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Beyond Seclusion and Restraint: Creating Positive Learning Environments for All Students

October 30, 2012
Cyndi Pitonyak
Colored pencils next to a stack of books.

Excerpt of written testimony presented before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

Chairman Harkin, Ranking Member Enzi, and members of the committee, thank you for inviting me to be here as a representative of my school division, Montgomery County Public Schools. Our goal in Montgomery County is to create schools that are organized and equipped to meet the needs of all children who live in our community. This includes those children with the most significant social, emotional, and behavioral needs.

For over two decades now, we have not found it necessary to use restraint or seclusion procedures to keep our schools safe, except in rare emergency situations. My testimony today will focus on fundamental factors that have been important to us in:

  • Removing the need for using restraint and seclusion,
  • Transitioning to positive behavior supports to address the needs of our students with the most difficult behaviors, and
  • Preparing staff to successfully use positive behavior supports in their daily work with children.

A fundamental factor in removing the need for restraint & seclusion has been our move twenty-three years ago from segregated, centrally located special education classes to serving all of our children in inclusive regular classes in their local community schools. This is especially important in our work with children with serious behavior needs for several reasons.

  • First, serving each child in her local school means that we are working with the natural population of children who live in the community. Therefore, the number of students in any given school who have truly extensive behavior needs is very small, usually 1–2% of the population or less. The intensive planning and highly individualized supports required for success are not overwhelming because there are so few students who need them.
  • Second, because a separate classroom is not part of our default plan and our special education and classroom teachers teach together, we spend our time talking about how to make our students successful rather than talking about where to send them. Students with and without IEPs benefit from this success-focused collaboration.
  • Third, in an inclusive setting, children with problem behaviors are not surrounded by other children with problem behaviors. Typical peers who model appropriate social skills surround them instead. This healthy, natural setting is a strong positive influence on our students with problem behavior, and their peers benefit from learning first-hand how to resolve conflicts and solve social problems in the real world.
  • The inclusive classroom setting is a positive influence on the behavior of adults as well. Restrictive interventions such as restraint or seclusion seem out of place or even shocking within the context of daily life in a regular classroom.

Another critical factor in removing the need to use restraint and seclusion has been early behavior intervention. When children develop behavior problems, most of the time it begins quite early in their school careers. Problem behaviors often escalate and become even more serious over time. Initiating intensive intervention early, while children are still small, is not only easier to manage, but also has a major impact on the amount and intensity of intervention those children will require later.

  • Our experience has been that when we are able to intervene and reverse a chronic negative behavior pattern in the first few years of school, usually before third grade, the chances that the student will go on to successful participation in future grades without requiring an extensive amount of support improve dramatically. This means that the student who needs a highly individualized daily routine and many special modifications to make it through the day in first grade, often actually requires no support by middle school, or is successful with relatively minimal supports that can easily be delivered through IEP or 504 Plan accommodations.
  • Students sometimes transfer into Montgomery County from other school districts, where highly restrictive procedures have been used to control their behavior. These students are accustomed to being managed by others and usually have limited or sometimes no experience in a regular classroom setting. They require careful transition and a particularly high level of support.
  • When we are not able to intervene until students are older, our experience has been that a higher level of ongoing support (i.e., greater commitment of staff time, increased requirement for specialized planning, intensive intervention) is often required through the last years of school to maintain students’ success. Early intervention not only results in better outcomes for students, but in significant reduction in resources that are going to be needed to support those students later. The bottom line is that school has to be first and foremost a safe place if our children are going to learn and thrive. Including students with the most significant behavior needs cannot mean that safety is compromised for anyone.

In Montgomery County Public Schools, making the transition from restrictive procedures to positive behavior supports has meant that we must have easily accessible, evidence-based practices that prevent disruption and crises as much as possible. We must have the capacity to maintain safety and quickly restore calm when problems do occur. Having a good process for developing and implementing individualized positive behavior support (PBS) plans for students who need them has been essential. PBS plans are based entirely on the needs of individual students, so each one is different. However, the process for developing them must be simple and clear enough to be easily understood and implemented by a variety of teachers, administrators, and instructional assistants. (See Appendix A: How to Develop a PBS Plan [at help.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Pitonyak.pdf.])

  • We start with forming a small support team around an individual student, composed of people who work with her every day and at least one person who is skilled in the PBS plan development process. The student’s parents and the student herself (in the case of older students) are members of the team whenever possible. The team meets weekly to plan ahead, problem solve, review progress data, and celebrate successes together. These regular meetings of “key players” are the vehicle for ensuring that behavior interventions for the student are relevant and effective. This commitment of time is essential in ensuring that the PBS plan is modified as needed and implemented with fidelity.
  • If the student’s behavior presents a safety or severe disruption risk, the team immediately develops a crisis plan. We spell out specifically what crisis level behavior looks like for this particular student, (e.g., aggression directed to self or others, talking “over” the teacher, or otherwise making it impossible for instruction to continue, leaving or roaming the classroom or school, destroying equipment). The plan includes early warning signs and steps to take to prevent a crisis. It includes who to call and exactly what to do to maintain safety and restore order if crisis level behavior does occur, as well as follow up procedures. (See Appendix B: Crisis Plan Worksheet [at help.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Pitonyak.pdf]). When a crisis incident occurs, we carefully document and analyze what happened in order to learn from the experience and adjust our supports for the student if necessary. (See Appendix C: Crisis Incident Record [at help.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Pitonyak.pdf]).
  • With the team up and running and the crisis plan in place, we implement modifications to the student’s daily routine, based on functional behavior assessment.(See Appendix D: How to Complete an FBA [at help.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Pitonyak.pdf]). The most important step is to help the student replace the problem behavior with a positive behavior that serves the same purpose. For example, if we discover that a student’s problem behavior is driven by a need to escape the classroom, we might give the student a break card that can be placed on the desk any time and a “legal” place to go. This alternative works better for the student than the problem behavior did. It is a quicker and easier way to escape without the negative effects generated by the problem behavior. By focusing on the circumstances that drive the student to escape the classroom (in this example), and working to address those, we eliminate the need for the student to ask for special breaks, and we can withdraw the special modifications over time.
  • Chronic, serious problem  behaviors do not develop overnight and they are not addressed overnight. We frequently review progress data and make adjustments in our interventions. We tackle a week’s worth of issues in our team meetings, and over time we can eliminate crisis behaviors and teach the student to interact positively in an integrated setting.

Skilled and knowledgeable staff is our most valuable resource, and preparing our teachers and administrators to meet the challenges presented by students with extensive behavioral needs requires initiative on several levels.

  • First, we must make sure that the people who work directly with students every day and those who are called upon most frequently to help when problems occur, have a groundwork of basic understanding of the value of inclusion for these students, and primary principles of positive behavior support. We train all principals, assistant principals, special education teachers and instructional assistants in our emergency procedures policy and techniques for de-escalating crisis situations. Using stimulus funds over the last year, we have been able to greatly improve and expand this basic training to include counselors and classroom teachers.
  • Second, we have learned that one of the primary ways our teachers develop their skills in positive behavior support is through participating on a student team. It is essential to have at least one person in each school that is highly competent in creating individual PBS plans. That person must have the leadership skills and responsibility to guide teams through the PBS plan development process. It is our responsibility as district level administrators to provide training, mentoring and technical support for those building level leaders. It is the responsibility of principals in each building to establish a flexible infrastructure that allows team members to plan and problem-solve together, and to receive any special training required to meet the needs of their student. This side-by-side, “learn while doing” approach has been essential due to the multitude of competing demands on our teachers’ time.

About the Author

Certified Instructor Cyndi Pitonyak, who is the Coordinator of Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports for Montgomery County Public Schools, presented before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions at the June 28, 2012 hearing titled Beyond Seclusion and Restraint: Creating Positive Learning Environments for All Students. The above is an excerpt of her written testimony.

Originally published in the Journal of Safe Management of Disruptive and Assaultive Behavior, Fall 2012, © 2012 CPI.

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