Seclusion rooms in schools do more harm than good, experts say

School boards across the country use so-called "seclusion rooms" or "calming rooms" to curb disruptive behaviour in students, but experts say locking up a troubled child does more harm than good.

Group urges B.C. government to ban controversial practice

School boards across the country use so-called 'seclusion rooms' or 'calming rooms' to curb disruptive behaviour in students, though the exact extent of their use is not known. (iStock)

The use of so-called "seclusion rooms" in schools seems like a throwback to another era. But they were in the news this week amid a report by CTV about a child in B.C. with Down Syndrome who, it was revealed, was regularly locked in a room when he was judged to be disruptive.

Many Canadians may be unaware that seclusion rooms are, according to experts in special education, used by school boards across the country as a place to send kids with special needs for "time-outs." 

The non-profit advocacy group Inclusion BC was the first to publish data about this practice in its 2013 report Stop Hurting Kids: Restraint and Seclusion in BC Schools.

One of my colleagues was in tears.— Sheila Bennett

But the organization said last week the provincial government has done almost no followup since the report came out, and that seclusion rooms should be banned. 

CBC News asked three Canadian experts in special education about the use of seclusion rooms and the argument against them. 

Pat Mirenda is an expert in special education at the University of British Columbia, Sheila Bennett is a professor in teacher education at Brock University, and Jacqueline Specht is director of the Canadian Research Centre on Inclusive Education at Western University. 

Just what exactly is a seclusion room?

Mirenda: A room or space in which a child is involuntarily confined and from which he or she is physically prevented from exiting, usually because the door or exit is locked or blocked in some manner. 

Bennett: Sometimes called "isolation rooms" or "calming rooms" — at their most extreme they are locked rooms with padded walls and oftentimes can be an available nurse's room, empty office or another available space.

According to Inclusion BC's 2013 report, this photo shows a seclusion room at New Westminster Secondary School. (Inclusion BC)

What's your own reaction to the fact that they exist in Canada? 

Specht: I was saddened when I first read the report [by Inclusion BC] in 2013 … In a bygone era perhaps we did not know better. We know better now and our institutions of learning should not participate in activities that we know are physically and psychologically harmful. 

Bennett: The existence of rooms like this pose a particularly disturbing problem for teachers. If you are in a school where one is built there is an unconscious or conscious support for its use. As educators the notion that dollars would be spent on such a thing must suggest to us that we should use it and that it must be of benefit to students. That is the real danger of these rooms. 

How prevalent is their use across Canada?

Sheila Bennett is a professor in teacher education at Brock University. (Brock University)
Mirenda: We don't know, as data collection and reporting requirements about its use are school-district specific in Canada.

But in July 2015, a report entitled How Safe is the Schoolhouse? found that seclusion was used at least 110,000 times in one school year in the United States, based on data collection is the states where this is a requirement. So, this is a common practice in most school districts, it would seem.

Bennett: In Canada the use of seclusion rooms would be specific to jurisdictions and individual school boards. Indeed schools themselves would vary in terms of school practices and usage. In Ontario, school boards that have isolation rooms are required to have plans in place for their use. 

Describe one you have encountered.

Bennett: I have seen more than one example. In the EU on an inclusive education research trip I saw a small house as part of a residential school for students with special needs with one boy who spent his days and nights alone there with centre staff. In Ontario, in the middle of a high school I also saw an isolation room. One of my colleagues was in tears just seeing that they still existed.

Mirenda: It was a small room, maybe five feet by six feet, with a padded mat on the floor and padded walls, and a locked door with a small Plexiglas window for observation. It was in a high school in B.C. in 2012, and was used specifically with a student with autism. 

When were they introduced and why are they used?

Mirenda: Seclusion rooms are not new; they have been around for years, probably as long as schools have existed … Ironically, they are often referred to as "calm down" rooms, although it is unlikely that a student will calm down when he or she is locked in a room and prevented from leaving it. 

What's the argument for banning seclusion rooms?

Pat Mirenda is an expert in special education at the University of British Columbia. (UBC)

Specht: They are not in keeping with the dignity of the human person. They tell students that they are bad people and need to be punished. The punishment destroys any attempt that has been made to develop a healthy relationship with that child. Punishment does not teach children more socially desirable behaviours. If a child could monitor and self-regulate, he/she would. Clearly children that escalate need teaching on what they can do to control their own behaviours.

Mirenda: They are not educative at all; at best, the student who is placed in seclusion might learn what not to do but they provide no supports designed to teach the student what to do. They are traumatizing, both for the student who is placed in such a room and for classmates who observe their friend being treated in this way and probably wonder if the same thing can happen to them. Finally, they are a violation of the student's right to autonomy and dignity as a human being.

What is the thinking among special needs experts about the alternatives to seclusion and isolation?

Specht: As social beings we need people. We need to belong … Much of the research in this area tells us that when schools implement programs that help children develop social and emotional regulation and the whole school is working together, children thrive. A healthy environment is key. 

What kind of support do teachers need in order to make that happen?

Jacqueline Specht is director of the Canadian Research Centre on Inclusive Education at Western University. (Western University)
Specht: Teachers need to believe that they are capable to teach all students, and given the support to work with students who have behavioural challenges in a positive rather than punitive manner. When the whole school has the same perspective and some expertise in implementing positive behaviour supports, all teachers can learn. 

Mirenda: Teachers need training in functional behaviour assessment and positive behaviour support, and they need ready access to a district- or board-level team with specific expertise in these procedures, for back up. 

In most cases, teachers place students in seclusion rooms out of desperation, when they don't know what else to do, so the real solution is to prevent behaviour from escalating to the point where seclusion is even on the radar screen — and we know how to do this.


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