The Trauma of Restraints: Eliminating Ineffective Approaches in the Classroom

traumaIt is happening all over the country. A seven-year-old handcuffed during his afterschool program for being hyper in Flint, Michigan. A South Carolina high school student forcibly yanked from her chair and restrained in her classroom. Autistic children confined and sprayed with water in Maryland. Recent media coverage and several “caught on cell phone” videos have given the world a frightening glimpse of the trauma inflicted in the classroom as teachers and others use physical restraint on students.

Unfortunately, these are just a few examples of the use of restraint and seclusion in our schools. It is happening every day. In fact, in 2014, a National Public Radio investigative report found that restraints were used at least 267,000 times each school year in schools throughout the U.S.

Restraints are intended to contain a child or adult considered a danger to themselves or others. But these misguided intentions are doing far more harm than good. As illustrated by these examples, what constitutes a “need” for restraint is debatable at best. At worst, restraint is an ineffective behavior modification technique that can have potentially deadly consequences.

While some may argue for the use of restraint as a necessary evil, research indicates that these types of interventions actually cause, reinforce and maintain aggression and violence. The reason is most likely tied to trauma. It is also important to note that while trauma is often thought of as an experience of violence and victimization, it can also be caused by bullying, shame, fear and anxiety, among other experiences. Children most “at-risk” for behavioral problems in the classroom typically have a history of traumatic experiences. When a child is restrained, the current trauma is compounded by past experiences, leading to even more aggression and fueling a psychologically destructive cycle.

When a situation escalates to the forced used of restraints, not only is the individual directly experiencing the event affected, so are those who bear witnesses to it. If students did not have a history of trauma before, they certainly will after watching a classmate being violently and forcibly restrained. Witnessing an aggressive, physical interaction between a trusted authority figure such as a teacher, principal or security guard, and a fellow student is likely far more detrimental than the disruption that may have preceded it.

So what is the answer? The goal is to keep children and their caregivers safe, while not inciting even more trauma to all involved. For many, however, the thought of eliminating restraints all together solicits fear that this will place many others at a higher risk of injury. The good news is there are now studies of schools that have successfully reduced or eliminated the use of these practices with outstanding results.

For instance, Grafton Integrated Health Network — an organization serving children and adults with autism and co-occurring psychiatric diagnoses — issued a mandate to eliminate restraints without compromising employee or client safety.  It states:

Within 10 years, we have reduced the use of restraints by more than 99 percent, while reducing workers’ compensation policy costs and employee turnover. We also significantly reduced the number of injuries to both clients and those who care for them. Thanks to our success, I am able to now travel the country teaching the ‘Ukeru’ System to others in the hopes of creating more restraint-free learning environments.

This is proof that with proper training on trauma-informed care and conflict resolution, as well as the physical techniques that minimize the need for restraints and seclusion, teachers and staff will be able to de-escalate conflict and divert aggression. Most importantly, they will ensure that everyone in the classroom is kept safe.

The numbers do not lie. There is no reason to use the kind of force shown in the earlier, real-world examples. Alternative methods have proven to be successful by allowing organizations to significantly reduce the number of injuries to both children and those who care for them. Not only does legislation need to be passed to protect all students, but teachers and administrators need to be supported through training in communication, de-escalation and trauma informed care. We can eliminate restraint and ensure that we never again see a child unnecessarily traumatized in one of the places they should feel most secure – their classroom.

Opinion by Kim Sanders
(Edited by Cherese Jackson)

Kim Sanders, CEO of Ukeru Systems, a division of Grafton Integrated Health Network, is an internationally known advocate for the minimization of restraint and seclusion. She is recognized as an innovator for moving towards a physical restraint free environment at Grafton, a national leader in providing multiple levels of support to people with a wide range of emotional and/or behavioral challenges.


Ukeru:  The Grafton Method

Photo Credits:

Top Image Courtesy of Kim Sanders
Featured Image Courtesy of House Committee on Education and the Workforce Democrats – Flickr License

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