This short educational video describes the real, lived experience of a young person who has witnessed physical restraint in a school setting.
(Please note that the following article and video contain descriptions of restraint and other restrictive practices that some readers might find distressing).
In this video, a young person describes their experience of witnessing pupils being restrained in school. In a discussion with his parent about how teachers manage children’s behaviour, the young person states that he does not like ‘arm wrestling,’ the term he uses to describe physical restraint. His mum asks what he means by this term, and he explains that he does not like when teachers ‘grab and pull’ young people, use ‘full body control’ to move the young person against their will, or ‘block’ them from escaping, leaving pupils feeling ‘cornered.’
Restraint and seclusion are a massive issue in mainstream and specialist schools across the UK, Ireland, and the United States. Whilst policies about the use of restraint vary in different regions, there is a general rule that restrictive interventions should only be used as the last resort and when there is a threat of physical harm to staff, other pupils, or the young person themselves. However, in reality, restraint is over-used in many school settings, and in cultures where restrictive interventions are normalised, the ‘last resort’ often becomes the first (Deveau & McDonnell, 2009).
Inclusion Ireland (2018) reported a number of case studies showing how children in schools had been forcibly restrained and secluded on a number of occasions, often being held down by multiple adults on a regular basis, and in one instance for 20 minutes at a time. Beth Morrison, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Positive & Active Behaviour Support Scotland (PABSS), spoke on Radio 5 Live Investigates about her son Callum’s treatment at a specialist school in Dundee, where he was held in a prone (face-down) restraint and sustained horrific injuries at the age of 10 (Radio 5 Live, 2017). Sadly, instances of restraint and seclusion in schools are all too familiar to families of pupils with additional needs. A report carried out by The Challenging Behaviour Foundation (CBF) and PABSS found that of the 720 children’s families who responded to an anonymous questionnaire, 87.5% had experienced restraint and 60.7% had experienced seclusion (CBF & PABSS, 2020). Crucially, most children in this study had one or more additional needs. These statistics demonstrate a gross over-use of restrictive practices on disabled and autistic populations in educational environments, often for no real reason. The same study found that the majority of reasons given for reported instances of restrictive interventions were ‘unclear’ (72.1%), with only 14.4% of reports citing a specific reason:
‘The reasons reported for the use of restrictive interventions were mostly unclear or vague and several did not appear to indicate they were used in extreme and immediate instances to protect the child from harming themselves or others. For example, several reasons appeared to describe events which had minimal risk of harm, such as low-level incidents or non-compliance e.g. “refusing to work” “swearing” “spitting” “fidgeting” “not sitting” “upset.”’ (p.24)
One case study reports that ‘Annie’ experienced 158 incidents involving restraint between February 2017 and September 2018 in her specialist school. Her parents were merely informed that she had ‘had a wobbly day,’ when in fact she had been held on the floor by 4-6 members of staff (CBF & PABBS, 2020; p.7).
Whilst this report paints a stark picture of the use of restrictive practices in schools across the UK and Ireland, it also indicates that systems in place to record the use of restrictive interventions in schools may be ‘infrequent and/or inadequate,’ meaning that we can infer from this that the true state of things is far worse. Radio 5 Live recently reported, ‘There is no legal obligation on schools to keep a record of when they use restraint, or even to tell parents about serious instances of restraint involving the use of force’ (2017: 14.41 – 14.50 mins). In addition to the problem of under-reporting, there may also be issues with the way information is processed and analysed to record and react to restrictive practices. Indeed, a recent study in the United States demonstrates that the Department of Education’s systems for collecting and assessing restraint and seclusion data from school districts are ‘largely ineffective or do not exist’ (GAO, 2020).
There also remains the problem of accurately defining restrictive practices in order to report them. For example, many schools have designated ‘chill out’ or ‘calming rooms’ that are actively being used to seclude pupils. It is also important to note, as Professor Andrew McDonnell states in his recent book Freedom from Restraint and Seclusion: The Studio 3 Approach (2022; p.19), that ‘secluding individuals will nearly always involve some form of restraint to get the person into the room, and we must be careful not to view this as a separate process.’
In addition, exclusion, whilst not a physical intervention, is often used to restrict pupils with additional needs from equal access to education, particularly in mainstream schools. In research conducted by the Department for Education, they found high numbers of exclusions amongst pupils with additional needs (2019; p.8):
‘78% of permanent exclusions issued during secondary school were to pupils who either had special educational needs, were classified as in need or were eligible for free school meals. 11% of permanent exclusions were to pupils who had all three characteristics.’
The disproportionate level of punitive and restrictive practices on autistic, disabled, disadvantaged, and people of colour speaks to a lack of empathy and understanding for the causes of distressed behaviour. At Studio 3, our main philosophy in training staff and working to support individuals focuses on seeing the person and attempting to understand why they may need to engage in behaviours which are challenging for their supporters. At the core of verbal abuse, property destruction, or aggressive behaviour there often lies stress and trauma, more so for children with additional needs, autism, or Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), who may have been exposed to more traumatic life events and therefore may experience the world as a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) place (Vermeulen, 2012). Failure to understand why individuals behave in the way they do can lead to increased use of restrictive interventions, particularly in mainstream school settings where special education needs are not fully understood by staff and pupils alike. Studies have shown that autistic pupils are often bullied more frequently by their peers, not accepted into or rejected from friendship groups, and understood less by their teachers and classmates than pupils without special education needs (Humphrey & Symes, 2010).
The LASER Approach to education adopts the Saturation Model, a whole-school approach to implementing autism awareness in order to meet educational needs of all pupils, not just those with special education needs (Morewood, Humphrey & Symes, 2011: p.64):
‘The word ‘saturation’ is used to reflect the fundamental tenet that, to be effective, inclusive principles and practice need to permeate every aspect of life in school; thus, in order to be ‘autism friendly’, the school needs to be saturated in autism understanding and awareness.’
Understanding the sensory and communication needs of pupils with special education needs or disabilities (SEND) is the beginning of ‘flipping the narrative’ on how behaviour is managed and perceived by schools (Chapple, 2019). One parent, speaking to The Independent, described her daughter Abi’s relentless exposure to restraint, being held 81 times in one year, on one occasion by 8 members of staff (Busby, 2019; paragraph 13):
‘These children are not naughty children. They are children with disabilities. It just seems to be a way of working with children that is just so wrong.’
There needs to be a focus on training school staff in Low Arousal Approaches to aid empathy and compassion, as well as better understand the causes of distressed behaviour. The LASER Approach, developed by Studio 3 in 2019, focuses on supporting young people and learners to achieve their full potential without the use of restrictive interventions. The LASER Approach stands for Low Arousal Supporting Educational Resilience, and is designed to be applied in a wide variety of educational settings by teachers, support workers and families. Here, resilience is not ‘parked within the child,’ and applies more widely to the environment as a whole and the adults who are supporting the young person (Morewood, McDonnell & McDermott, 2021).
The LASER Approach applies a practical focus towards eliminating the use of restrictive practices and seclusion by implementing Low Arousal Approaches within a whole-school framework. Combining this with positive practice and excellence in de-escalation allows for a completely different model of working, valuing each individual’s needs and goals without using punitive or consequence-based alternatives. The LASER Approach highlights the need to understand and empathise with young people in order to understand their behaviour, and requires teachers and educational support staff to first examine their own practices and unconscious beliefs about behaviour.
The young man in the video above asks only that staff talk to pupils and try to work out what is upsetting them before becoming physical. What we can learn from this young person’s account of witnessing restraint in school is that children want to be listened to and understood, and that using restrictive interventions is preventing positive trusting relationships from developing where this would be possible. Understanding that distressed children may need to engage in behaviours in order to self-regulate is a huge part of the change process. Empathy and compassion are key to Low Arousal Approaches, and the cornerstone by which we can begin to understand and effectively communicate with young people in distress.
The young person in the video above speaks about watching the process of restraint in his school, and how it made him feel scared and angry. His parent goes on to ask how he thought these young people being restrained felt, to which he responds that it must have made them feel stressed and panicked, as well as ‘all the bad emotions’:
‘It makes the kids scared when they’re being pushed against their own will.’
In this young person’s account of witnessing restraint, he believes that restraint is at times applied in a punitive manner, describing some of the instances he has personally witnessed as ‘extremely cruel.’ Studies into service users’ perspectives on restrictive practices show that, contrary to the belief that restraint will change or manage behaviours, restraint is viewed by victims as punitive, and often incites further violence and aggression rather than helping a person to calm down (Sequeira & Halstead, 2002). Indeed, the young person in this account goes on to explain that, if he were to be restrained, he would probably panic and try to escape:
‘Our body likes to have control… When someone controls it, we panic and try to get our body back to our will… Punch, hit, smack, move, kick – anything to get them off.’
It is our natural instinct as human beings to fight against being held or pinned down. This is why any restraint procedure or use of seclusion which involves physically placing an individual in a room or area carries a risk of injury. CBF and PABSS (2020: p.23) found that 86.5% of families reported that their child had been physically injured during restrictive interventions, in addition to ‘nightmares, fear of school, trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder and deep psychological terror.’ In contrast with this figure, 96.5% of families reported that, to their knowledge, no records of injuries were kept by the school, therefore is it difficult to truly assess the number of injuries sustained.
The long-term effects of restraint and seclusion are felt by everyone involved, including staff administering restraint procedures, pupils witnessing restraint and seclusion, and the individual themselves. The Centre for Mental Health (CMH) found that restrictive interventions have a ‘negative impact on mental health, irrespective of previous trauma exposure’ (2020; p.6). This is why it is doubly important to listen to and learn from the experiences of people who have lived experience of restraint, who commonly report its adverse and long-term effects on their mental health (Sequeira & Halstead, 2002: Fish & Hatton, 2016).
One case study tells the story of ‘Ben,’ who was seen as a ‘naughty boy’ and regularly restrained in school (CBF & PABBS, 2020: p.16):
‘Restraining and secluding Ben, locking him rooms at school, has done untold damage to Ben and so nearly broken us as a family. Ben has so much to teach the world and contribute but to do that the system needs to change and start to hear the voices of children like Ben. Without substantial education and training of staff to understand behaviour and really listen to parents, sadly there will be many more Bens in the world.’
Listening to the voices of people who have experienced restraint and seclusion is a key part of the change process. Characterising children who are struggling with their environment or to regulate their internal bodily sensations as merely being ‘naughty’ is dismissive of the very real struggles young people with disabilities, autism and other special educational needs face on a daily basis.
Listening to young people, seeing the stress and the trauma, and understanding distressed behaviour is only the first step towards eradicating restraint and seclusion from our schools (McDonnell, 2022). Gareth Morewood, Educational Adviser at Studio 3, has spoken at length about using whole-school approaches to implement Low Arousal stress reduction strategies into young people’s daily lives, and work towards improving their overall well-being. The LASER Approach has a strong research base as well as an evidential focus, building on the practical experiences of educators and the voices of young people and their families. Co-production and communication between the individual, their family and the school is a core element of the approach. LASER can be adapted for a wide range of educational settings, including mainstream schools and specialist settings, as well as for young people who are educated at home. The approach provides an academic and practical understanding of key theories related to autism, distressed behaviour and arousal mechanisms, including Low Arousal Approaches, co-production, the Saturation Model (Morewood, Humphrey & Symes, 2011), the PERMA model (Seligman, 2011) and reflective practice.
This process of change starts with us, and with recognising that there is another way – a way to include not exclude; to listen not react; to liberate not restrain. This young person adds his account to the plethora of reports by young people about their lived experiences of restraint and seclusion in schools; it is our turn now to act on what they have taught us.
For more information on the LASER approach to supporting distressed young people in educational settings, and on the Low Arousal Approach as a whole, visit our website (https://www.studio3.org/education).
Social Media and Information Coordinator, Studio 3
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