My submission to the Ombudsman’s inquiry into the use of seclusion rooms in New Zealand schools.

In 2016 it came to light via the media that some schools in New Zealand were using seclusion rooms as a way of managing student behaviour. Like many, I was shocked by this revelation.

I was very pleased to hear that the Ombudsman decided to hold an inquiry into the practice. For me, it wasn’t just the use of seclusion rooms that concerned me. During post-revelation discussions in the media, I became aware of enormity and systemic nature of the issue. I was also very concerned by,

1. the negative responses and attitudes of one the schools that were found to be using seclusion rooms and,
2. the poor quality of the debate in the media around the issues of managing behaviour of students in schools.

As far as I understand, the focus of the inquiry is solely about the use of seclusion rooms in New Zealand schools. However, in my submission, I have suggested that the use of seclusion rooms in schools is symptomatic of a wider range of cultural failures within the New Zealand education system and wider society.

My real hope is that the inquiry could also be;

1. an opportunity to examine and critique the way schools rely on outdated, unethical and ineffective methods to manage the behaviour of students and,

2. a catalyst for making some essential changes to the way that schools and teachers manage the behaviour of students.

While I have not witnessed the use of seclusion rooms during my time as a teacher in New Zealand schools, I am concerned that the practice of ‘exclusion’ is a relatively common practice. In schools, these spaces are commonly referred to as ‘naughty spaces’. Children are sent there to ‘learn a lesson’. These lessons must be quite difficult for some children to learn because a casual observation will reveal that it is the same children who spend the most time there. The (unspoken?) intent of these places is punishment. This is distinct from the use of a behaviour management strategy such as ‘time out’.

Exclusion is based on authoritarian approaches to ‘behaviour management’ and research shows that it is a totally counterproductive practice. It is unethical and ineffective. It reflects a strong and very unhelpful emphasis on controlling children. We really need to shift our thinking from ‘behaviour management’ and ‘control’ to supporting children with their behaviour development. Providing children with opportunities to learn to manage their emotions needs to be given as much priority as the teaching of literacy and numeracy.

The use of and the reliance on exclusion to manage behaviour also indicates that there is something fundamentally wrong with the education that is currently being provided. Over many years of practice, I have learnt that managing behaviour becomes a non-issue when the learning environment is conducive to the needs of all children. The education we provide our children needs to be academically and emotionally engaging. I have already documented how this can be achieved in a classroom setting.

I also suspect that there is a correlation between the use of exclusionary practices in schools, the long tail of underachievement in education and incarceration rates in prisons. Cultural bias in New Zealand schools is a reality. That is why we need an education system that encourages and supports all students equally.

I don’t know about the specifics of the legalities in NZ, but in Australia the practice of ‘the naughty square’ is actually illegal. Unfortunately, this does not seem to hinder their use in Australia. It is the education of teachers, rather than the writing of laws, that will have the greatest positive impact.

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Update: 16 November 2017

The Ombudsman’s office has completed its investigation and reported its findings. While the report criticises the use of seclusion rooms, it only covers the child and the school in which the original complaint was made. The parents of the boy who made the complaint are “disappointed the Ombudsman only investigated the use of the seclusion room in regards to their son, and not other children or the wider use of seclusion in New Zealand schools. I think by narrowing it to only our son it didn’t overall give a look to other evidence that may have been relevant”.

However, according to the Ministry of Education, “schools now had clear guidance on restraint and seclusion. Late last year we released guidance on effective behaviour management to minimise physical restraint and advised all schools that the use of seclusion must be stopped immediately”.

An RNZ article on the Ombudsman’s report can be read here.

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It has been revealed that a seclusion room was being used by a school in Wellington, New Zealand, as a form of punishment and as a behaviour management tool. The parents of a 6 year old autistic boy had no idea that their son, as well as other children, were being locked in this small, dark, cell-like room.

Being that I am an advocate for an education system that is genuinely child-centred, I feel compelled to comment on this awful situation. And please be warned, I will not be pulling any punches on this one. Let me start by saying that I am not at all surprised by this. I have long held the belief that teaching is the only profession that exists in which “the customer is always wrong”. While I have not witnessed the practice of ‘seclusion’, I am concerned that the practice of ‘exclusion’ is a relatively common practice throughout New Zealand schools. It is a practice that is both unethical and, ineffective. Reliance on exclusion, suggests that there is some something fundamentally wrong with the education that is being offered. I have learnt that managing behaviour becomes a non-issue when the learning environment is conducive to the needs of the children. I have documented how this can be achieved in a classroom setting.

There was shock and outrage when this story broke. As you would expect. First of all, I want to take a look at all of the responses to date.

The mother of the 6 year old boy describes this as “wrong on so many levels”. Of course she is right. We are talking about fundamental human rights being abused here.

The MInister of Education says she was horrified by the news. Good on her. That is the response you would hope for. I would also suggest that now is probably a good time to start funding special education appropriately in order to give these children, their parents and teachers a fair go. But don’t think I am letting teachers off the hook so easily. Because money won’t fix a broken culture. But more on that later.

A spokesperson for the Ministry says it would be seeking to eliminate this practice from New Zealand schools, in time.  Not immediately? I would like to see a time frame set down for this. Teachers need to know that things have to change. They need to start thinking about how they can change their teaching practice to be inclusive of all students. Yes, it is possible. I have documented how this can be achieved in a classroom setting.

The principal ducks for cover. Yep. I’m not surprised, actually.

A psychologist employed to investigate the use of the room following a complaint from a parent prepares a report. It documents the use of the room. It concludes that the use of the room is “outmoded and does not embrace inclusive and effective pedagogy”. Yes. Correct. Effective learning and positive emotional experiences can co-exist. I have documented how this can be achieved in a classroom setting.

A spokesperson for the school board acknowledges the report and admits that the school had “mucked up”. We’ll call him the ‘Fall Guy’. But more on that later.

The Ombudsman agrees with the Disability Rights Commissioner’s request to investigate the use of seclusion rooms in schools. The Commissioner says that “this practice has to stop now. It is unacceptable.” I like that. Unequivocal.

At this point I am hoping that the investigation will include:-

  • the use of exclusion as well as seclusion and,
  • the impact of these practices on all children in schools.

IHC director of advocacy says the practice belonged in the “dark ages” and schools should immediately stop it. But nor does this person want to put all the blame on teachers. It’s about resourcing, apparently. How have things come to this? Is this the kind of teachers that our universities are churning out? It would appear that they are producing soulless deliverers of content. Where are the empathetic critical thinkers? Unfortunately, this speaks volumes about the training of teachers in New Zealand as well as the governance system of New Zealand schools. But more on that later.

The head of Autism NZ says he knew of this issue but was unsure of the extent of the use of this form of ‘behaviour management’ system. Really? HE also says that teachers are not trained sufficiently to communicate with autistic children. He lets teachers off the hook again when he says that this has occurred because children with autism are not be able to articulate their experience. What the hell is going on here? Is this person an advocate for autism or not? Would he be so relaxed if it was his own child that was spending time in a seclusion room? Is this person suffering from an empathy deficit? And why would you need to train teachers to treat children humanely? I would have thought that empathy would be an entry level requirement for all teacher training courses.

The head of Autism NZ also points the finger at class sizes. Teachers will love him for that. The problem with the argument for smaller class sizes is that it has been found that even if class sizes are reduced, teachers continue with their ineffective teaching practices. Nothing changes. Once again, we need teachers who know the content but who are also empathetic, responsive, critical thinkers. He also recommends that better processes need to be put in place. But hang on a minute. The practice of seclusion and exclusion is taking place within a management environment that is already highly regulated and process driven. Schools undergo ERO reviews. Teachers are assessed against agreed standards on a regular basis. There are processes in place. But these processes, as they currently operate, have limited value. A bit like National Standards, these processes act as a ceiling. A bland, dry, box-ticking exercise. They don’t invite questioning, challenging, critiquing. You would hope that there are some teachers in the schools that are using a seclusion room, that feel uneasy about its use and, feel safe enough to address the issue with school management. That they would feel confident to share their concerns and know that their concerns would be taken seriously. You would hope so.

I think this reflects a governance issue in New Zealand schools that needs urgent attention. Schools are governed by an elected board. A board that is made up of community members with varying degrees of abilities and experiences. These may not be education related. School boards operate at arm’s length from the school’s daily operations and is reliant on the educational expertise of the principal. The ‘Fall Guy’ has learnt that lesson the hard way. It is the principals in New Zealand schools that hold all the power. And they operate in what is effectively a power vacuum. The ability of a teacher to address critical issues, such as the practice of seclusion, is completely dependent on the level of institutional trust established by the principal. I think the power imbalance that can exist in the classroom between the teacher and the students, can also be seen reflected in the power imbalance that can exist between the principal and the teachers. There’s got to be a better way of scrutinising principals. Until then, we will have to continue to wait until their stories make their way into the media.

When I trained to be a teacher I experienced high levels of cognitive and emotional dissonance. It’s only now, much later, that I can fully articulate that experience. I set about creating a learning environment that works for all, including myself. A humane environment. To do that, I have often had to ignore the received wisdom of those around me. I started to trust myself more. I started to trust the children more. And as I started to explore this uncharted territory, my trust was repaid. I discovered that children are capable of behaving with kindness, love, generosity, respect and sophistication of thought and judgement.

You are a long time being an adult. Please remember that when you see high academic standards being imposed inappropriately on children. Sure, it’s okay to have high expectations but the best learning takes place when it’s not forced. Play is good. Curiosity and inquiry needs to be encouraged from a child’s perspective. Behaviour doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Create the right learning environment and watch them all flourish. Behaviour can be managed positively. The best solutions are the easiest but take the longest.

The heart of the problem is that many children are not engaged with the learning that is currently being served up to them. Disengagement leads to underachievement (in the eyes of those measuring such things). This tail of underachievement gets longer. So we prescribe more of the same. Higher expectations. No excuses. Zero tolerance. Narrower targets. Less compassion. It kind of works. For some. At least when they are young and reasonably compliant. But of course there is going to be some collateral damage along the way – as we have witnessed with the use of seclusion practices. Eventually, the disengaged move on to join the ranks of the “not in education, employment or training”. If only we were tougher, they say. It’s time to get off this merry-go-round, I say.

I think it’s time to start examining the use of exclusionary practices in New Zealand schools and start looking at how we can have them removed completely. I invite teachers and parents, in fact everyone with an interest in this, to get a conversation started on this topic. Change is needed. 

Finally, in an education system that I advocate for, I believe this kind of tragedy would never happen. I would really like to know the circumstances of this case. Does it all just come down to a missing toilet door handle? I would really like to see justice for this family.

The media coverage that I have referred to for this blog post can be found here, herehere and here. Thanks RNZ and NZ Herald. Keep up the good work.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.