Reducing restraint


Tough approaches like zero tolerance and seclusion don’t work, says Ben Higgins. We need a more person-centred and trauma-informed approach in education.

For most children and their families, schools are safe, welcoming places, playing a central role in child development. However, for some children, particularly those with additional needs, inappropriate over-reliance on restrictive practices used to maintain ‘good order’ (as per the national guidelines) can make attending school a traumatic experience. Restraint is a reactive response to manage distress. There is growing recognition across sectors that restraint is a failure of person-centred care, including from the health and social care regulator CQC. By adopting a more trauma-informed and less punitive approach, many schools are making necessary adjustments to meet children’s needs, preventing them from becoming distressed in the first place.

On rare occasions, restraint may be necessary to prevent immediate and significant harm, but it is essential we recognise that all forms of restrictive practice can and do result in harm. The distressing experience of being restrained can have broad, long-lasting impacts for children and young people, their peers and their families, and can take an emotional toll on teachers and staff too. Whether it’s an environmental, mechanical or physical approach, a hold, a restraint chair or solitary confinement (euphemised as ‘time out’), restrictive practices are usually justified as being for the child’s protection.

Disturbingly, the level of harm is widespread. The Restraint Reduction Network (RRN) is aware of more than five hundred children across the UK who have been physically and psychologically harmed through the inappropriate use of restrictive practices in schools in the last year (ICARS, Restraint and Seclusion in England’s Schools, 2023). Disproportionately prominent in this figure are children with learning disabilities and autistic children—those whose needs are often not met or for whom the necessary reasonable adjustments have not been made.

Deirdre Shakespeare knows first-hand the impact restraint can have on a child: “Our son was just 6 when we made the grim discovery that he was subjected to multiple types of restraint in school. Harry became distant and detached, he would cower with fear when he was approached, he suffered panic attacks, terrified of the dark, he would scream and cry while hyperventilating with fear.”

It’s essentially about protecting pupils’ human rights. Restraint can only be justified when there is imminent and significant risk to a child or staff member from not doing so. It is also vital the restraint is proportionate and in the person’s best interests so the risk of harm of not restraining, outweighs the risk of harm of restraining. However current guidance around the use of restraint in England (ie, “to maintain good order and discipline”) unintentionally sanctions substantial harm to children and young people. Indeed, what some educators have come to see as a standard behaviour management tool has the power to cause severe, long-lasting trauma, failing to meet the test of being lawful, justified, proportionate, and least restrictive and therefore breach children’s human rights.

Lessons can be learned from adult health and social care. There has been significant progress in recent years including the introduction of the Use of Force Act, and NHS-commissioned services for people with learning disabilities, autism and mental health conditions now having to record, report and publish data about restraint. With the requirement to only use training that includes restrictive practices that have been certified as meeting the RRN training standards, great strides have been made. However, while this is a requirement of NHS-contracted services and an expectation of CQC regulated services in England, they are not required in education. There is better protection for adults in health and social care than there is for children in our schools. This surely cannot be right.

The devolved nations of the UK recognise the threat restraint poses to children’s fundamental human rights—including its capacity to undermine dignity, permit abuse and, in severe cases, end lives. The devolved nations are building momentum and progress to reform the status quo, by embedding stronger protections for children. Scotland is leading the way in promoting best practice, seeking to reduce the use of restraint in schools, with new guidance being published. Northern Ireland’s Department of Education recently reviewed the use of restraint and seclusion in schools, making recommendations for change including repealing an outdated legal article which permits the use of force, restraint and seclusion to maintain good order and discipline. Legislators in Wales are reducing restrictive practices with a framework applying to health, social care, childcare and education. We must ensure this also happens in England.

The Equalities and Human Rights Commission report states ‘teachers want national definitions of restraint, national training standards and better guidance on restraint, including how to avoid its use’. It can be difficult for teachers to make best-interest decisions, especially when current guidance is out of date. The Department for Education has committed to updating it, but they have not committed to a timescale for doing so. While we wait, the RRN is developing version 2 of the Training Standards, which will be tailored to different sectors, nations and populations including children and schools. These will also implement recommendations from an independent review by Manchester Metropolitan University, which showed the Standards raised the quality of training and contributed to a positive shift in culture. Training standards are vital, not only in their focus on prevention but in their explicit inclusion of the views and experiences of people with lived experience of restraint and focus on human rights, however schools desperately need updated government guidance. We have an opportunity to better protect children and improve teaching practice, by introducing statutory recording, reporting and publication of data, instilling mandatory certified training that offer pupils protection while acknowledging the cultural challenges schools face—teachers will subsequently be better supported and children better protected.

More schools are recognising that zero tolerance approaches and seclusion don’t work, and are instead adopting more person-centred and trauma-informed approaches, but not all schools are on this path. Without official guidance, schools will be left to find unregulated trainers rather than those appropriately focussed on education and supporting children with SEND. We need to protect our children better, and we need to do it now.

Ben Higgins
Author: Ben Higgins

Ben Higgins
+ posts

Ben Higgins is Chief Executive at Bild and the Restraint Reduction Network

X: @Bild_tweets
LinkedIn: british-institute-learning-disabilities

Restrain Network


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here