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?
As of 2015, states must explain how they plan to reduce “aversive behavioral interventions” under the state plans that are required by the Every Student Succeeds Act. There are states that have implemented some measure of prevention and reporting, but largely these laws are inconsistent. A 2017 study that examined each state’s educational legislation and policies on restraint and seclusion in relationship to their alignment with the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) Restraint and Seclusion: Resource Document shows that 32 states have laws prohibiting restraint unless the student is a danger to himself or others. Six states have laws requiring regular staff training on restraint and seclusion, another principle. But only three states have laws stating that policies must be regularly reviewed and updated. A 2013 study by the Autism National Committee showed only 30 states require that parents be notified if these methods are used on their children.
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 and students of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. In 2016, the Department of Education released figures that showed:
Though students with disabilities make up 12% of all public school students, they account for 67% of students subjected to restraint or seclusion.
African American students account for just 21 percent of all students with disabilities, though they represent 44 percent of instances of mechanical restraint in schools.
While Hispanic students represent 24 percent of students without disabilities, they are a full 42 percent of students without disabilities who are subject to seclusion.
The disproportionate use of these techniques on students with disabilities and students of diverse backgrounds 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.