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Isolation rooms in schools – When and how to use them for pupils with SEND

Abstract illustration showing several out-of-focus figures with one distinguished from the rest in the foreground, to convey concept of isolation

A mix of purposeful one-to-ones and careful differentiation can help children with SEND be fully included in lessons, says Helen Davies

Helen Davies
by Helen Davies
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There was a time when we used to see isolation rooms in schools as a last resort. In many an overcrowded classroom, pupils seen as ‘disruptive’, or who were known to struggle with controlling their behaviour would be quickly separated from their classmates and provided with extra help in a quieter learning environment.

Yet while this may have indeed been the most supportive action in some cases, in others, the young person concerned might well feel that the school was excluding them for actions beyond their control.

In and of itself, isolation isn’t necessarily a ‘negative’ option. In fact, you can usefully deploy it in a number of ways – as a key strategy in a reintegration process, for example. It can give pupils an opportunity to calm down, focus their behaviour and/or self-regulate in a safe space.

Some students with SEND can find larger classrooms environments overwhelming, particularly if they’re struggling to keep up or are dealing with other issues.

Building rapport

Yet while you can productively use isolation rooms in schools to improve outcomes, keeping young people away from their peers via prolonged isolation periods can have negative effects.

These include the creation of anxiety around social environments, as well as withdrawal symptoms or other issues that can negate their ability to engage with friends and family.

Teachers and teaching assistants should use periods in isolation rooms in schools to assess pupils’ needs and understand the reasons for their behaviour so that they can take appropriate action.

The teacher or TA firstly needs to build a rapport with the young person. This will enable them to communicate clearly, earn the young person’s acceptance and accurately convey the expectations they’re placing upon them.

It is important that you maintain physical space between the student and yourself, as this process can feel overwhelming for them.

When the student is back in class alongside their peers, circulate to support everyone, but also allow the student to use their own resources and not become dependent on your attention – perhaps by giving them tools such as ‘brain breaks’ and arranging sensory games with clear boundaries and expectations.

Observe how the young person is interacting with others. If there is low level disruption, such as pen tapping, are they making noises to help them focus?

Write things down to build up a picture of how you can best support the student – perhaps by recording and reporting their likes, dislikes, triggers and any other observations.

Seeing the patterns

We know of one situation in which a pupil was struggling in their interactions with others and was very overstimulated. His peers and staff often misunderstood him.

He had a tendency to display aggressive behaviours, sometimes flipping tables out of frustration at not being able to keep up with his classmates.

The TA’s priority was to build a good rapport with him, understand his boundaries and recognise his triggers. Together, they worked harmoniously to help him self-regulate – a vital learning tool – and adapted the topics being covered in his Y10 class to a more accessible Y7 level.

This enabled him to feel more included and better able to follow what his classmates were learning.

The TA also learned to recognise his patterns of behaviour. As breaktimes and lunchtimes drew near, he would often escalate his behaviours by way of a coping mechanism. This stemmed from his struggles to communicate with his peers.

To help address this, the TA also encouraged the student to play alongside his classmates using a combination of sharing, turn-taking and team games, especially football.

Setting boundaries

Isolating a young person can sometimes have an adverse effect by further escalating behaviours and crisis moments. In response, a TA could instead opt to sit with students at the back of the classroom. Here they’ll be better placed to quietly contain any disruptive behaviour and provide helpful additional support.

Some pupils with SEND may be bothered by noise levels, which can make for challenging re-integrations into the classroom. If that’s the case, think about the space and whether it’s fit for learning for everyone.

Making all pupils feel like part of the class, and facilitating social interactions between them and their classmates is vital. You don’t want those pupils experiencing difficulties to feel like outcasts.

Where possible, encourage social games and share talk about feelings and emotions. After all, not socialising and feeling excluded will only create further barriers to learning.

You want every young person to feel secure in their environment and – especially where those with SEND are concerned – develop self esteem and confidence in social settings, as well as in their academic learning.

Set boundaries early on with a praise and reward system, giving each individual quick wins that show progress. A visual timetable, setting out every day so that they know what activities and tasks they will be doing, can also greatly help a young person to self-regulate.

Progress and pride

PE lessons can be a great way of relieving stress and encouraging play and interaction between peers. If the young person has physical disabilities, set up games for them to play with their friends so that they feel included. Physical disabilities should never be a barrier to physical health and sport engagement.

Organise regular handovers with the young student’s parents/carers. Regularly update them on the reasonable and achievable targets you’ve set for their child. Wherever possible, help them to feel proud of the progress their child is making.

Also ask about their child’s behaviours at home. Is there anything that you need to be aware of that could impact upon their day?

Disruptive behaviour is often an expression of frustration at not being able to communicate what one is thinking and feeling. Using a PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) will support children who are non-verbal, or who have selective mute communication. This can help to keep them engaged.

It’s vital that we hear young people. For this reason, try to provide as many forms of alternative or visual communication as you can. Meanwhile, be mindful of any additional training that your SEND staff may require, such as British Sign Language signing.

Exploring the avenues

Tasks such as taking care of a pet or plant can engender a sense of responsibility in a child with SEND. At the same time it helps them better regulate their own emotions and feelings.

Baking can also be an absorbing way to engage a young person. They may well delight in eating something they’ve created themselves. They’ll then subsequently experience an enormous sense of pride in their work.

Above all, think of isolation rooms in schools as a support system rather than the end goal. You want the young person back in their classroom with the other pupils as quickly as possible. In some extreme cases, exclusion may be the only option to protect the teacher and classmates. But hopefully there are many other avenues you can explore first, before having to take this last resort.

The handover meeting agenda

  • A record of the pupil’s activity throughout the day, which could identify potential triggers
  • What has gone well? Did the lessons engage the pupil? If so, why?
  • Encourage parents/carers to communicate potential issues that may impact upon their child’s learning
  • Celebrate any achievements and progress, however small these may seem

Helen Davies is Northern Area Manager and head of SEND at the education recruitment specialist Simply Education; for more information, visit

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