BBC’s Don’t Exclude Me (pt 2): Resorting to restraint shows desperate need for better SEND training

with Joanne Lewis parent & ADHD Superpower founder

Last week on SNJ, parent of autistic children and ... Joanne Lewis wrote about her reactions to the first of the BBC's "Don't Exclude Me" series. Her thoughts were shared by many of you

"The BBC and Marie Gentles should hang their heads in shame,it was clear these kids had SEND yet treated purely under the guise of discipline. The poor kid getting pinned down when they clearly needed space was nothing short of abuse, heartbreaking. Pure discrimination against people who clearly have a disability." Parent comment of our Facebook page

"In 2018 a judge in a case involving an autistic boy ruled that autistic children do not have a choice in regards to aggressive behaviour and his exclusion was unlawful. To most SEND parents and professionals it seems entirely obvious that there would be fewer exclusions if the authorities assessed children and worked out what unmet needs were causing the behaviours. If they were to admit that the true cause of the behaviour is actually failures in provision because a one size fits all was never going to work and isn’t working then they’d have to address the issue. That of course would mean admitting that they can’t in many cases resource meaningful inclusion and that for many mainstream education in this country is discriminatory." Parent on our Facebook page

See all the reactions here

The second episode wasn't much better, according to Joanne, who watched it last week and adds her thoughts below in a second review article:

Don’t Exclude me - Part two, by Joanne Lewis

Hands up… How many of you have pinned your child down to the ground by force because they didn’t do what you told them to? What if the government said it was ok because it’s a “safe” hold. Would that make it any better?

Imagine the horror -- assuming you didn’t witness this “reasonable force” yourself -- watching as this scenario was depicted on national television. The victim of this was a dysregulated six-year-old boy who had been pushed by continuing demands from adults. Unless they had been edited out, strategies to de-escalate the situation and listen to him should have been implemented much earlier.

Behaviour specialist Marie Gentles says all the right things: “So, when a child is acting out through their behaviour, they’re communicating to you that I have an unmet need, I don’t feel safe, I’m anxious, I’m worried. They’re telling you how they feel through their behaviour rather than their words, and when they feel emotionally safe, that’s when we can start to see improvement in their behaviour.” However, with her restrictive, demanding and compliance-focused behaviour techniques, her actions don’t seem to match her words. 

Why, understanding all of this, does she continually chase after, talk at, and put pressure on these children? Again, it may just have been how it was edited, but if this is the case I'd hope Ms Gentles would be seriously concerned at how she has been portrayed in the edit.

“To restrain a child who is already in the deepest of distress will only escalate their fears and anxieties, and is more likely to escalate the situation rather than to calm it down. We are teaching them that physical force is legitimate and can be used to get our own way. This is exactly the lesson we do not wish to teach a child who has SEND VCB (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities, Violent and Challenging Behaviour).By restraining children, we are actively seeking to solve the situation from an adult perspective, instead of imparting the essential tools and practice time that a child needs to be able to find their own solutions to self-regulate their emotions.”

SEND Behaviour expert, Yvonne Newbold

The problem with focusing on behaviour rather than need

So far as I can see, there are two big problems with focusing on behaviour rather than understanding a child's needs. 

  1. Observed behaviour is the tip the iceberg. It is an external symptom of anxiety, sensory overstimulation, social communication difficulties, unmet emotional needs, and cognitive issues. Strategies focussed on eliminating challenging behaviour may appear to be successful, in so far as the child begins to conform to neurotypical expectations.  The more a child is indistinguishable from mainstream peers, the more successful the school intervention is believed to be. But, this isn’t success.
  1. Children with challenging behaviour receive support because it is disruptive to their peers and is seen as something that needs to be quashed. However, by focussing on the behaviour, and not understanding various presentations of SEND, quieter children who have unmet needs that are internalised, whom are not being disruptive to their peers, will often continue to struggle in silence, potentially for years.

Some positives, but negatives were concerning

A lot of strategies aimed at meeting these children’s needs were demonstrated during these episodes which were great to see. During 1:1 sessions, the children were given the opportunity to bond with their teachers and form positive attachments, Marie Gentles stated children need nurturing and caring to feel safe.

Marie talked about “giving a child the right language. So rather than shutting them down… We start giving him the language, so eventually, he can say, “I’m feeling angry because” rather than [demonstrating it through his] behaviour.”

However, the positives were, for me, marred by the struggle to overpower these children and solve situations, as Yvonne Newbold said, “from an adult perspective”.  

Outside of the 1:1 sessions, these children were talked 'at' by their teachers, not listened to or understood. Olivia kept trying to tell her teacher how she felt, but was repeatedly shut down and told she was rude. She was trying to articulate her feelings (the whole aim of the 1:1 work), yearning to be acknowledged.  

Oscar brought the bins into the classroom, but when communicating this to his teachers, instead of praise, was met with the instruction “Oscar, I want you to sit down”“I was just telling” he shouted - unheard again - an opportunity to improve his self-esteem by giving him the recognition he was seeking, lost, and instead met with another demand.  

One parent with a child at the school said “When my daughter had issues [the headteacher] told me that 'children's mental health isn't an important enough issue' to actually help her. It's heart-breaking how many children are being failed by the system”.

Joanne Lewis
Joanne Lewis

Teachers urgently need more training in SEND

In my eyes, the series highlighted a severe lack of understanding of SEND needs by teachers, which is no surprise given I’ve been told some only receive a single day’s SEND training. I believe that while a lot of the recommended interventions were positive, teachers need much more training in SEND and proactive strategies, rather than reactively trying to manage behaviour, so they can spot these children earlier. 

Julia Caro, patron of SEND the Right Message and a SEND mental health campaigner, told me, “We are struggling badly in this LA area with pretty much no voice for parents. This is in one of the worst LAs since 47% of all EHCPs applied for are refused (SNJ Hall of Shame) and access to basic services is virtually impossible.”

Maybe if teachers could spot SEND and support earlier diagnosis and applications for EHCPs, they wouldn’t be firefighting the resulting behaviour?

The biggest irony for me was when Ms Gentles said “Every single one of my strategies is designed around keeping a child feel emotionally safe…  For me what’s really important is we can see him for who is, and see past his behaviour. That’s everything to me.”  

I wish that was what I had viewed.  I’ll leave you with this:

The 2019 Government Paper, Reducing the Need for Restraint and Restrictive Intervention states the following:

Every child and young person has a right to be treated with respect and dignity, and deserves to have their needs recognised and be given the right support. We know that use of restraint and restrictive intervention can have long-term consequences on the health and wellbeing of children and young people. At any particular time, the key question for everyone involved with children and young people whose behaviour challenges should be: What is in the best interests of the child and/or those around them in view of the risks presented?
Restrictive intervention should only be used when absolutely necessary. Wherever possible, it should be avoided; and proactive, preventative, non-restrictive approaches adopted in respect of the behaviour that challenges.

Reducing the Need for Restraint and Restrictive Intervention, Children and young people with learning disabilities, autistic spectrum conditions and mental health difficulties in health and social care services and special education settings

[Schools: Please read our Whole School SEND series and contact them for training]

About Joanne

Joanne Lewis, like many parents, had had to educate herself on good SEN practices, sensory needs, SEND Law, and taken on her LA to win a specialist independent school for her eldest son at Tribunal.  She is passionate about improving other’s understanding of autism and ADHD, especially celebrating differences over encouraging conformity and ableism. After discovering she has ADHD herself, she began the Facebook page @MyADHDSuperpowers and hopes to help dispel the stigma still attached to ADHD.

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