The Commissioner for Children and Young People has called for an end to the practice of restraint and seclusion in educational settings, and urged the Department of Education to legislate for change.
The Department is currently undertaking its own review of the practice, but Koulla Yiasouma said documentary evidence contained in her own report must be “a catalyst for change”.
Launching ‘Neither Seen nor Heard - a Rights Based Review on the Use of Restraint and Seclusion in Educational Settings’, Ms Yiasouma said that while it’s impossible to know the true extent of the practices in schools across Northern Ireland, the study shows that they do happen and the impact on children and their families can be devastating.
“Parents revealed the negative impact the practices had on their child’s behaviour and sleep,” the Commissioner said.
“Poor mental health and withdrawal from family life were consistent throughout parent’s accounts. Eating disorders, self-harm, suicide attempts and ideation were some of the more extreme manifestations of the adverse impacts on children.
“Restraint and Seclusion are practices that intentionally limit a person’s freedom of movement or function. Seclusion is placing and keeping someone (alone) in a room or other space where they are unable to leave. The elements of restraint considered by the review are mechanical restraint (use of device or equipment) and physical restraint (use of direct physical contact).”
The review received 234 survey responses from principals and engaged with 39 parents/carers and nine professionals.
“Too often when restraint and seclusion is used, it is about discipline and control and an attempt to address perceived ‘behavioural problems’ rather than recognising the environmental, social and/or emotional needs of the pupils,” she added.
Schools are not currently required to record or report instances of restraint or seclusion or to inform parents that they have occurred. This makes it impossible to know how widespread the practices are and has led to some parents only finding out their child was restrained or secluded after seeing a change in their behaviour.
But documentary evidence from concerned parents shows the practice is used in educational settings.
“There are many stories contained in my review must be the catalyst for change,” the Commissioner said.
“We have very clear recommendations for the Department of Education to implement as part of its ongoing work and its own upcoming Review of Restraint and Seclusion. This should aim to ensure the necessary change in practice in educational settings is child rights compliant.
“Restraint should only ever be used as a measure of very last resort when a child or other children are at risk, educational settings should report all instances on the rare occasions that it takes place and teachers must attend rigorous training to ensure safety is paramount and that focus is on prevention, de-escalation and reflective practice. Children should never be secluded from other pupils for any reason.”
Recommendations include creating legislation at Stormont with a provision to ban the use of seclusion in educational settings and the use of any techniques which inflict pain on children.
She also urges formulating a definition of restraint and clarity that this should only be used as a last resort, with a requirement for mandatory recording of all incidents of restrictive practices by educational settings, and that the Education Authority undertakes an annual review on the use of restrictive practices.
“The Department of Education must ensure that the legislative framework explicitly limits the use of restraint or force on a child so that it is only permitted to protect that child or others from immediate and serious harm,” the report added.
The Commissioner also said the Department of Education should issue mandatory guidance on the use of restrictive practices in educational settings, developed in consultation with schools, professional bodies, parents/carers, and children.
“Teacher training institutions and the Education Authority (EA) should provide mandatory training on restrictive practices to be used as a last resort by all educational staff, including classroom assistants and non-teaching staff where relevant,” the report said.
The Commissioner has committed to monitoring the implementation of these recommendations and will engage all relevant agencies to ensure improved outcomes for children and young people.