Do We Need to Use Seclusion and Restraint in Our Schools?

All public and private educational settings should provide nurturing environments that support student learning and development. Unfortunately, some students with emotional and behavioral challenges and disorders experience seclusion or restraint instead.

David OsherSeclusion is the involuntary confinement of a student alone in a room or area from which the student cannot leave. Restraint can be mechanical, chemical or physical.  The most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (2009-10) suggests the prevalence and nature of the problem: Although students with disabilities constituted only 12% of the sample, they constituted nearly 70% of the students who are physically restrained by adults in their schools.

These interventions are neither therapeutic nor risk free. They can traumatize some students and re-traumatize other students, causing harm and making future behavioral problems more likely. Using them deprives children who exhibit particularly troubling behavioral problems of their right to a free and appropriate education and, by example, also teaches children that it’s acceptable to overpower and isolate someone from the community.

Seclusion and restraints are management-driven interventions that limit a student’s ability to move, communicate with others, make choices, emotionally engage, and participate in activities with other students. Their use is rationalized as the only solution to particularly troubling (and sometimes scary) student behaviors. But it’s really a failure to prevent or minimize problem behavior or its escalation.

The Keeping All Students Safe bill now being discussed in Congress squares with what research and experience tells us about the use of seclusion and restraint versus better alternatives. The bill limits restraints to situations where the student's behavior poses an immediate danger of physical injury to the student or others, the restraint doesn’t interfere with the student's ability to communicate, and the restraint occurs after less restrictive interventions have failed to stop the danger.

The bill’s call for data collection on solutions and the use of school-wide positive behavioral interventions and supports is also consistent with our best knowledge of how to prevent much problem behavior and how to address it effectively and appropriately when it does occur. This knowledge base includes an array of evidence-based approaches—including trauma sensitive approaches, positive behavioral interventions and supports, social emotional learning, appropriate staffing ratios, and staff training on stress management, implicit bias and ways to prevent problem behavior from escalating. 

Although it can’t reduce all troubling behavior, a sound preventive foundation can reduce its incidence. And we also know that the use of such positive behavioral approaches as functional behavioral assessment (which examines the causes of problematic behaviors), appropriate mental health services, and such wraparound supports as those in use in Wraparound Milwaukee can be effective.

Education should develop students, not place them in harm’s way, as restraint and seclusion do. The Keeping All Students Safe Act, which addresses much of this harm, is consistent with social science’s best knowledge on how keep students free of the harm caused by unnecessary seclusion and restraint.

David Osher is an Institute Fellow and vice president at AIR.

David Osher
Vice President and Institute Fellow