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A Growing Case Against Physical Restraint

You may have seen Sheila Foster’s story covered on Nightline or similar shows recently. Sheila tells the tragic story of how her son, Corey, died while being “restrained” at school. [Read her story here.]

There are a lot of alarming things about this story, including the fact that according to the series of events described by Sheila, restraint protocols were not followed correctly (for instance, typical protocols indicate that physical restraint should be used only to stop a child from hurting himself or others, and only after less restrictive measures have been tried and deemed ineffective; they also instruct those administering the restraint to respond appropriately when a child says he cannot breathe).

In our opinion, though, the problem lies even deeper than this.  The problem lies with the assumption that restraining children is part of an effective “treatment” method. We have all heard providers report that physical restraint “gives children time to calm down safely,” or that it “teaches children that disruptive behavior will not be tolerated.”  And in some cases, we have even heard the assertion that “children feel safer when they are restrained, because they don’t feel so out of control.”

Imagine for just a moment that you are really mad about not being able to do something.  Really, really mad.  So mad that you lose your cool, yell at someone, and slam the door.  Hard.  Now imagine that two people approached you in that moment, physically laid you on the floor, and pinned you there. Would that help you calm down (or might it make you madder)?  Would you feel safer (or would you feel less trusting of your environment)? Would you suddenly have a new insight about how yelling and slamming doors is not a “good choice” (or did you know that already, but have a hard time accessing that information because you were so mad)?

The Collaborative Problem Solving approach gives us the tools we need to identify what skill deficits are getting in the way of a child being able to meet the expectations of his or her environment, and then trains those skills so that the child can better meet those expectations. In the example above, we might notice that you frequently have trouble with emotion regulation, and so we would help you practice responding differently when you’re frustrated. If a child isn’t leaving the basketball court when asked to leave by staff, we might wonder if that child has trouble with (1) transitioning between activities; (2) being flexible enough to share the court; (3) generating ideas of other things he might like to do; or (4) keeping mental track of time told that he could have “15 minutes more.” Taking the time to understand a child’s skill deficits provides you with information on how to intervene when problems arise (and prevent them from occurring in the first place). Most importantly, when staff have other options for intervention, and when they find those interventions working, they will be less likely to resort to the use of physical restraint.