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.