Editorial: Seclusion ban a step toward managing difficult pupils

How the Weekend Herald ran the story on seclusion rooms on November 3.
How the Weekend Herald ran the story on seclusion rooms on November 3.

It is unbelievable that a difficult child could be locked in a tiny cell at any New Zealand school nowadays, and gratifying that an investigation by the Herald's Kirsty Johnston has helped prompt the Government to announce the practice will be outlawed.

Whatever possessed Wellington's Miramar Central School to allow troublesome children to be put in a cell no bigger than a cupboard cannot be imagined. Nor can the behaviour that would cause teachers to resort to such measures.

"Seclusion" probably tells us more about the problems some children present in the classroom these days than about the character of teachers driven to unacceptable lengths. Education Minister Hekia Parata has announced the ban as part of guidelines for schools to minimise physical restraint in behaviour management. Under the guidelines it will be unlawful in a school or pre-school environment to lock a child in any room alone. This should hardly need to be said.

The minister says of seclusion, "While once this practice was accepted in the 80s and 90s, it no longer is". Parents whose children were at school in those decades will be surprised to hear that.

Locking pupils alone in a room, let alone a cupboard, was not a practice people of that era remember. It may well be a measure of more recent vintage and thanks to the complaint of a mother of an 11-year-old shut in the cell at Miramar Central (school, not police station) it has been abandoned.

Our investigation found the boy had been shut in that confined space 13 times in nine days, and children as young as 6 had been placed in there. Last month, the Ombudsman began an investigation and the Ministry of Education apologised to the parents and its minister for what had happened. Nothing has been heard from the school.

The newly issued guidelines forbid "seclusion" and permit "time out", which means a child voluntarily goes to be alone in a room they can leave at any time. But if a disruptive child refuses to go voluntarily it should be lawful for the teacher to insist they go and stay there against their will so long as they are supervised there by a teacher or teacher aid. That might not be the ideal solution in the view of parents of an autistic or troubled child but the education of the rest of the class is important.

To avoid any form of physical restraint the new guidelines offer "de-escalation" techniques. These involve asking other students to take their work and move away, giving the angry student physical space, naming their emotion in a calm voice, "You look really angry", talking quietly, remaining respectful and allowing the student to move out of the situation with dignity.

It is also important to ask about what the rest of the class is doing. The guidelines are admirable as far as they go. And with teacher aids and team teaching in use these days, it should be possible to handle these incidents without ignoring the other students.

But there will be instances when unacceptable behaviour requires the child's removal for a period and schools should be allowed to provide supervised, proper places for that to be done.

- NZ Herald

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