Physical restraint and seclusion are ineffective tools for managing students with developmental and behavioral disorders, experts say. But both approaches are used regularly at U.S. schools.
During the 2009-2010 school year, there were nearly 39,000 incidents of restraint and more than 25,000 cases of seclusion at the K-12 level, according to a March 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Education.
Seclusion typically involves locking a student in an isolated room, while restraint can include physically holding a student, subduing them with medication, or using devices such as wraps, cuffs, or helmets to inhibit their movement, Daniel Crimmins, director of the Center for Leadership in Disability at Georgia State University, said at a Senate committee hearing last week.
"The vast majority of professionals feel that these techniques are not effective means of changing student behavior, and have no therapeutic or educational value," Crimmins said. "In fact, seclusion and restraint can escalate children's arousal, deepen negative behavior patterns, and undermine children's trust and capacity for learning."
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But inclusion, positive reinforcement, and individual attention can prevent disruptive behavior in students, Cyndi Pitonyak, coordinator of positive behavioral interventions and supports at Montgomery County Public Schools in Virginia, said at the hearing.
"A natural, healthy, inclusive setting is a strong positive influence," Pitonyak said. "Kids with problem behaviors are not surrounded by kids with other problem behaviors. But by typical peers who model appropriate social skills."
Montgomery County Schools began implementing a positive behavior support system in their high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools in 2008, according to the district's website. Currently 43 schools, including 5 high schools in the district, use the support system to prevent and address disruptive behavior.
The system involves individual support teams for each student with behavioral issues. Teams are typically made up of the students' teachers and counselors who work with the students on a daily basis, as well as their parents. They meet weekly to discuss progress, celebrate successes, and identify and work around the student's behavioral triggers, Pitonyak said.
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If disruptive behavior is driven by the teen's desire to escape the classroom, create an easy way for them to leave, such as a break card, and designate a place for them to go. Then figure out what sparked the student's need to leave in the first place, she said.
"If you focus on the triggers that drive them to escape, over time you eliminate the need for the student to request those special breaks," Pitonyak added.
Including parents in the student support teams is key to making positive reinforcement systems work, according to the Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs, which assists schools in implementing the plans.
Parents can offer insight into what prompts violent outbursts or tantrums in their student, and help create consistent expectations for how their child should act at home and at school. They should also have a clear understanding of what measures the school uses to handle behavioral issues.
Most states do not require schools to tell parents if their child was restrained or secluded during the school day. While federal laws restrict the use of seclusion and restraint in hospitals, nursing homes, psychiatric facilities, and group homes, there are no federal laws, and few state laws, that regulate the use of those tactics in schools.
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