New guidelines and support for dealing with extreme behaviour have been released after revelations that some schools had been forcing challenging students into locked seclusion rooms.
The guidelines were issued in November last year following the Education Minister’s ban on the use of seclusion rooms.
They set out to provide school staff with safe ways to manage potentially dangerous situations where a student may need to be physically restrained. Along with the guidelines there is a new training package which can include a full-day workshop for all staff as well as ongoing support afterwards.
But principals and children’s rights advocates say they don’t go far enough to ensure the rights of children with complex needs because they don’t address the lack of funding and support – the root cause of some schools taking desperate measures to curtail extreme behaviour.
“The guidelines are a good start but there is a lot more needed for resourcing and training,” says Berhampore School Principal, Mark Potter.
His central city Wellington school, with a roll of 300, welcomes kids with special or individual learning needs – often kids that have been shunned or excluded by other schools.
“Our view is that is we don’t take them, who will? And it’s not fair for parents to have no options, why would you not want to help them?”
Potter says that he doesn’t blame other schools for being less than welcoming to children with special education needs. In many cases, he says, schools just don’t know what to do.
At Berhampore, it’s not unusual to see a child swinging on a canvas swing in the classroom while other children are doing different learning tasks. It’s all part of de-escalating behaviour – recognising the signs before a meltdown occurs and traumatic behaviour management becomes the consequence.
He’s been critical of the lack of support for schools such as his.
“We had to do a lot of our own learning ourselves and much of the help came, not from the Ministry, but from the disability sector.
One of the organisations he turned to was IHC.
IHC Director of Advocacy, Trish Grant has labelled the guidelines as tokenism. She says the funding framework around special education is flawed because of the rationed nature of ORS funding.
“What schools need is more support and an individualised response to each child’s needs.”
The guidelines point to the need for schools to focus on preventative techniques including recognising students’ personal signs of stress.
They draw a clear distinction between seclusion and the acceptable practice of ‘‘time out’ where a student is asked to leave an activity or an area because of their behaviour or when they voluntarily take themselves to an agreed space or unlocked room to calm down.
In many ways, the guidelines appear to mirror the approach of Berhampore school’s methods of de-escalation. Perhaps that’s not surprising.
Justine Henderson, Berhampore’s full time Learning Support Coordinator, was NZEI’s representative on the advisory group set up to look at ways of eliminating the practice of seclusion well before the story broke late last year.
“You need to allow a child space to calm down and to be able to address issues before they have a total meltdown. It’s too late once they have become so upset that they are beyond reason.”
Potter says that without any real guidance or support, it’s understandable that seclusion, which was an accepted practice in the 1980s and 90s, continued to be used as a last resort by teachers.
But National Director of Special Education at the Ministry of Education David Wales doesn’t accept seclusion was a response to a lack of funding. He does accept however that resourcing is important and points out that special education funding has increased 29 percent since 2009, up to $590m.
The vast majority of schools, he says, successfully deal with challenging behaviour through good behaviour management techniques without resorting to seclusion.
Potter agrees that the vast majority of behaviour management can be successfully dealt with.
But he says some schools are dealing with extremely high levels of challenging behaviour and they cannot do it alone.
“Things have moved on since the days when seclusion, along with other forms of behaviour management such as corporal punishment, was acceptable practice. But in order to go forward, you need resources to invest in things like pre-service and in-service training for teachers and you need proper support.”
Grant says that seclusion is a symptom of systematic failure of the delivery around the policy framework “where schools are expected to do what they’re simply not equipped to do.”
Potter says the current rationed approach to funding using an arbitrarily plucked figure has meant that there has been erosion of what was intended when special education became mainstreamed in the 1980s.
“Who said that $590m was enough?”
At Berhampore school, Henderson does have the time and space to put in place the best practices including the use of additional support staff and training.
But that’s because there has been a deliberate decision by the board of trustees to fund special education over and above the resourcing provided by the Ministry. It’s meant that funding has been taken from other areas such as school property.
“We use a myriad of tools and methods and we aim to recognise the signs that a child is stressed before extreme behaviour and extreme methods are needed.”
She says it’s about recognising when it’s time to intervene and to change the scene.
“We might say to a child: ‘I can see you need a break, can you carry these boxes to the office, that seems like a good job for you’. It’s about doing something purposeful and allowing them to move and change scene.”
As well as swings, equipment such as such as mini-trampolines, bikes and calming areas inside the classroom are on hand when needed.
For principals like Potter, it’s going to take more than guidelines and the offer of a workshop for him to be convinced that the Ministry is really intent on making a difference.