UConn Expert Discusses Restraint and Seclusion in Public Schools

Brandi Simonsen at the Neag School of Education on March 27. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)
Educational psychology professor Brandi Simonsen, an expert on behavioral issues in schools, discusses the use of seclusion and restraint and the alternatives to their use. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

As federal lawmakers prepare to debate legislation greatly reducing the use of restraints – and eliminating the use of seclusion – in public schools, a recent hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education focused on the use of restraint and seclusion and featured testimony from UConn expert George Sugai. We asked Brandi Simonsen, a professor of special education in UConn’s Department of Educational Psychology at the Neag School of Education and co-director of the Center for Behavioral Education and Research, about the use of restraint and seclusion and whether the federal government has a role to play in regulating their use in public schools.

Q: This is an understandably emotional topic for people. How common are restraint and seclusion in American public school classrooms today?

A: Restraint and seclusion are not common in public school classrooms. However, it’s difficult to know exactly how often they occur, because the definitions and reporting requirements vary by state, and sometimes by district. The best estimate of how frequently restraint and seclusion are used comes from the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), which includes reported data from almost every public school in the U.S. As summarized in the CRDC, 0.2% of all students experienced a crisis intervention – meaning restraint or seclusion – during the last data collection period, which was from 2015 to 2016, and approximately 71% of the students restrained and 66% of those secluded were identified with disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, also known as IDEA.

Q: What does research tell us about any potential emotional or psychological impact on students from the use of restraint and seclusion in the classroom?

A: The long-term effects of restraint and seclusion have not been well-studied. We often hear about egregious abuses of these practices in the news, and we assume experiencing restraint and seclusion is likely traumatic for students, educators, and families. So, while we don’t have great data about the long-term effects of restraint and seclusion, we know quite a bit about the long-term effects of trauma on people’s mental, behavioral, and physical health, cognitive functioning, and overall well-being.

Q: Are there situations or circumstances where restraint or seclusion are appropriate?

A: Restraint and seclusion should only ever be used in a crisis situation, when there is a risk of serious and imminent danger and the restraint or seclusion reduces that risk. These are not planned or therapeutic interventions. They should never be a routine part of a behavior support plan, or used as a consequence for behavior. With preventive and positive behavior supports in place, many minor problem behaviors are handled quickly and efficiently, and the likelihood of more serious behavior is reduced. However, even when the best preventive practices are in place, emergency situations arise, so it’s very important that schools have procedures in place to respond to behavior-related emergencies.

Q: What are the alternatives to restraint and seclusion in the classroom?

A: Prevention is the best alternative. Once a crisis occurs, educators have likely run out of really good options. At best, educators’ goals should be to de-escalate the situation and maintain safety for everyone involved. But in some cases, a crisis intervention does become necessary to maintain safety. So the best alternative to restraint and seclusion is to prevent a crisis situation from happening. How do we do that?

To start with, positive, proactive, and preventative behavior intervention strategies are critical to support all students, but are especially important to prevent escalating situations with students who have a history of these behaviors, including students with disabilities. So, things like having expectations for students, explicitly teaching social and emotional skills, and providing specific feedback to students on their behavior – finding opportunities to celebrate their accomplishments – create an environment that functions as a “protective factor” for students with a history of challenging behavior.

Then, it’s critical that educators understand that behavior is a form of communication. That is, behavior serves a function. Students use their behavior to communicate that they want to get something – like attention or an activity – or that they want escape or avoid something. So, it’s critical that we teach them a more appropriate way to meet this same function, and then make other adjustments to the classroom and school environment to set these students up for success. Some of these adjustments are simple. For example, providing reminders, establishing predictable routines, adjusting academic instruction and tasks, and arranging the environment to ensure the replacement skills “work” for the student are all simple strategies that increase the likelihood of a student being successful and reduce the likelihood of a crisis situation.

To effectively put these types of practices in place, educators need training and ongoing support. In fact, when we look at the research on decreasing restraint and seclusion in schools, professional development is often a part of successful efforts. If a crisis does happen, we need well-trained staff to calmly de-escalate the situation and, then if necessary, move to crisis intervention.

But overall, prevention is the focus of how we set up our schools and classrooms, how we develop interventions to support students with a history of challenging behavior, and how we respond after a crisis to ensure that both students and educators are more likely to be successful the next time.

Q: Are states equipped to address issues surrounding restraint and seclusion in the classroom, or is additional federal intervention necessary?

A: States vary in the level of policy, guidance, and preparation provided to districts and schools. Federal intervention, such as the proposed Keeping All Students Safe Act, may be helpful. The challenge, as you pointed out, is that this is an emotionally charged topic, so it’s critical that experts help legislators understand the nuances – which were reflected in Dr. Sugai’s recent testimony to Congress – that are involved in implementing restraint and seclusion procedures. This mean promoting positive and proactive supports for all students and intensifying those supports to meet the needs of students with a history of challenging behaviors. It also means providing broad-based staff training in those positive and proactive supports and de-escalation strategies, and then providing more targeted staff training in safely and ethically using crisis responses in real cases of serious and imminent danger. And the final, important part involves monitoring, evaluating, and communicating any use of crisis responses.

As an example of federal guidance, the U.S. Department of Education developed the 2012 Restraint and Seclusion Resource Document, which is a great example of highlighting the conditions under which crisis responses may become necessary, but also emphasizing the importance of prevention.

Q: Experts at UConn have been at the forefront of this issue. Can you explain the work currently underway to improve approaches to behavioral intervention in schools?

A: Given the importance of prevention, most of our work at UConn focuses on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). I am fortunate to co-direct the National Technical Assistance Center on PBIS, along with partners from the University of Oregon, University of South Florida, and University of Missouri. The PBIS Center just began its twenty-first year, and the next five years (2018 through 2023) represent a $32.6 million federal investment to define, develop, implement, and evaluate a multi-tiered approach. This new approach will improve the capacity of state and local education agencies and schools to establish and sustain the PBIS framework in order to improve supports and outcomes for students with or at-risk for disabilities, and to enhance school safety and learning conditions that promote the well-being of all students.

There are preliminary published case studies that indicate that implementing sound behavior support practices within a PBIS framework may reduce the use of restraint and seclusion for students that have challenging behavioral histories. The National Technical Assistance Center on PBIS will be working over the next five years to continue to explore this topic, and develop resources to support educators in reducing the need for restraint and seclusion.

For more information on the National Technical Assistance Center on PBIS, please visit www.pbis.org.