 2012 guidance document from the U.S. Department of Education outlined 15 factors school leaders should consider when developing restraint and seclusion policies. While there are states that have implemented some measure of prevention and reporting, largely these laws are inconsistent. At a hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives in February 2019, "Classrooms in Crisis: Examining the Inappropriate Use of Seclusion and Restraint Practices" lawmakers heard about the pressing need for Federal legislation.
A 2019 analysis of state seclusion and restraint laws and policies by the Autism National Committee found only 30 state laws that have some meaningful protections from restraint &seclusion for all children; 39 for those with disabilities. In 30 states, schools must by law notify all parents of both restraint and seclusion; in 40, parents of students with disabilities. Restraints that impede breathing and threaten life are forbidden by law in only 31 states for all children; 35 states, for children with disabilities.
Are all children at risk of being restrained or secluded?
Without comprehensive safeguards against restraint and seclusion, every student is at risk of being subjected to these dangerous practices. But these practices are disproportionately used on students with disabilities. In 2023, the Department of Education released data for the 2020-21 school year that showed:
Though students with disabilities make up 14 percent of all public school students, they account for 32 percent of students mechanically restrained, 81 percent of students physically restrained, and 75 percent of students secluded.
Black students account for just 17 percent of all students with disabilities, though they represent 19 percent of students with disabilities subjected to physical restraint, 31 percent subjected to mechanical restraint and 16 percent subjected to seclusion.
While 65 percent of student with disabilities served under IDEA are male, 84 percent of students with disabilities subjected to physical restraint were male, 82 percent subjected to mechanical restraint were male and 84 percent subjected to seclusion were male.
The disproportionate use of these techniques on students with disabilities violates their right to nondiscrimination in accessing education.
Also, many people believe that only larger or older children are subjected to restraint or seclusion. In fact, reports and surveys reveal that mostly small, younger children are being restrained and secluded.
What about emergency situations?
In an emergency, restraints should be used only as a last resort when all other options have been proven ineffective to prevent imminent serious physical harm. Restraints used in an emergency should be limited to the time that the individual poses a risk of physical harm. The use of restraint in an emergency context is not prohibited by any proposed federal legislation. And nothing would prevent school staff from breaking up a fight, or intervening in any other physical altercation.
Does the prevention of restraint and seclusion put teachers at risk?
No. In a comprehensive report on the dangers of restraint and seclusion by the Government Accountability Office, nowhere does it point to teacher self-defense as a motivation for using restraint and seclusion on a student. In fact, research has shown that teacher injuries are actually reduced when the use of restraint and seclusion is reduced.