Deborah Hill Cone
Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Never mind seclusion rooms. let's get rid of schools

Instead of making space for unusual people our schools favour children with a compliant temperament. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Instead of making space for unusual people our schools favour children with a compliant temperament. Photo / Brett Phibbs

I keep torturing myself by thinking of the child yelling "I'll be good, I'll be good" when locked in what is known as a seclusion room, a cell, at school, a place of learning. My heart. Breaking. You too?

Disclaimer: Yes Junior Freud, I'm conscious that I may be projecting my own unresolved childhood trauma onto others. I still get triggered by that unique scholastic stink of rotten banana, Jeyes fluid and urine. Hamilton West School, circa 1975, with our deranged teacher who looked a bit like a sadistic Michael Caine and had a strap he nicknamed Excalibur. Years later I heard he was given mental health treatment after getting into an argument with a mannequin in a shop window. But this week it was me shouting at an inanimate object when teacher Denise Torrey was on the radio talking about new guidelines for disruptive pupils. Time out rooms are "good practice": her words. As a former little shit, I respectfully disagree.

There is a significant body of research into attachment which shows when children feel overwhelmed by painful emotions what they need is connection not isolation. Certainly, this connection might be the scaffolding of a responsive adult recognizing they need to be alone, but in my experience time out is used more like a modern version of a dunce hat. Shall we at least be honest? Teachers use it because they are desperate, poorly resourced and the mainstream model of education is outdated rather than because it is the most helpful approach for children who are overwhelmed. But anyway since we are paying some private consultants to do an inquiry -what do all those full time bureaucrats in Bowen Street actually do? - here are my suggestions of a few other things they could change.

1. Mainstream school is not designed for the 15-20% of children who would be classified as Highly Sensitive Children. It's called HSC, and yes, it's a real thing. These are children with a nervous system that is highly aware and quick to react to everything. This makes them easily overwhelmed by high levels of stimulation, noise, sudden changes, and the emotional distress of others. True, some HSCs are fairly difficult-active, emotionally intense, demanding, and persistent, but they are also creative and empathetic. Yet in our mainstream school system these children are often shamed and classified as having "special needs" because they don't fit in to social norms. But given there are so many of them, that is so many of us, maybe it's time we demanded the school system changes, rather than trying to change ourselves?

In my experience time out is used more like a modern version of a dunce hat.

2. Schools have not changed since Victorian era in the way in which they reward compliance and chronic subservient behavior. The whole system is based on the idea of control. But an emerging body of research supports the notion that lasting change comes from being curious and mindful and self-compassionate, not controlling. In addition, even when children are able to conform, it often comes at a price. Many children learn to split off the unacceptable parts of themselves and put on a false self, as this seems to be the only way to be accepted or achieve. This fragmentation is hard to integrate in later life.

3. Schools kill creativity. Nobody knows what the world will look like in five years or ten years when our kids graduate , but it is certain we will need innovation and creative thinking to solve the problems facing the world. Educationist Sir Ken Robinson: "All kids have tremendous talents. And we squander them, pretty ruthlessly." As Sir Ken said in his TED talk, now watched 41 million times, if you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original. And by the time they get to be adults most kids have had that fearless capacity for innovation squashed out of them.

4. Could we recognise the school system as we know it is simply a construct? Bossy teachers who think they know best, may be unaware of their own biases. Social norms change: these days there are no more straps called Excalibur. But it is a tragedy that our school system still teaches smart, self-aware kids to take all their clarity and insight and use it against themselves. Instead of making space for unusual people our schools favour children with a certain kind of compliant temperament. Those of us who don't fit into the dominant mode of interaction are defined as "other". I sincerely believe in years to come we will look back on these dominating, antiquated ways of educating children and see them as child abuse. I'm relieved seclusion rooms have been banned. But I believe our mainstream school system still shames many students and it needs to stop. I will not forget that imprisoned child's words: "I'll be good. I'll be good." Please, let's change.

- NZ Herald

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