Parents and Teachers

Understanding When and How Isolation and Restraint Can Be Used in Schools

The use of isolation and restraint in the school system is a highly controversial practice. These methods are intended to be a last resort and can only be used in certain scenarios. This is a tricky subject for parents, teachers, and educators because there aren’t any federal laws governing the use of isolation and restraint—each state has its own rules and regulations.

According to a recent study conducted by the US Government Accountability Office, students with disabilities and specifically males are disproportionately affected by isolation and restraint techniques in schools. This can be concerning for parents, especially those who have children in special education. 

This guide is perfect for parents and educators alike. As a parent, the information in this resource will help you better understand your child’s rights and what you can do to ensure their safety. As a teacher, paraprofessional, or school employee, you’ll learn more about what you can and cannot do in certain scenarios. This post also contains all of the recommendations from the US Department of Education and their stance on isolation and restraint. I’ve even included some preventative measures and alternative options to consider before resorting to isolation or restraint.

Everything You Need To Know About Isolation and Restraint in Schools

  • Isolation and Restraint Explained
  • When Can Isolation and Restraint Be Used in Schools?
  • Recommendations from the US Department of Education
  • How To Avoid Isolation and Restraint: Alternative Options and Strategies

Isolation and Restraint Explained

Before we continue, I want to make sure you have a clear understanding of these terms. 

  • Isolation — Restricting a child’s movement by placing them alone in a room or any other form of enclosure. This is considered involuntary confinement, in which the child is physically prevented from leaving the enclosure. 
  • Restraint — Physical intervention or force applied to control a student. Any physical action that immobilizes the student or reduces their ability to move their arms, legs, torso, or head freely would fall into this category.

There are actually two different categories of restraints—physical and mechanical.

For example, if a teacher or school resource officer held a student’s arms back to control their position to prevent them from causing harm to a classmate, it would fall into the physical category. But if they were to use a device or piece of equipment to get the same result, it would fall into the mechanical category. 

Each state has its own laws governing the use of restraints. But the US Department of Education’s guidelines say that a mechanical restraint should never be used (we’ll talk more about these guidelines in greater detail shortly). 

It’s also worth noting that there are certain exceptions to these rules that wouldn’t be considered isolation or restraint.

For example, a “timeout” is not considered to be an isolation technique as long as the student is being monitored in an unlocked setting. 

Placing your hand on a child’s back or holding their hand while you escort them to a safe location is known as a “physical escort.” This isn’t considered to be a restraint. The use of seatbelts for vehicle safety or adaptive devices to help a child achieve proper body alignments wouldn’t fall into the restraint category either, as long as these mechanisms are being used for their intended purpose.

When Can Isolation and Restraint Be Used in Schools?

Isolation and restraint techniques should only be used in an emergency situation and considered to be the last resort

Teachers, paraprofessionals, school resource officers, and other educators should only consider these techniques if a child is showing signs of imminent likelihood to cause serious physical harm to themselves or others

The exact rules vary by state, school, and local mandates. But here are some common scenarios where isolation and restraint may be used:

  • If the student is in possession of a weapon or dangerous object with intent to use the object as a weapon
  • In an effort to stop a fight, prevent a fight, or maintain order
  • To prevent property destruction
  • To prevent injuries to the student or others

Even in these scenarios, all other de-escalation techniques and preventative measures should be exhausted before isolation or restraint is applied.  

Recommendations From the US Department of Education

As previously mentioned, there aren’t any nationwide laws that govern how isolation and restraint can be used in schools. But the US Department of Education has worked with SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services) to create an official resource document on restraint and seclusion

The organizations came up with 15 principles that states, school districts, localities, parents, and educators should use as guidance when considering the use of restraint and isolation. 

Here’s a quick summary of those principles and recommendations:

  • All efforts must be made to avoid and prevent the use of isolation and restraint.
  • Mechanical restraints should never be used to restrict a student’s freedom of movement. Schools should not use medication or drugs to restrict a child’s movement unless they’ve been authorized by a qualified health professional. 
  • Restraint and isolation should never be used unless there’s a situation where a student poses an imminent danger of serious harm to themselves or others. If other interventions are ineffective, then these practices could be used as a last result. Restraint or isolation should be stopped as soon as the imminent danger to cause harm has passed.
  • School or state isolation and restraint policies should apply to all students—not just children in special education. 
  • Behavioral interventions must be applied consistently. The student’s rights must be taken into consideration and treated with dignity. These interventions should be free from abuse.
  • These practices should never be used as a form of discipline, punishment, means of retaliation, coercion, or convenience. 
  • Isolation and restraint techniques should never be used in a way that harms the student or restricts their breathing. 
  • The use of isolation and restraint should trigger a review and address strategies to help avoid dangerous behavior in the school system. This is especially true if there have been repeated instances with the same child or repeated instances with multiple students in the same classroom. Schools should develop positive behavior strategies if they haven’t done so already.
  • Any behavioral strategies designed to address a child displaying dangerous behavior in the classroom should look for the underlying cause of these dangerous behaviors. 
  • Teachers and other school personnel should go through regular training on appropriate alternatives to physical restraint and isolation. They should also be trained on safe ways to apply isolation and restraint that won’t cause any immediate or long-term harm to the child.
  • Every instance of isolation and restraint being used should be carefully and continuously monitored to ensure the actions are safe and appropriate for the child and everyone else involved. 
  • All parents should be informed of the policies surrounding isolation in restraint in their child’s educational setting. These policies should include any applicable state, local, or federal laws. 
  • Parents should be notified as quickly as possible whenever an instance of isolation or restraint is used on their child. 
  • All policies and rules related to isolation and restraint should be reviewed on a regular basis and updated when appropriate. 
  • Every incident involving isolation and restraint should be formally documented in writing in a way that can be used for data collection. This will help teachers and educators better understand these scenarios so they can ultimately improve the way these 15 principles are implemented. 

Again, these are not federal laws. Schools and localities may also decide to exceed the recommendations above by adding extra protection to the policies.

How To Avoid Isolation and Restraint: Alternative Options and Strategies

There are other ways that you can deal with potentially dangerous behavior before you consider isolation or restraint. Here’s what you can do instead:

  • Use the IEP process to create a proactive Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP)
  • Try to keep isolation and restraint techniques out of the BIP, and use positive behavior practices instead
  • Develop a crisis plan for student behavior that should be applied in case of emergencies
  • Make sure you’re fully educated and aware of the isolation and restraint policies in the school and state where you work
  • Introduce your students to the school resource officer before an emergency or confrontation occurs
  • Make sure your students know how to appropriately respond to law enforcement, resource officers, or authority
  • Conduct a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) to understand the underlying reasons behind certain actions or behaviors
  • Use Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) as a way to teach and reinforce positive and appropriate behavior in the classroom

Conclusion

If a child is posing an imminent threat to cause serious physical harm to themselves or to others, the use of isolation and restraint may be necessary. But with that said, these techniques should only be used as a last resort and in an emergency scenario. Every other method to de-escalate the situation should be exhausted before you consider physically restraining a student or placing them into a space where they’re involuntarily confined. 

As a parent, you should request more information about the rules and policies involving isolation and restraint in your child’s educational setting. For teachers and educators, I urge you to apply the strategies that I mentioned in the last section of this guide before you resort to an isolation or restraint technique.

Leave me a comment below or shoot me an email! I’m here to help!

About the author

Emily Cummings

I am a mom of two crazy, amazing, independent, little feminists. They bring so much light to my life and a lot less sleep. Since becoming a mother and increasingly in the last year, I have witnessed parents struggling to connect with their child's special education team with no success. I have become more aware of the gaps in our public school system and how parents may benefit from empowerment and advocacy tools.

My work experiences range from a juvenile detention center to an autism specialist in the Issaquah School District and a special education teacher in a self-contained program in the Lake Washington School District. My master's in teaching focused on special education and behavioral disorders from Seattle Pacific University. I completed my BCBA coursework from Montana State University.

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