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Student behaviour and restraint – “No teacher puts their hands on a child because they want to”

Paul Dix highlights the complex issues surrounding considerations of when staff should restrain pupils and when they should hold back

  • Student behaviour and restraint – “No teacher puts their hands on a child because they want to”

Restraint is one of the most risky interventions any adult will make – risky in terms of physical safety and also in terms of your career.

Decisions made in an instant can play out in lengthy disciplinary investigations and even in court. We can learn a great deal about proportionality from the decisions made around restraint.

Let’s start with the extreme end of the scale. If someone is attacking you with a knife, it might be proportionate to defend yourself with a rolling pin. However, if it was a child with a knife made from chocolate, then a rolling pin would be a drastic overreaction.

Stopping a child from running into a busy road by holding their shoulders might be proportionate, but shaking them by the shoulders because they haven’t done their homework is less proportionate reaction and more assault.

Volatile environments

Restraint can result in serious complications if pupils are bent over, held face down or sat on. It can quickly become life or death. Just try doing up your shoelaces and holding a conversation to experience the feeling of a constricted airway. Now add in the chaos of a crisis situation and being forced to hold that position for five minutes.

Following the tragic deaths in youth custody of Gareth Myatt and Adam Rickwood, I worked on the Restraint Accreditation Board to look at the use of restraint and pain compliance techniques on young people in custody.

Drafted in for my understanding of behaviour rather than restraint, I learned a great deal about the bravery of prison officers, the unique culture of prisons and the difficulty of keeping both inmates and officers safe in an often volatile environment. It is really, really hard.

Three words that must be acted upon during a restraint are ‘I can’t breathe’. Whatever your training, when you hear those words – whatever the context – you must release your hold and ensure that everyone else does too. The death of George Floyd is yet another example of how rotten cultures erode training or best practice. ‘You are talking so you must be breathing’ is a haunting falsehood that is repeated too often.

Restraint and additional needs

No teacher puts their hands on a child because they want to. Restraint is never a punishment, surely – and yet recent revelations from special schools and other settings regarding restraint and seclusion show us that complacency is a dangerous mindset.

Restraint is a huge issue in special education settings where children may have serious health issues. Not only is there a greater risk of restraint or seclusion being subtle or hidden, but also more scope for abuse – locking the wheels of a chair, leaving a door handle out of reach, facing a child against the wall, positioning a table so the child’s arms are trapped beneath it, and plain old locking children in a room half the size of a prison cell.

Alongside the restraint that goes undiscovered, there are also the endless stories of children being restrained for five hours at a time in a children’s home. The stories keep coming, despite legislation, training and political campaigns. Even, and at times especially, in settings where the power is most unbalanced, the greatest abuses go unreported or unnoticed.

According to a 2019 report produced by the Challenging Behaviour Foundation and Positive and Active Behaviour Support Scotland, ‘Reducing Restrictive Intervention of Children and Young People’, significant numbers of pupils within both mainstream and special school settings were at risk of restraint and seclusion.

Some 88% of 204 surveyed respondents said that their disabled child had experienced physical restraint, with 35% reporting it happening regularly.

Real nuance

Restraint is about safeguarding and needs to be placed firmly within that culture and context. You should only ever put your hands on a child to keep them safe. Restraint does not sit within behaviour practice. It is not at the end of the punishment road, or the next step in a disciplinary policy.

Of course, judgements made in the blink of an eye can have long-term consequences, but doing nothing may not be an option. However, proportionality is again relevant. Restraint causes genuine internal conflict. I love the idea that no teacher would ever have to restrain a child again, but neither will I stand by and watch a child getting beaten up, or a teacher being attacked for a principle. I have been on the inside of too many of these horrible moments to make grand pronouncements about restraint.

There is real nuance here, and real complications, because intervening too late can result in escalation. I was once in a school where staff were trying to talk down a student in the middle of a violent incident, but they were still talking when they needed to act.

The student ended up barricaded in a store cupboard, trashing every resource they could get their hands on with the police on their way. Intervening too quickly can also have its difficulties. You might appear to be overzealous, too fast to put your hands on a student or too rash. You are between a rocky rock and a very hard place.

Three holds

All the evidence around the impact of physical restraint training shows that the holds you have learned, if not used regularly, are all but forgotten within three months and would be dangerous if applied incorrectly.

Of course, that is not a great message to give to those buying in training – it makes refresher courses an expensive business. The converse is not great either. The worry is that newly trained colleagues go out and find any excuse to ‘practise’ on unsuspecting children: ‘Mr Harris, Mr Harris, I only asked for a pen – those leg straps are proper overkill…’ Incidents of restraint often increase in the week after a training course.

‘Three simple holds’ gives those who volunteer to deal with restraint incidents the best chance of staying safe. In a special school setting it might be that everyone needs to be trained in physical holds, while in a mainstream school it is more sensible to have a small group trained to a high standard rather than everyone trained a bit.

Some courses teach more than 30 different holds. By the end of the training I have forgotten most of them, and by the following morning I am probably unsafe. Keeping it simple might mean not using hold number 23 for situation number 6, but you were never going to remember that anyway.

Three holds executed consistently and safely are all that is needed. It means that training has the best chance of being implemented accurately.

Of course, the problem with even just three holds is that they rely on physical strength and ability. This is not something that any company selling training will want to admit readily, but it is the inconvenient truth – regardless of the veracity of the techniques.

You might be trained to the highest restraint ninja master level, but if you are five foot two and 10 stone in weight, and the 15-year-old you are trying to restrain is six foot two and 17 stone, it isn’t going to fly. The reality of working in settings where young people are severely traumatised and/or living a deeply violent existence is that when the fighting starts, being fit, strong and built like a small truck can really help.

It is no coincidence that in nearly every school for excluded children there are some physically dominant adults. Experience also helps, but keeping everyone safe often means doing everything you can to bring the violence to an abrupt halt.

‘Rarely restrain’

A focus on reducing restraint is a healthy course for any setting. ‘Rarely restrain’ is surely a more reasonable objective in the most fractious settings than restraint elimination – unless someone can explain how releasing your hold on a furious six foot 15-year-old who is about to rip another student apart is the right choice to make.

There are victims, and without adults keeping them safe they are not safe. However, the data is often skewed. One or two children in crisis can cause a spike in restraint that doesn’t represent normal practice.

The data that is perhaps more concerning is a regular and normalised high number of restraints that pass through a governors’ meeting without a raised eyebrow because they are always ‘around that number’.

Paul Dix is a teacher, leader and teacher trainer specialising in difficult behaviour; this article is an edited extract from his book After The Adults Change – Achievable behaviour nirvana (Independent Thinking Press, £16.99); for more information visit whentheadultschange.com or follow @pauldixtweets

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