Quiet Rooms Controversy Needs Balanced Understanding

Quiet Rooms Controversy Needs Balanced Understanding

Quiet Rooms Controversy Needs Balanced Understanding

The Chicago Tribute had a big, flashy exposé on “quiet rooms” or the “isolation rooms” in special education within their public schools.

You can tell it was meant to be a big “bombshell” story because the online version had lots of gifs and interactive charts and pictures. The overwhelming impression that the reader is supposed to come away with? Quiet rooms are bad! There are better ways to deal with students! Teachers have improperly used them! The children hate them!

Chicago’s schools are not the only place where quiet rooms are used. From the article:

No federal law regulates the use of seclusion, and Congress has debated off and on for years whether that should change. Last fall, a bill was introduced that would prohibit seclusion in public schools that receive federal funding. A U.S. House committee held a hearing on the issue in January, but there’s been no movement since.”

Nineteen states prohibit secluding children in locked rooms; four of them ban any type of seclusion. But Illinois continues to rely on the practice. The last time the U.S. Department of Education calculated state-level seclusion totals, in 2013-14, Illinois ranked No. 1.”

Less than a year ago, parents in Spokane, Washington, were also complaining about the use of isolation rooms.

The idea of quiet rooms is deeply polarizing among special education parents, which is a group I belong to. Two of my sons have been in classrooms that have had quiet rooms. I’ll attempt to explain all of this from a special ed parent’s point of view. And as a full disclaimer, one of my sons does have a restraint plan on file to deal with his behavior, and it is signed by me.

Quiet rooms are intended to provide a “cooling off” period where, if a student’s behavior poses a threat to either them individually, or to others, there can be a safe, secure location to have a temper tantrum. In the classrooms my sons have been in, only one had a quiet room with a lockable door. Now, all the locks have been removed. There are also windows in the door that allows for anyone to look in, and anyone to see out. They are padded for good reason – in a full-out meltdown, whatever the cause, the goal is to keep the student from harming themselves or others. And we are not talking about your regular screaming and stomping temper tantrum. If you have never seen a complete meltdown by a child on the autism spectrum, count yourself lucky. The best way I can put it into words is to ask you to imagine that the child has lost all semblance of control. There is kicking, thrashing, screaming, with no thought or care of self-preservation. A neurotypical child having a tantrum usually takes care to not actually hurt themselves, though they may not care about hurting others. A child on the spectrum, depending on their level of function, has no such safety sense. There is a feeling of utter helplessness in watching this happen before your eyes. And this is what we are asking teachers to deal with.

Should quiet rooms simply be used as “time-out” or “punishment” areas? No. That should not be their function. The isolation room is meant to be a last-resort form of protection, for both the student and for everyone around them. Quiet rooms should not be used for neurotypical, general education students, and neither should a child be isolated for an extended period of time in there. (Though I will admit, my oldest son often asked to use the quiet room in his classroom as a reward, not as discipline. The room was soundproof and had no lock. He would ask his teacher if he could use it, and then hole up in there with crayons and paper so he could draw. It ended up being one of his favorite sensory breaks. He was going in there so often that they finally had to start setting a timer so he would come back out.)

If teachers are using quiet rooms as a way to give a student an extended time-out, or to simply corral students to get them out of their hair, then those teachers need re-training and stricter supervision by administration. (Please note that the Chicago Tribune article dealt solely with public schools – puts a whole new spin on the teachers’ strike, doesn’t it?) Special education teachers need support, and they need to feel that parents and administrators are working with them to get each special education child the best and most appropriate education possible. But if they are being cruel or abusive, as has sadly happened, then those teachers need to be removed from the classroom immediately.

But what happens when there is no quiet room? What happens when a parent refuses to have any kind of restraint plan in place? With the increasing scrutiny and negative coverage, our school district has almost completely abandoned the use of these rooms, though they are still present in some classrooms. However, this has triggered consequences for both teachers and students. Namely, when a child loses control, there are fewer options for containment. Oftentimes, the student will end up in the principal’s office with adults, where the student will trash the office. The same can happen in the classroom, where if a child cannot be safely moved out, then the rest of the students are moved for their own safety. Teachers or aides can be assaulted, with very little they can do in the manner of self-defense. I have unfortunately seen children manipulate the system to pit parents and school against each other for their own benefit, because parents are absolutely convinced that any kind of restraint on their child would be the worst thing possible.

There must be some kind of balance between restraint and safety. Quiet rooms are a tool, not a solution. Special education parents need to do two things. First, be realistic about your child’s needs. Don’t attempt to sugar-coat the severity of your child’s reactions. If restraint has to be a part of that plan, then work to make it as safe as possible on both sides. Second, parents should make allies of their child’s teachers. Realize that teachers should not have to give up their right to be safe in the workplace or to be assaulted, just because a parent doesn’t want any restraint on their child. Neither should a student be abused at the hands of a teacher. While you must be the first and best advocate for your special needs child, this doesn’t mean that you need to pick a fight with teachers or administration. As a special ed parent, I have tried my hardest to support the teachers that my sons have had, backing them up in discipline, and saving my strength for the battles that really matter. When I had to sign the restraint consent form for one of my boys, I did it knowing that the teacher geniunely cared about my son, and trusted that it would never be used in a punitive manner against him, but only for his own safety.

These shock-and-awe stories from the media expose ugly rifts, but offer few solutions. It is the parents and teachers who live the day-to-day experience of special education who are left to actually solve the problems. And if those solutions involve the use of quiet rooms in a reasoned and balanced manner, so be it.

Featured image via Pixabay, cropped, Pixabay license

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14 Comments
  • Kevin says:

    Deanna Fisher … I agree. I haven’t worked in the school systems but I’ve worked in social services for adolescents, some of whom with significant mental health or behavioral issues. I think we all agree that use of quiet rooms are not meant as a punishment, a place where children can self-mutilate, or some other harsh or negative consequence to a child’s behavior. When I hear stories of how school districts are attacked for these quiet rooms, I wonder what other response by the school will result in a safe classroom for all the children and teachers? It’s not easy.

    Given how strapped schools are for funds, employing a couple well-trained adults for one child isn’t feasible. I also don’t think it’s fair (not sure if that’s the right word) for the parent(s) of a special needs child to demand the school alone solve this problem. How does the parent(s) safely control the behavior of the child in the home setting? How can the parent assist the school district in managing or monitoring their child’s behavior in the classroom? It’s not easy.

  • GWB says:

    Congress has debated
    There’s one of the biggest problems right there. It’s not within Congress’ purview at all, under the actual Constitution. Reduce the size of the national gov’t and return it to a federal structure, and a LOT of our current problems would just about disappear.

  • GWB says:

    Good post, Deanna. But I’m unsure of your position on the specifics in the Chicago Tribune article. Do you think they really are being abused? Or do you think it’s a mix of some abuse and a lot of parental attention-seeking?

    How much does “mainstreaming” play a part in this? Is there a reluctance (at least sometimes) to treat special needs students differently? I know – based on just how far from average they are – each child really needs unique attention. (And, of course, autistic children all need personalized attention, regardless of how unique they are.)

    I think the snowflake approach is probably a factor, too. How many options are there for teachers to even deal with disruptive students or those in meltdown? How many have been removed because of some marginal number of folks who might have been harmed, and therefore no one can do that (whatever “that” is) anymore? We’ve seen this in policing, where police are often restricted to the two ends of the spectrum for dealing with problems – talk and shooting – because of the “OMG, they beat someone! Ban that!” mentality. Has this been evident in special ed, too? (I think this article shows at least some tendency to that.)

    And I think Kevin hits on an important aspect: parental involvement. I know there’s a problem with average kids in the schools, where many of their parents rely upon the school to raise the child(ren), instead of taking on the raising of them at home. (Too many people see their children as a boutique accessory, instead of their progeny and posterity; and that’s just one group of parents with that problem.) How much more tempting must this be for someone with a special needs child(ren)? I know it can be exhausting, and there has to be a desire to let someone else do all that hard work. If they are enabled (industries can develop a perverse incentive to tell parents they just can’t handle it, themselves*), how much easier to simply demand perfection while requiring the teachers and staff to do all the work.

    (* Heck, that’s what the education industry is. And why so many of them dislike homeschooling, as it demonstrates you don’t need to be a “professional” to succeed at it. I bet there’s some within special education that definitely feel that way.)

    • Deanna Fisher says:

      GWB, the Tribune article was mostly full of terrible anecdotes. And those anecdotes were coming from special education schools, so it didn’t appear that any of these stories were a result of mainstreaming. Honestly, it looks like a lot of poorly trained teachers in the greater Chicago area who have used the quiet rooms as a crutch to “deal” with students they are tired of – which, given what we know of the Chicago teacher’s union, doesn’t feel all that shocking.

      I know that other school districts across the country have had these in mainstream/general ed elementary schools, but not in gen ed classrooms. I do think there were legitimate cases of abuse going on, but I also believe that parents MUST step up to be their special ed child’s first and best advocate. Too many parents assume all will be fine and think of school as a form of “respite care,” which is another burden for the teachers. I know that I can’t homeschool my sons – there are too many issues at play to go into – so I am determined to be the best teammate to their teachers. Fortunately, there has only been one occasion where I completely disliked a teacher’s methods, but that situation was short-lived.

      • GWB says:

        The comment about homeschooling was about some education professionals, in general, not necessarily special needs. It was just a comment on the “industry” nature of these fields (sometimes, not always, and not everyone).

        And thank you for your opinion on the story – that helps the post, imo.

  • Thank you, Deanna!

    My wife is a special needs classroom teacher; deals with this at least three times a week. The system that she is in, though, handles quiet rooms a bit differently, as there are both a school counselor and a special needs counselor in every school that has the separated classrooms. The quiet rooms are under THEIR supervision, not the responsibility of the four teachers in her school. Yes, four, which is more than most schools here, but they range from “nearing transition” to “severely disabled.” She has the last one, which is not particularly fun for home life…

    Anyway – when there is a total meltdown, whichever of the counselors is available takes over – not her. This allows her to get on with doing her job with the other fourteen kids in the class (why do none of these “activists” ever seem to care about the ones NOT having a meltdown at the moment?).

  • JIm says:

    This is a good summary of issues affecting staff and children in special schools and the management of the presenting behaviour of children who are developmentally different. With regard to autistic children there are temper tantrums that are just like those that occur in any other children, though the intensity of temper tantrums in autistics is often more prolonged and intense simply due to the fact that autistic children are far less concerned about their own ‘social’ image. Then there are meltdowns – which can look like tantrums – during which all self control breaks down and any sense of having a coherent Self is totally lost. Meltdowns occur when supporting social structure is perceived as having ‘disappeared’ or disintegrated. Tight structure is essential for all autistics of any level of intellect. [Meltdowns are terrible to experience for we who are autistic; we fear them which is why we are so controlling and hyper-vigilant in regard to maintenance of supporting structure.] Fatigue, increased stress, illness, unexpected change all have an effect and can increase the likelihood of a meltdown. Allowing [autistic] children time to be alone is an important part of management – as long as it occurs under the control of adults: autistic children can and do ‘game’ the rules to avoid hard work like any other children. A very useful essay to read in this regard is: ”Why Are We So Unfriendly? Or: Hello, Friend, Now Please Go Away.” [http://planetautism.com/jane/unf.html]

    An issue not mentioned by the writer is that staff of special schools around the world mostly female. Men are in the minority, yet cute little children with developmental impairments do grow to be big strong, sexually mature adults. They are often seen to behave more like difficult toddlers partly because mainstream people do not expect them to act up to their chronological age, but treat them as helpless, perpetual children. In 1979-’80 I taught in a special school for ‘trainable mentally retarded’ adolescents on the south side of Chicago. I was the only male teacher and, within a month or so, I was assigned every difficult student because I was very skilled when it came to behaviour management, but also very fit and strong and was not intimidated by hefty girls and boys trying to assault me. We had no time-out or seclusion room at that school. Such rooms have their uses and benefits as part of a formal management plan for given students, but have been misused in some schools.

    Many of those in political power operate in regard to special schools students on the basis of pity and have little understanding of the number of staff who are assaulted daily; social control is a real issue for staff. I am now retired but being hit, kicked, spat on, bitten, having objects thrown at me, being urinated on, having used sanitary pads thrown at me and being smeared with faeces was all in a day’s work. Having to physically restrain large and small students was not uncommon: we all had formal training in legal and safe ways to intervene to stop students endangering others or themselves. It should be no surprise that staff retention in special schools is an ongoing issue.

    • GWB says:

      Wow, thank you for that perspective.

      I would be interested on your thoughts on my idea that some people’s complaints have limited the caregiver’s options as regards to handling the difficult moments. We see lots of folks upset over cops coming to handcuff a 8yo in a school, but limitations on legally safe interactions have made that the only possible result in some places. Did you see (or are you seeing now) any of the same thing in special needs?

  • Jim says:

    Yes, complaints, often uninformed, by people observing necessary physical management of people with developmental difference has made a difference to the actions of staff and care staff I residential units.* Such complaints to politicians or to newsagencies have led to staff feeling they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. That is, such staff have a duty of care and, at times must act with speed and certainty, to stop dangerous actions. Duty of care includes the concepts of omission and commission. Staff can be punished for not acting to stop a child committing an dangerous act, but can also be punished for acting too severely. Australian society, following the US, has become more litigious. It is common nowadays for bewildered staff to ask what to do if intellectually disabled student Sarah [aged 15] runs of toward a busy road. Fifteen years ago they would have run after and grabbed Sarah and marched her back to the bus without a second thought. Now they think twice about acting for fear of being sued for their necessary physical intervention.

    For instance some years ago in a main stream school a woman teacher tackled and restrained an intellectually normal autistic lad in grade 2. He was angry with a girl. She had observed his controlled, even repressed anger and noted he had repeatedly sharpened a pencil while at his desk. At the end of the lesson as the children left the room she shadowed the lad and was just able to intervene as he raised the sharpened pencil to stab the girl in the back. She got him to the ground, disarmed him and held him until support arrived. She felt guilty, but was reassured that she did the correct thing. In fact had she not acted physically she would have breached her duty of care to the girl and also the lad. By and large staff are more careful for fear of being sued for assault, but necessary [physical] intervention to make people safe is not assault. As indicated in my first post there are formal programs for training staff in safe management of potentially dangerous students. My recent experience here in Australia as a specialist witness in a case in which a female teacher was violently assaulted by a teenage boy with a known history of violent behaviour was that the school was sued for negligence because the management knew the lad was potentially dangerous and the school did not provide training for her. The school also lacked enough male staff to station a male assistant in the room to back her up if the lad challenged her directly. Over 40 years or so I have physically intervened and restrained people acting violently many hundreds of times of necessity in response to their dangerous behaviour and then held them calmly until their rage has passed. They are then put straight back to work as though nothing has happened. [This is important so they don’t learn they can escape their assigned work by playing up. I note though that the social welfare people, at such a point in events, tend to want to go into counseling mode and talk about what the student should not have done and thus make an issue of it thus reinforcing it. I only talk about what the previously violent should be doing, i.e. his work.]

    Many people do not understand that even intellectually disabled people can be charged at Law just like any one else. Being different is not a ‘free pass’ to act as one wishes. Usually a forensic psychiatrist will judge whether a person is fit to plead at Law.

    In general the misconceptions and pity of the mainstream populace is a problem for both professional staff and also strong effective parents. One of my favourite mothers of a very complex intellectually disabled autistic lad was verbally abused in a super-market as she shopped with her lad. She was following the standard and very formally structured script using precise and concrete language and a visual schedule I had developed with her. It looked military-like, but was all that worked with the lad to keep him and his mother safe. A man, watching for a while, eventually marched up to her and screamed ”You’re nothing but a little Hitler treating that poor boy like that!”

    A last point is that when staff call for an external authority, e.g. Police, to come into a social setting to resolve an issue the child involved immediately learns that those staff have no real power. The battle for control is thus lost and the child’s behaviour will escalate over time as he learns that he gains the attention [= reinforcement] of the Police and also escapes [= reinforcement] the setting and the duties set him if the Police remove him. The staff in an organisation must be supported and allowed to manage and build their authority if the child is going to stay and prosper in that setting.

    * Aggrieved people, including some parents, also make specious complaints to politicians or news agencies about schools and/or specific teaching staff so that one occasionally sees broadcast vans from TV stations parked outside schools. Let us also be clear that past practices in institutions and some schools were based on corporal punishment and unacceptable and violent assaults on clients were common.

  • helen says:

    I really don’t think lengthy seclusion is the answer. If it’s their choice to go to a quiet room then I can see that. If behavior esclates to violence, then I can see removing the child from the classroom to somewhere safe away from other children but leaving them isolated for 20-75 min at the minimum can be considered psychological abuse. In some instances, leaving them there all day is even more terrifying to me. I work in schools and see how these professionals sometimes treat the kids. Brushing their needs aside, laughing at them with other coworkers the minute the child turns his/her back. Rolling their eyes at the child, arguing with the child, insisting a child sit when they are perfectly well behaved standing still, I mean these are humans. There are cues that signal the child is escalating and there are things people can do but there is just not enough training. Solitary confinement is considered a form of torture in prisons by the UN if it is 22-24 hrs/day. On a sliding scale, wouldn’t it be considered torture for a non-prisoner, a child for 2-6 hours a day? According to an article written by Wes Boyd, Ph.D.,who is on faculty at Harvard Medical School and is an attending psychiatrist at Cambridge Health Alliance and Children’s Hospital Boston, “Mental health issues are also widely prevalent in youth within correctional facilities, and placing youth in solitary, often as a form of punishment or simply because prisons are understaffed to engage with these children, is psychologically damaging and outright cruel. Dr. Louis J. Kraus, a child, adolescent and forensic psychiatrist, also spoke at the Harvard conference, and explained that locking children up in isolation worsens their mood symptoms, worsens trauma-based pathology, increases anxiety symptoms, compromises these children’s trust, and increases the risk of suicide.” So using this reference and a younger age, group, would you consider there is a better way?

    • GWB says:

      Solitary confinement is considered a form of torture in prisons by the UN
      Which is a good reason not to use the UN as your measuring stick.

  • Jim says:

    Generally time-out-from-social-reinforcement does not work with autistic children and its use with other children must be carefully managed also lest it become reinforcing for the very problem behaviour it is used to treat. As you imply if the social setting in the class-room is not reinforcing and supportive of acceptable behaviour and staff are angry or irritated, then some children learn to act out so as to be sent to seclusion and thus escape the noxious social environment in the class-room. Thus seclusion becomes reinforcing for problem behaviour. This indicates that the staff don’t understand that any punishment effect of seclusion is not being secluded per se. The punishment effect occurs in that the child who has misbehaved is removed from the pleasant social milieu of the classroom and the approval of staff and social engagement with his/her peers. The child loses something he values. Another issue is that a child who is secluded [and I exclude autistics seeking a peaceful period of quiet alone to re-charge] are not in the class-room learning. As for leaving children in seclusion for long periods, that is criminal. I did encounter one example of that in a special school 25 years ago, but the teenage lad concerned got his revenge by smearing faeces all over himself and the walls. Staff stopped using seclusion with him as they had to clean him and the room.

  • Linda Fox says:

    I taught for a long time. SOME kind of ‘time-out’ place has to exist, unless the rest of the class and their teacher are forced to bear witness to the meltdowns.

    There is a safety issue. Until that child can return to the classroom, without risking the safety and well-being of the rest of the class and the teacher, using them seems to be the only alternative available.

    It’s a pity. Some kids need a place to go when they are overwhelmed – allowing a kid to go to a separate room BEFORE complete meltdown would be best. Some schools allow special ed students to seek out a Resource Room (with a special ed teacher present), when things get too much for them.

    Having said that, if a kid has to use such a room more than a couple times a year, their presence in regular ed classes may need to be re-evaluated. The rule that applies is “least restrictive environment”. If that’s a separate classroom only for special ed, well, for those kids, it might be appropriate. Other options are:
    – home-schooling (with assist from public school)
    – online education, laptop provided (again, with some assist)
    – special ed school for those with behavior/emotional issues

    I once taught in a classroom with a severely disturbed student – psychotic breaks, talking to imaginary people, the whole 9 yards. The other kids – 7th graders – were terrified of her. Until her mother removed her to be home-schooled. the kids were walking on eggs around her. It was child abuse of the rest of the class.

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