Preventing Seclusion And Restraint In Schools

No school should ever have the right to seclude or restrain children

Recently our school division developed a policy on seclusion and restraint. Policy is a very generous term for this two-page document with very little substance.

Despite the wealth of research and information available to guide these types of policies, it appears our division did little to no research prior to adding this document to its policies and procedures.

It reads like it was just thrown together late one night, perhaps in order to meet a deadline prior to a board meeting. I don’t know, because parents were neither consulted nor informed of this policy being added to our children’s educational environment. I found out through the grapevine, as it were.

Here’s a snippet (it was quite easy to put most of the document into one image because of how little content there is).

Created by author — screenshots from division’s website — (highlighting & red font are my own flourishes)

As the parent of a twice exceptional child with ADHD, and advocate for children with disabilities, I have grave concerns.

Marginalized students are at greater risk

A 2020 U.S. study showed that students with disabilities were 200% more likely to be subject to restraint or seclusion relative to their peers, and Black students were almost 200% more likely to experience a restraint or seclusion than their White counterparts.

Certainly there are differences between Canadian and American schools, but there is no disputing the prevalence of prejudice, ableism, and racism in Canadian schools.

Right here in Manitoba, three teachers at three different public high schools were caught using the N-word in class, and that was just in the 2021–2022 school year. One teacher was placed on leave pending investigation, and the other two were substitute teachers.

The Niverville substitute teacher was also placed on leave, and the other teacher’s discipline (if any) was not made public.

In April of 2020 University of Manitoba professor, Dr. Nadine Bartlett, published a report called Behind Closed Doors. Dr. Bartlett surveyed parents of children with disabilities in Manitoba about their experiences with seclusion and restraint in Manitoba schools.

I will summarize some of the troubling information uncovered:

  • The majority of parents were not informed when their child had been secluded or restrained at school, and most did not receive written documentation about the incidents.
  • Parents were not asked to give consent to seclusion and restraint in advance, nor during school meetings.
  • Parents raised concerns when their children’s schools, and the majority were not satisfied with the schools’ responses.
  • Children with disabilities, in particular Autistic students, were disproportionately restrained and secluded at school.
  • Physical restraint and seclusion have let to long-term psychological problems such as fear, anxiety, and impaired trust.

It creates an unsafe environment for children

If students can be restrained or secluded at the judgement of school staff, this judgement will inevitably be inconsistent because we’re all human.

Often different staff members support students, and even if it’s always the same person with a child, they are human beings. Like all of us, school staff are susceptible to their behaviour being influenced by emotions and personal biases.

Once students have seen someone restrained or secluded, or a child has themselves endured this traumatic experience, they will be hypervigilant and on edge from that moment forward, fearful of when this might happen again.

“Seclusion and restraint only perpetuate a lack of safety.” — Alex Shevrin Venet
Image created by author — (quote by Alex Shevrin Venet)

It creates an unsafe environment for staff

When children feel unsafe at school, they will communicate this through their behaviours.

The mistrust, fear, and anxiety caused by seclusion and restraint will increase acting out and aggressive behaviours because students will experience signifiant stress.

This often leads to increased aggressive incidents, putting staff and other children at greater risk. Those incidents result in further restraint and seclusion, compounding the trauma, and the cycle is perpetuated.

Seclusion and restraint create an untenable cycle, wherein children are cued by danger in school, causing them to go into survival mode, resulting in physical aggression.
Image created by author — (quote adapted from work by Alex Shevrin Venet)

Schools need way more resources

Children have the right to be safe at school, and so do staff members and volunteers. Everyone deserves to feel safe and welcome in their school community.

When a student’s behaviour is challenging, even dangerous, it is incredibly stressful (and sometimes scary) for everyone, including that child.

Please don’t think I’m sitting on the sidelines criticizing school staff for wanting and needing a safe working environment, and a way to defend themselves in the worst-case scenarios.

I have supported children with many diverse needs, including in residential treatment (group homes), where I have been exposed to — and victim of — aggressive behaviours by children and adolescents.

We were poorly supported then, and school staff are poorly supported now. It’s an age-old problem that no government seems willing to meaningfully address.

Underfunded schools

What continues to happen is this. Provincial governments cut as many corners as possible, in order to keep taxes down, to keep their constituents happy. Schools are given less and less money, while being expected to do more and more every year.

Some of the first things to go during budget cuts are extra-curricular activities for students, professional development for staff, and funding for support staff (i.e. EAs, guidance counsellors, school psychologists, and resource teachers).

Extra-curricular activities and unstructured play are essential for children, improving in-class focus and behaviours, as well as mood (and fun, remember fun?).

Professional development and in-depth training are a key factor in reducing concerning behaviours in schools, and therefore reducing the use of restraint and seclusion. Evidence has shown that when staff are well-trained in relationship-based education and de-escalation strategies, the use of seclusion and restraint is significantly reduced.

Skilled support staff are essential

I’ve written previously about the glaring deficits in our public education funding models. One important issue is the fact that educational assistants (EAs) and other support staff are highly under-valued, under-qualified, and underpaid.

The most vulnerable students are usually paired with EAs, and in our rural divisions, that frequently means people with little to no experience, qualifications, or training. Our schools are stuck because our provincial government does not provide proper funding, so EAs are thus underpaid.

We can’t expect qualified, well-trained people to take on a position with a lot of stress, personal risk, and responsibility for $16/hr. when they can drive 20–30 minutes into the city to do the same job for $24/hr. People have their own families to support, and the cost-of-living is steadily increasing.

School staff need intensive training in relationship-based education, de-escalation strategies, and providing trauma-informed care for students. I’m not talking about a single P.D. workshop, or even a 2-day weekend conference. I mean ongoing, meaningful, long-term education, as well as on-the-job guidance and training.

School staff need and deserve to be treated as professionals, and therefore trained and paid as professionals. This also means proper enforcement of expectations, minimum qualifications, and accountability on par with other professions.

Children need more support, not punishment

Although it is distressing for all involved when a child behaves aggressively toward another person, we must keep things in perspective. Children, by definition, have an underdeveloped neurology, and children with disabilities often lag behind their peers in executive functions such as impulse control.

One of the first things that happens when we experience extreme stress or trauma is our executive functioning capabilities decrease significantly.

Image created by author — (adapted from Perry & Winfrey, 2021)

I acknowledge there must be seclusion and restraint policies in place to protect students, guide staff, and inform parents. These policies must outline very concretely, specifically, and with as much detail as possible, the extremely limited occasions in which restraint would be necessary.

That is, in a serious emergency in which it is the only available option for protecting oneself or another person. If there is an option to move away, to move other people away, to redirect or offer support, those must all be tried first.

More importantly, the priority should be provision of staff training and support which facilitates developing positive relationships with students. Funding must be provided to allow staff to develop skills and strategies for avoiding power struggles, reducing conflict, and engaging in de-escalation techniques when needed.

Meeting children’s needs for safety, security, connectedness, and a sense of belonging are the first steps to preventing challenging behaviours from occurring in the first place. Treating children like people deserving of autonomy and basic respect seems like a good place to start.

So let’s start there.

© Jillian Enright, Neurodiversity MB

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Bartlett, N., & Ellis, T. F. (2020). Interrogating Sanctioned Violence: A Survey of Parents/Guardians of Children with Disabilities about Restraint and Seclusion in Manitoba’s Schools. Canadian Journal of Disability Studies, 9(5), 122–155.

Bartlett, N. & Ellis, T. F. (2021). Physical Restraint, Seclusion, and Time-Out Rooms in Canadian Schools: Analysis of a Policy Patchwork. Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy / Revue canadienne en administration et politique de l’éducation,(195), 31–48.

Couvillon, M., Kane, E., Peterson, R., Ryan, J., & Scheuermann, B. (2019). Policy and program considerations for choosing crisis intervention programs. Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 30(1), 35–45.

Inclusion Alberta. (2018). Use of seclusion and restraints in schools September 2018 survey summary results.

Inclusion BC. (2017). Stop hurting kids II: Restraint and seclusion in BC schools-Survey results and recommendations.

Katsiyannis, A., Gage, N.A., Rapa, L.J., MacSuga-Gage, A.S. (2020). Exploring the Disproportionate Use of Restraint and Seclusion Among Students with Disabilities, Boys, and Students of Color. Advances in Neurodevelopmental Disorders 4, 271–278.

McCarthy, T. (2018). Regulating restraint and seclusion in Australian government schools: A comparative human rights analysis. QUT Law Review, 18, 194–228.

Perry, B. & Winfrey, O. (2021). What Happened To You? Conversations on trauma, resilience, and healing. Melcher Media Inc.

Van Der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps Score: Brain, mind, ad body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.

Venet, A. S. (2021). Equity-Centred, Trauma-Informed Education. W. W. Norton & Co.

Westling, D. L., Trader, B. R., Smith, C. A., & Marshall, D. S. (2010). Use of restraints, seclusion, and aversive procedures on students with disabilities. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 35, 116–127.

Published by Neurodiversity MB

Jillian has Child and Youth Work diploma as well as a BA in Psychology. Jillian worked on the front lines of Social Services agencies from 2003 - 2012. Jillian has taken numerous continuing education courses and has attended various workshops focused on supporting neurodiverse children, in particular children with ADHD.

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