In May 2009 the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) completed its nationwide investigation into the use of restraint & seclusion in public schools. The result of its findings concluded that no federal laws were in place to keep educators from using dangerous and abusive methods to restrain or seclude a student. This is especially troubling for students with special needs, particularly for those with communication challenges.

While most teachers and aides are compassionate and caring individuals, there are cases of abuse and overuse of restraint and seclusion practices.

What is restraint/seclusion?

Restraint is physical force used to immobilize — or reduce the ability of — an individual, whereas seclusion
is involuntary confinement of an individual alone in a room or area from which they are physically prevented from leaving.

Restraint and seclusion practices are commonly used in our public schools systems. In a recent school year, restraint and seclusion techniques were used 267,000 times, many for non-emergency reasons.

What are the different types of restraint?

  • Prone Restraint means that the child is laid in the facedown position.

  • Supine Restraint means that the child is laid in the face-up position.

  • Physical restraints involve a person applying various holds using their arms, legs or body weight to immobilize an individual or bring an individual to the floor.

  • Mechanical restraints include straps, cuffs, tape and other devices to prevent movement and/or sense perception, often by pinning an individual’s limbs to a splint, wall, bed, chair or floor.

  • Chemical restraints rely on medication to dull an individual’s ability to move and/or think.

What are the signs of restraint/seclusion? 

While many of children with autism are nonverbal or minimally verbal, there are some ways to tell if restraint/seclusion techniques have been used. They can include:

  • Bruising or abraded, reddened skin on arms, wrists, or ankles
  • Unusual injuries
  • Sudden regressions
  • The emergence of new and unexplained behavior problems at home such as sleeplessness, nightmares, increased anxiety levels, or emotional outbursts
  • The appearance of new problem behavior at school
  • The appearance or intensification of self-injurious behaviors and/or increased aggression
  • Fear of a particular teacher, aide, substitute, staff member
  • The emergence of a school phobia (especially when the child previously enjoyed attending school) or of a more generalized fear of leaving home
  • Emergence of specific fears that may be related to particular aversive, restraint, or seclusion techniques (such as fear of spray bottles, seatbelts, or closets)
  • Acting out of the traumatic experience/s in play (e.g. a child who experiences physical abuse may begin to play roughly with dolls or peers)
  • Not wanting to be alone
  • Loss of interest in things he/she use to enjoy

P.O.S.I.T.I.V.E Tips for Parents

Restraint and seclusion practices vary by state, district, and classroom. If you’re worried about your child’s safety, remember to stay P.O.S.I.T.I.V.E. by using these tips:

P. PREPARE. Prepare to address any safety concerns ahead of time by assessing and documenting any known meltdown triggers in the classroom or campus (noise, light, stressors, etc.)

O. OPEN THE DISCUSSION. Open up the conversation to address your concerns about restraint and seclusion practices. Just by asking questions, you are more likely to prevent high-risk situations from ever occurring. Be polite, but direct. “What’s your policy of restraint & seclusion practices?” Even as the school year advances, continue to ask questions: has my child ever been restrained, or secluded? Keep the conversation open and ongoing.

S. SUBMIT.Submit letters to your child’s school or in his/her IEP outlining any special safety requirements or requests. Include a “no restraint” letter stating that your child is never to be secluded, and should only be restrained as a last-resort measure in the face of imminent danger. Request immediate notification of any incidents, and be sure to note any medical contraindications (obesity asthma, GI, heart issues, etc.) to restraint.

I. INFORM. Inform teachers, aides, and substitute teachers about your child’s meltdown triggers, calming methods, and de-escalation techniques by creating a student profile sheet. This one-sheeter is a basic “do’s and dont’s” guide, which can be as simple as stapling a photo of your child to a piece of paper that provides basic, yet critical, information. Be sure to include emergency contact numbers, and a reminder to call you instead of police in the event of a meltdown.

T. TEAM UP. Rely on others by teaming up with a trusted teacher, parent volunteer, even student who can look out for your child. Keep an open dialogue with allies so you know and understand what’s happening inside and outside of the classroom during your child’s school day. Continue to ask about your child’s mood, progress, social opportunities, peer interactions, and behaviors during non-classroom times, such as lunch and recess.

I. INVITE. Invite feedback and recommendations from school staff, IEP team members, and therapists. While we tend to know our children best, behaviors may differ in the school setting. Ask teachers and aides for their input and listen intently to any concerns or ideas they may have. It’s a team effort, and both parties should be able to develop, agree upon, and incorporate strategies into both settings for maximum consistency.

V. VOLUNTEER. Donate your time in the classroom, during field trips or fundraisers, and in the school’s PTO or PTA. Be an active participant and supporter of your child’s teachers, and the rest of the school staff. Also show your appreciation. It can be as simple as a hand-written note thanking your child’s teachers, or bringing in treats to eat. The more positive participation you have within the school, the better the relationship will be among all of those caring for your child.

E. EDUCATE. Educate your child about dangers, consequences, and ways to stay safe. While language deficits may make it difficult to gauge your child’s understanding of the information presented, continue to speak it, write it, and show it through a picture system, social story or other preferred method. The ultimate goal is for your child to know and understand dangers, how to communicate abuse, and most of all, self-protection.

What if there are signs of restraint, seclusion, or abuse?

If you do suspect your child has been mistreated, here are some steps to take:

  • Remain calm.
  • Seek immediate medical attention if your child has any visible signs of abuse.
  • Document everything & take pictures of your child’s condition.
  • Consider reporting to police, and call your state’s protection and advocacy group.
  • If your child has a trusted psychologist or professional counselor, contact them as well.

Will there be a federal bill? 

A couple of lawmakers have stepped up to introduce legislation that would provide basic protections for students. You can read the bill language here, and contact your local lawmakers to ask for their support.

Restraint and seclusion can be scary to think about, but with the right precautions, parents can reduce the risk. For more resources, visit the Stop Hurting Kids website or NAA’s Autism Safety Site.