In 2006, a 7-year-old girl was fatally injured at Rice Lake Day Treatment Clinic in Rice Lake, Wisconsin. A staff member held her in a prone position for an extended period of time after being put into a “cool down” room for refusing to stop blowing bubbles in her milk. A person several times her size held her facedown on the floor as a consequence for blowing bubbles. A medical examiner determined that she died from “complications due to chest compression asphyxiation.”
This is an extreme case of the misuse of seclusion rooms and restraints, but it is one that is not uncommon. This horrific story is only one of many that I came across when doing research about the debate about the use of seclusion rooms and restraints in an education setting. Each story was more awful than the one before it. Many children, especially those with disabilities, are being subjected to physically and emotionally damaging treatments because some teachers are not equipped with the necessary training and tools in which to establish the best learning environment for all of their students.
After reading Hannah Shtein’s March 12 column, “Address growing special ed needs” and Geoff Jara-Almonte’s March 16 column, “Student seclusion sometimes necessary,” I felt compelled to offer another viewpoint — that of a professional.
Professor Cheryl Hanley-Maxwell, Interim Associate Dean for Undergraduate and Teacher Education and a distinguished scholar of special education, made her opinions clear at the onset of our interview: seclusion rooms, in the way they are currently being used, are wrong. This is not a statement based on biased opinions, but rather founded on her research and education on the causes and effects of punishment.
Nowhere in The Cap Times’ March 11 article, “Should schools use seclusion rooms, restraints?” was there mention of what the proper use of a seclusion room is. The focus, instead, was placed on “educators using these methods only as a last resort to keep children and staff safe.” According to professor Hanley-Maxwell, this focus is misdirected.
While the use of seclusion rooms is intended to keep students and others safe, the focus of this form of punishment should be more centered on how to modify a certain behavior and then reinforce subsequent positive behavior.
An important concept to understand is the relationship between punishment and reinforcement. According to LDonLine, the world’s leading website on learning disabilities and ADHD, “punishments are consequences that weaken behavior and reinforcers are consequences that strengthen behavior.” For behavior to be managed with consequences, there is a specific process that needs to be followed every time.
The problem must be defined in a way that is understood by the child. There needs to be a strategy designed to change the behavior and then an effective reinforcer needs to be identified and applied consistently to change the behavior.
The reports of the misuse of seclusion rooms across the country are blatant proof of the lack of understanding of this process. To be clear, punishment that is used in an aggressive, cruel manner or overused will most likely provoke unexpected behavior that can be seen as emotional, destructive or just “another problem” to be dealt with.
Hanley-Maxwell said, “Without a positive incentive and environment to come back to, time spent in a seclusion room will be more detrimental than positive to a child’s emotional and physical well-being.”
We were discussing timeout rooms that are used improperly, when the professor demonstrated a very effective way of getting a student to stop performing a certain action. Our discussion was going well, when all of a sudden she stopped talking and broke eye contact. I politely waited for a moment, expecting her to gather her thoughts and continue, but she did not. Without consciously realizing it, I had stopped taking notes and was focused on waiting for a response. Several more moments passed before she returned her attention to our conversation.
“You stopped what you were doing. Once I had averted my attention from the conversation we were having and essentially ignored you, you ceased what you were doing,” said the professor. This tool is called a teacher timeout. It is an effective way to make someone stop performing an action. This is proof that there are easy and efficient ways to monitor behavior that are quite easy to learn with the proper training.
Many behavioral outbursts are a child’s quest for attention. According to The Boston Children’s Hospital, “Most misbehavior is guided by an incentive or goal.” When so much attention is focused on bad behavior and not positive behavior, that is what a student, with or without disabilities, is going to respond to.
Seclusion rooms have their place in an educational setting, but only, when employed correctly and for short periods of time. Children learn by example. They need to be in an environment where positive and constructive things are happening, not in a room by themselves, and especially not as a punishment for blowing bubbles in milk.
Chelsea Lawliss (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a sophomore intending to major in journalism.