There are many children whose behaviour perpetually communicates an unmet need. All too often it is wrongly interpreted as simple defiance. Children who are screaming for help can find themselves in an ever increasing cycle of punishment.

As their options become seemingly limited, schools scream for help, too, only to find that their external support services are now reduced to a phone perpetually ringing in an empty office. It may be desperation, or perhaps part of the frantic search for ‘solutions’, but schools are coming up with increasingly perverse ways to punish SEND children.


A room with ‘isolation booths’ is the bleakest sign of a school giving up. It shouts ‘WE DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO’ at children who often don’t know what they’ve done.

Look inside any ‘inclusion room’ where children are separated for long periods of time from the rest of the school.

I would bet good money that more than 80% of the children in there have additional needs. Some will have a diagnosed SEND, while others will be struggling with hidden needs that are all too obvious to those who work with them everyday – trauma, anxiety, attachment, grief or plain old fashioned neglect. The sins of the adult world are soaked up by a minority of children. We then stick them in a booth and call it ‘educating’. The booths are a shame on all of us, not on the children who sit in them.

Children are being incarcerated in schools in a way that would be illegal in a custodial setting. You might be interested to know that even in a secure training centre where young people have been sentenced for terrible crimes, there is a limit of just three hours for isolation.

In an open classroom, a small low-folding screen can help children with sensory issues deal with sensory overload and personal space issues. Children who struggle to integrate should be helped to integrate; not removed to isolation, even if they seem to be happier there. Teachers who put students in isolation because they ‘prefer it to the classroom’ need to look instead at how they can make the classroom environment kinder and more inclusive to those children.

Intense in tents

Have you heard of children with autism being put in tents erected in classrooms? Yes, you read that correctly. I was shocked too, but it is more common than I thought. Routine segregation of children within a school is not ‘inclusion’. It is a cruel separation, laced with high risks. A classroom with a tent is not an inclusive classroom. The tent is just an isolation booth moved to a more convenient space.

Can you imagine trying to extract a child from the tent who didn’t want to come out? The safeguarding issues with having an adult and child alone in the tent, and the message that sends to the rest of the children? These tents are polyester palaces with ‘Different’ above the door, yet the practice is spreading unchecked.

Whom is a tent really for? The child inside or the 29 outside? What does this teach children? Schools build society; we should be slower to segregate, and cautious about products that promise easy answers.

Tutting Chairs

Putting children on chairs the corridors, outside the staff room or by the head’s office is humiliation dressed up as inclusion. Again, the clock is rarely recording the time spent on such punishments, which are often for crimes of movement in lessons. Children who find it difficult to control the urge to wriggle can find themselves welded to the chair at play time.

Now, no adult will have been asked or trained to do this, but every adult who passes the tutting chair goes through the same routine. They catch the child’s eye, raise their eyebrows and perhaps tilt their head in a ‘What on earth are you doing there?’ way. They will then walk past in silence, giving it the full nutty ‘tut tut’ . It is a pantomime of humiliation that has a counteractive effect.

Most children sitting on the chair will feel a perverse sense of importance. Everyone knows their name and their status.

Smaller children will run to them in quiet moments to enquire with wide eyes, ‘What have you dooooooooone?’ The tutting chair follows a Victorian idea that bad children should be displayed for all to see. We used to put children who couldn’t read and write in the corner with a dunce’s hat on. Now we put them on show in the vain hope that they might feel some genuine shame.

They won’t, aside from their performed response. If children need to stay in at play, why would any other child need to be able to see them?

What works

Limiting separation
Sometimes children have to be separated, but the key is to monitor and record the duration of this, every time. Without time limits, a short walk to cool down can turn into a leisurely stroll. Two minutes on the ‘thinking spot’ can slip to 10, and a ‘Leave him, he’s happy’ attitude can easily end up wasting hours a week.

Consistent understanding
Build a consistent understanding between all adults that children who present challenging behaviours are not defined by their behaviour. Foster a determination to separate the child from their behaviour and deliberately teach new routines. Teach all adults that recovery time after a period of crisis is, on average, 40 minutes.

Highlight the diminishing returns of anger and punishment. Did you know, for instance, that each time a child recovers from a full of loss of control, it gets harder for the child to compose themselves?

Training your own learning mentors
Develop your TAs, LSAs, governors, parents, or perhaps even older children as learning mentors, and make sure each child has a mentor to work with. A mentor should be someone with no connection to sanctions or managing behaviour incidents, but a trusted person for the child to lean on.

Explaining that what goes around, comes around
Refocus on natural consequences, including restorative conversations, reparation and ‘paying back’. Hold a mirror up to the child’s behaviour. Sit and play with LEGO, or talk to them while walking, gardening, cleaning or sorting. Take the focus off the conversation and allow time for pauses and silence. Talk through the incident and reflect on who has been affected. Use behaviour incidents as teaching moments and an opportunity to teach new responses.

Therapeutic support
Develop your school’s capacity to deliver therapeutic interventions and focused programmes within schools and across clusters. Get properly trained – don’t just rely on worksheets and hope. LEGO therapy is a great place to start, but find out what fits the needs of your children and devise a way of funding it.

Safe spaces
Establish a safe space for children who need a more nurturing environment at playtime and lunch. Make sure there is somewhere for them to go, with someone who has time for them. Too often, the children who struggle most at playtime end up stood at the side of the yard, staring at a wall.

After all, an outstanding school is a school that can succeed with all learners – not just the compliant ones.

Find out more

The Pivotal Curriculum is a licensed trainer scheme that allows every school to deliver Pivotal Behaviour, Mental Health and Inclusion Training. Find out more on Join the discussion with Paul on @PivotalPaul.

Paul Dix is a behavioural specialist and CEO of the education consultancy, Pivotal Education; he is also co-host of the weekly Pivotal Podcast, details of which can be found at