Restrictions which have made some schools ban teachers from hugging or touching children may soon be relaxed.

Teachers, principals and the Teaching Council are all proposing changes that would let teachers use physical force as soon as a child shows signs of being upset and threatening other children.

The current rules, introduced in August 2017 in response to Herald reports of children being locked alone in rooms, allow physical restraint only when the safety of others is "at serious and imminent risk".

Education Minister Chris Hipkins said last year that "the balance is not quite right". Sources say he is ready to put proposed changes to Cabinet in the next week or two.

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Schools have reported 5466 incidents of physical restraint under the new rules up to the end of last term - an average of 13 incidents every school day.

Tai Tokerau Principals' Association president Pat Newman said reporting each incident was "an absolutely ridiculous waste of time".

Pat Newman: Reporting 13 physical restraint incidents a day across NZ is
Pat Newman: Reporting 13 physical restraint incidents a day across NZ is "an absolutely ridiculous waste of time". Photo / File

Wellington's Berhampore School principal Mark Potter said some schools were "fearful of teachers having any physical contact with children at all" in case they broke the rules.

"We've even heard some schools are saying to teachers you are not allowed to give a child a hug," he said.

"What kind of society are we becoming when that is not allowed?

Mark Potter, pictured (right) in a lineup of teachers at an NZ Educational Institute conference, says some schools have banned hugging because of the restraint rules. Photo / File
Mark Potter, pictured (right) in a lineup of teachers at an NZ Educational Institute conference, says some schools have banned hugging because of the restraint rules. Photo / File

"Some have said no longer are you allowed to give a kid a hug but you can do a fist-bump.

"If you spend a lot of time studying the guidelines, that was an over-reaction, but the Teaching Council wants to clarify that."

READ MORE:
Rotorua principal calls for clearer guidelines around physical restraint
Pupils restrained by school staff 423 times in three months, OIA release shows
Weekend Herald editorial: Ridiculous rules against physical restraint must change
Whangārei principal Pat Newman says child restraint rules are 'PC gone mad'

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The Teaching Council, the professional body previously known as the Education Council, said this week it had proposed "some changes to the legislation that we believe will better align with the [Teachers'] Code expectation of promoting the wellbeing of all learners and protecting all from harm".

"Currently the legislation limits physical restraint to situations where there is a risk of serious and imminent harm, which has had the effect of deterring teachers from intervening before a situation gets serious," it said.

"We are proposing to enable teachers to intervene earlier and to consider the emotional and physical harm of all the learners, as expected in the Code."

Judith Nel says a principal is being
Judith Nel says a principal is being "dragged over the coals" because he took a child by the hand to take him to the office. Photo / File

Outgoing Special Education Principals' Association president Judith Nel said a primary school principal was facing a Teaching Council investigation for taking the arm of a child who was "acting out in a classroom and presenting a danger to himself and others".

"The principal took him by the arm in a very careful manner and walked him up towards the administrative area," she said.

"Unfortunately a member of the public saw the principal doing it and assumed wrongfully that the principal was being too rough with the child and mishandling him, so that poor principal has been dragged over the coals as a result."

Dr Andrea Schollmann, the Ministry of Education's deputy secretary of education system policy, confirmed to the Weekend Herald it was "working with Government and Teaching Council to offer teachers more clarity about these issues".

A decision on the best way forward was yet to be made.

"Until that process has been completed it would be inappropriate to comment further."

The 2017 law change defines "physical restraint" as "physical force to prevent, restrict or subdue the movement of the student's body or part of the student's body".

Guidelines issued at the same time state that teachers should avoid using physical restraint "to respond to verbal threats", "to stop a student who is trying to leave the classroom or school without permission", or "to stop a student who is damaging or removing property, unless there is a risk to safety".

The guidelines advise teachers to de-escalate a potentially dangerous situation by removing other students, "give the student physical space", and "wait".

Principals' Federation vice-president Perry Rush said the use of computers in most classrooms meant there was "potential for a student out of control to be causing many thousands of dollars worth of damage".

Heath McNeil says teachers can't guide young children to class if they cling to their parents in the morning. Photo / Supplied
Heath McNeil says teachers can't guide young children to class if they cling to their parents in the morning. Photo / Supplied

Auckland Primary Principals' Association president Heath McNeil said teachers felt unable to "guide" young children to class if they didn't want to leave their parents in the morning.

"What the current legislation has done is it's made people risk-averse, so they will talk to the parent and say, 'I can't help you,'" he said.

However, disability support groups have fought back against new law changes.

IHC advocacy director Trish Grant said the 2017 law "promoted the rights of disabled children to safety and protection" and many families would see any changes as "a real betrayal".

Parent lobby group VIPs - Equity in Education said in a July submission that the rules and guidelines wee "there to safeguard and protect the most vulnerable within our society".

Both groups said they would support "clarifying" the guidelines, particularly to give examples of when physical restraint could be used appropriately, but not changes to the law.