Wednesday, November 12, 2014

It's Not About Law And Order, It's About Love And Respect

There have been times when I have restrained an emotional child who I feared was going to hurt himself or others. The way that's worked is that I secure the child in a gentle, but firm hug, immobilizing arms, if necessary, with my arms, and the legs, if necessary, with my legs. This is accompanied by a simple, calm explanation, such as, "I can't let you hurt my friends." When they insist, "Let me go!" I answer, "I will let you go when I know you're not going to hurt people." 

I strive to maintain a calm, loving demeanor, repeating my simple phrases, "I can't let you hurt my friends." "I'll let you go when I know you're not going to hurt people."

I've only had to resort to these measures a half dozen or so times during my 14 year tenure at Woodland Park, and I've always stuck with softly repeating my simple phrases, "I can't let you hurt my friends." "I'll let you go when I know you're not going to hurt people."

Every time I've done this it has been off to the side of our busy classroom. Only once did I have to resort to it outdoors. I'm proud of this technique. I don't mind if the other children see it; in fact, I want them to because it is loving and respectful, a demonstration that I take my responsibility to keep everyone safe seriously and I can do it without resorting to threats, punishment, or the frayed ends of frustration. I hold them firmly and repeat my simple phrases, "I can't let you hurt my friends." "I'll let you go when I know you're not going to hurt people."

Sometimes a child will shriek, "I'm ready! I won't hurt people!" and I'll respond, "You still sound very upset. I'm worried you will hurt people." They're not always experiencing a full-on tantrum; sometimes children are simply too amped up to control themselves, often laughing in a breathless staccato as they attempt to writhe from my grasp. Sometimes they try to bite me. When the physical battle is fierce, I point out the simple fact, "I am much stronger than you. You cannot hurt me. It's my job to keep everyone safe." And I finish with, "I can't let you hurt my friends." "I will not let you go until I know you're not going to hurt people."

At some point, usually within seconds, I feel the child start to sink into me. Sometimes it happens all at once and sometimes it happens gradually, but they all eventually sink into me, limply, warmly, the tension ebbing away. When I feel that, even slightly, I immediately begin to loosen my hold: if I err it's on the side of letting go too much, too soon, but typically the more I relax, the more they relax. One time an angry boy was thrashing about in my arms, telling me he hated me, but even as he did it, I could feel the energy leaving his body. As I loosened my hold he continued to toss his body back and forth against my arms and my chest. After a few minutes I was holding my arms in a loose circle as he rolled around them like a rag doll, still shouting. He could have easily ducked under my arms. As we performed this pantomime together another child approached to get my attention. He shouted, "I'm talking to Teacher Tom right now!" then went back to telling me he hated me with his words while loving me through our embrace. And all the while I'm saying, "I can't let you hurt my friends." "I will not let you go until I know you're not going to hurt people."

The moment I detect that release of tension, I add a question to my phrases. "If I let you go, are you going to hurt my friends?" It might surprise you to know how often a preschooler will answer, "Yes," they will hurt their friends, so I keep holding them, saying, "I can't let you hurt my friends." "I will not let you go until I know you're not going to hurt people." And then, after a pause, I'll add the question, "If I let you go, are you going to hurt my friends?"

The moment a child assures me he is ready to not hurt other people, I release him. I've not once had a child be wrong about that.

It's not exactly a pleasant experience for anyone, but it is a loving one, driven by my adult responsibility to keep children safe, rather than a hotheaded insistence on "learning to show some me respect" or punishment. It's not about law and order, it's about love and respect for children.

This is not how it goes, however, in many American schools. Even children as young as five are being strapped to boards and chairs or locked into isolation rooms. According to reporting by ProPublica:

The practices -- which have included pinning uncooperative children facedown on the floor, locking them in dark closets and tying them up with straps, handcuffs, bungee cords or even duct tape -- were used more than 267,000 times nationwide in the 2012 school year . . . Three-quarters of the students restrained had physical, emotional or intellectual disabilities.

More than 100,000 were forced into solitary confinement rooms, often referred to as "scream rooms." But as the reporter points out, "Those figures almost certainly understate what's really happening. Advocates and government officials say underreporting is rampant." These practices have resulted in head injuries, bloody noses, broken bones and worse.

This is happening despite the fact that restraint and isolation is seen as a "last resort" measure by mental heal professionals:

For more than a decade, mental-health facilities and other institutions have worked to curtail the practice of physically restraining children or isolating them in rooms against their will. Indeed, federal rules restrict those practices in nearly all institutions that receive money from Washington to help the young -- including hospitals, nursing homes and psychiatric centers . . . But such limits don't apply to public schools. Retraining and secluding students for any reason remains perfectly legal under federal law. And despite near-consensus that the tactics should be used rarely, new data suggests some schools still routinely rely on them to control children.

I understand that there may be times when extreme measures are needed, especially when dealing with older, physically stronger children who become violent, but I can think of no instance when this sort of restraint and isolation would be necessary with elementary aged children. I'm writing about this because a former student of mine recently witnessed a fellow student being violently restrained in his elementary school, a school that I know did not rely on these measures last year. In fact, I've heard that faculty in that school are being required by the administration to use restraint measures even if it is against their will. 

Not only are these practices abusive and cruel, but according to mental-health professionals, they are ineffective. That our schools continue to resort to restraint and isolation, often in instances where the student's behavior doesn't rise to the level of being a danger to himself or others, is a horrifying thing. It tells me that the adults don't know what they're doing. It tells me that law and order is a higher priority to these people than love and respect. These people should not be working with young children.

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Floor Pie said...

Thank you for writing this post. First of all, I want to let your readers know that the situation at your former student's school is being addressed officially by the school district as well as by some very brave parents. Changes are happening.

But it's far from over. This can happen, and I'm sure IS happening, anywhere where adults regard certain children as "dangerous," either because of their disability, their behavior (often related to a disability), or even because of their race or culture.

Prejudice is at the root of it all, and we parents unconsciously feed it when we take a narrow approach to our own child's safety. Maybe we complain to our children's principal or teacher about "THAT kid" whose behavior we imagine is stopping our child's learning. Maybe we could consider a different approach, one that takes "THAT kid's" needs and safety into consideration, too. Because it's a lot easier for awful things to happen to a child in school when the adults view that child as Other.

I have worked with elementary schoolers with emotional/behavioral disabilities and I have been trained in how to perform physical restraints that are (I guess compared to all the other horrible things a stressed-out, frightened or angry adult could do) safe for the child. Like you, Tom, I have only used them when the child was in imminent danger (trying to jump out a second story window), or when it was part of his plan and actually did help him calm down.

But I can say from first hand experience...restraint is only marginally effective at best. And it feels absolutely awful to do. It tears your soul. The numbers show that there are actually higher rates of injuries at schools where restraints are performed. There are better ways to deescalate a child.

And this isn't just me being all crunchy-granola. Even the school district's official training program has a heavy emphasis on using antecedent management, calm voice, non-threatening body language, empathy for the child, and a whole host of stuff you'd have hoped was common knowledge.

But as long as we view certain children as "dangerous," we parents are unconsciously feeding a culture of consequences that only serve to increase the child's stress levels and rob him of the self-awareness he needs to realize that he is CAPABLE of making good choices.

ALL of our fingerprints are on this too. If this isn't happening at your school, it's quite likely happening at the school where "THAT kid" got sent after enough of you complained about him.

Let's please be mindful of our roles as parents in our school communities. ALL children matter.

Anonymous said...

267, 000 times in 2012. That is terrifying and so sad.