Recently social media has been highlighting the issues of children subjected to seclusion, focus rooms, restraint and the negative impact on the children’s mental emotional and physical well being with a call for these to be stopped.

The expectation of some if not most educational provisions is that children/young adults behave in a way that is acceptable to the communities that they live within and a need for children to take more responsibility for their behaviour and learning.

These settings implement strategies to manage what is perceived as inappropriate behaviour. They create primary, secondary preventative strategies and reactive strategies otherwise known as restraint when a child’s behaviour has escalated to a state that is considered a risk to themselves or others, indicating that behaviours are deemed the responsibility of a child to change and learn from whilst not taking into consideration the child’s diagnostic needs which may or may not yet be identified or appropriately supported.

For instance, when we read in OFSTED reports comments such as “while staff know and meet the needs of their pupils well overall, they do not always fully understand and respond to the full complexity of needs, especially for those pupils with autistic spectrum disorders and social, emotional and mental health needs” yet also stating as a positive, the use of hubs and focus rooms used for “students to reflect upon incidents” of poor behaviour and to learn from them!  

One has to question whether punitive punishments, isolation, seclusion, or restraint are wholly appropriate if it is clearly noted that the staff themselves have difficulties identifying and meeting those diagnostic needs.

Children when attending educational provisions face the prospect of punitive punishments, restraint, isolation and seclusion for what is considered by society as unacceptable behaviours, yet is it poor behaviour or undiagnosed, unmet, unsupported needs triggering behaviours due to emotional internalised distress when they reach saturation point?

Are staff fully aware or trained sufficiently to recognise and meet those needs? In reality, we as parents when we hear certain wording such as special needs provision, Academy, Mainstream have a pre-conceived ideation of the level of understanding within these settings that staff hold, but may be surprised to note that for special needs provision those there are not necessarily required to have SEN specific training.

Academies which require every child have an EHCP may in actuality have little to no awareness of certain conditions affecting children such as SPD nor in actuality be appropriately equipped to meet needs, yet children experience punitive measures in relation to their diagnostic needs within these settings.

In reality, it may be difficult for staff to comprehend how difficult it is for children to keep it together when all eight of their senses are out of equilibrium which meaning they are potentially in a continual fluctuating state of flight and fight.

Bearing in mind the NHS do not commission sensory processing assessments, that 70% of children with spectrum conditions are thought to experience sensory processing deficits, this indicates an increased probability of children within these settings having unidentified conditions which contribute to emotional dysregulation. Many children are not supported with sensory diets or equipment as these services are not commissioned nor implemented in educational provisions.

Consider also the effects of stress hormones continually building up throughout the school day with other added challenges of meeting the demands of the curriculum, social expectations, environmental stressors such as lighting, decor, difficulties with filtering sounds, movement and visual distortions, and managing other people within their environment such as crowds, voices, smells, proximity, touch, etc. all of which the child is attempting to navigate whilst also attempting to understand and processing the educational material before them in an environment that is not conducive to promote learning; this does not take into account unexpected changes or expectations throughout the day.

Can we truly direct responsibility for presumed poor behaviour solely at the children’s feet who are trying their best to self regulate when they themselves may not be able to comprehend the complexity of their needs nor necessarily have the cognitive ability to do so or have been taught skills to do so when even the staff themselves are noted to struggle similarly.

Another possible factor, often overlooked and potentially under identified as it is not routinely screened for within spectrum conditions, are speech and language difficulties.

Children who have the apparent ability to use eloquent, convoluted, above chronological age speech appear to be ruled out as needing investigation, yet speech and language is not just about how words are used, it covers processing, comprehension, short term and long term memory, how many children could be experiencing pragmatic language impairment for instance but have not been identified as such.

This further adds weight to question the appropriateness of punishing children or asking them to reflect on their behaviour when they may not be able to do so. For example, it may take them anything from a few days to a few months to process an event. Their use of language may be misinterpreted triggering conflict. Does a child who laughs in response to anxiety understand that this is perceived and judged an inappropriate behaviour? It would doubtful when it is most likely in reality is an anxiety invoked response.

All of this can impede a child or adult’s ability to cognitively process or understand what led to their emotional response to both internal and external stimuli, triggering potential the for meltdowns or shutdowns. If staff mishandle the initial situation, future situations then potentially escalate due to those previously mishandled situations with the risk of psychological, emotional and physical harm as the need for physical intervention increases.

Therefore we can see how when unmet, undiagnosed needs or indeed recognised needs that are not supported appropriately, can prevent a child from not only being able to regulate their emotions and display behaviour deemed as unacceptable, but also has the potential to negatively impact on their mental and emotional wellbeing as they experience punitive punishments for behaviours out with their control triggering secondary emotions of guilt, shame and fear though again they may not recognise these as such thus escalating and potentially leading to school refusal.

One would hope that if children do school refuse, that a concerted effort would be made by the educational provision to listen to the child and families to establish causation and implement positive changes which reassure and support the child, but instead what we may encounter in school policies is wording that indicates otherwise, for example “whilst we recognise these anxieties we will always challenge and develop our pupils”.

I would suggest that it is important and imperative that children’s needs are identified not minimised, that children be automatically screened for conditions such as speech and language impairments, sensory processing impairments and dyslexia;

That the NHS use DISCO and ADOS together so that children, especially girls and children with the PDA profile are less likely to be missed and early intervention can take place to ensure appropriate interventions and support within educational provisions can be provided.

I would also suggest that educational provisions be proactive in looking into alternatives to punitive punishments to reduce not only conflicts, but to enhance relationships not only with the pupils within their care but also parents. 

Mindfulness, Emotional Freedom Technique, Movement breaks, equipment that would allow for movement to promote better processing for children who need movement should be provided. These have already been trialled and found to be more effective in reducing the need for punitive punishments such as detentions.  

Consider also environmental changes such as the colour walls are painted, the lighting used, acoustics to reduce antagonistic stimulus for children within their schools. Look at using sensory rooms rather than bare, stark “calming focus” rooms.

Granted the cost Implications short term may dissuade educational provisions from implementing these changes, however, one could suggest that this substantiates the hypothesis that it easier and more cost effective to hold the child and parents accountable for behaviours relating to diagnostic needs, than to look at what the actual contributing factors to children and young adults are, why they are not coping within educational provisions as already noted above.

Marshall B. Rosenberg, PH.D. in his book Life Enriching Education, notes that “organisations that are dominating have as motivation punishment, reward, guilt, shame, obligation, duty. With the goal being to prove who is right and wrong, get what you want and obey authority”. He also notes “unfortunately the language we have learnt has taught us to judge our own actions and the actions of others in terms of moralistic categories such as “right/wrong” “correct/incorrect”, “good/bad,” “normal/abnormal,” “appropriate/inappropriate.”

He also notes that “we have been further educated to believe that persons in positions of authority know which of these judgements best fits any situation. If we find ourselves wearing the label “teacher” or “principal,” we think we should know what is best for all those we supervise, and are quick to label those who do not comply”.

In reality how can anyone appropriately judge a situation when they do not possess all the facts, such as a child’s needs. If they have not had training how could they understand the scope to which a condition may affect a child. If specialist equipment or interventions are not provided how can they accurately judge whether a child’s behavioural response or communications is inappropriate? Is it justifiable to punish a child for invisible disabilities and diagnostic issues when they have not been appropriately identified?

Behaviour is communication, let us hear what the child is communicating through their behaviour rather than punish that communication attempt; identify and meet that need rather than simply punish their unmet diagnostic need.

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News Behaviour is communication should it be punished? An article by Georgina Robertson