This is a guest post by our friend Lowell, an elementary school teacher in the Seattle metro region. She writes about how she and her students turned the isolation room in their classroom into an art project. This is part of an ongoing series on isolation rooms and the school to prison pipeline. If you have experience with isolation rooms or aversive discipline in schools and would like to contribute, please contact us at CreativityNotControl AT gmail.com.
During the interview for my current position teaching students with emotional and behavioral difficulties, the interviewer asked if I was familiar with the practice of aversive discipline. I replied tentatively that I was aware of the term but not how it was applied in this particular setting. Immediately I felt uneasy with such language and what this topic meant for the day-to-day expectations of the position. Aversive discipline, she explained to me in a vague way, consists of physical restraints and the use of isolation rooms. I said yes I was familiar with such methods and understood them to be absolute last resorts when all other methods failed to protect the child and others nearby during a crisis.
The interview continued on to other topics. However, I remained unnerved by the concept of aversive discipline and its application in institutions. I thought to myself, why would something be deemed a ‘discipline’ technique if it truly is used as a last resort to ensure protection after all other methods had been exhausted? The term discipline implies repetition, a technique applied repeatedly to reduce unwanted behaviors. Discipline implies subjecting students to experiences that the adults involved know are undesirable, even painful in some way, to the children. Thoughts swirled around in my head during and after the interview- my experiences of children being further escalated and traumatized by such methods, research proving the damage caused by repeated application of this discipline, and the high percentages of students with disabilities being funneled from the education system directly into the prison system.
Despite my unsettling feeling that the district promotes the use of aversive discipline in its schools, I accepted the job.
Upon walking into my new classroom, I was faced with reality of my decision. I saw a bright red button next to a door that led to the isolation cell commonly referred to as the “time-out room.” I imagined all the fear and trauma that students associate with that room, students classified as socially and emotionally vulnerable, students with learning difficulties and layers of hardship stacked against them. I began asking around. Teachers in the school. Other EBC (emotional and behavioral classroom) teachers and para-professionals in the district. I wondered how other professionals viewed that room. Stories began to unravel. The teacher that came before me used the room almost daily, I learned. I heard stories that students were frequently told that if they did not comply with teacher prompts they would be sent to the time-out room. After hearing one para’s experience, I asked, “Do you think these methods worked?” He just laughed. If scaring children into compliance is considered working then maybe, he said. As I continued to listen, all I could think was that such discipline could only be successful in achieving one thing: it teaches children to be fearful of teachers, fearful of school, fearful of institutions and other authorities. It teaches them that if they do not comply with such authorities they will be locked up and isolated repeatedly.
I thought to myself: they should be scared.
In August, I met the families and youth that I’d be working with over the course of the year. Story after story, the students shared their experiences with the time-out room. They were scared of it and scared they’d be spending time in it again this coming year. I explained my philosophies and personal style. Almost every family that I met broke down in tears, tears of relief that their child would not spend another year in and out of forced isolation.
Carrying each story close to me as I made preparations for the first day of school, I wondered how this year would play out. Should I speak out directly against aversive discipline practices? Should I gather support from peers? From families? From my principal? From my union rep? As a new person in the district, it was difficult to know whom my allies were and if I would be retaliated against for speaking out, or even for rejecting aversive discipline methods in my own practice.
After speaking with trusted people, both inside and outside the profession, I decided I would attempt to transform my room and the time-out room in order to help the students heal. I wanted them to become self-advocates and to reclaim the classroom and time-out room for their personal expression. This could be a starting point, I thought.
Since the beginning of the year, the students and I have discussed such concepts as safe spaces, self-advocacy, and how to care for one another as members of a community. Through these conversations, the powerful presence of the time-out room has begun to shift. Additionally, no one has been forced to use the room or been forced into compliance with the threat of the room hanging over their heads. As a result, the students have begun to trust me, themselves, and each other, trust that we can provide care for one another and use the support resources in our community that we were actively cultivating. We have since covered the door of the time-out room in student artwork, depicting these community resources such as the ways the students contribute to our safe space, what a safe space looks like, and what resources they use for support within the safe space. Every now and then, the students will share stories with one another of their experiences being sent to the time-out room. I generally just listen in on these conversations, witnessing the amazing support that ten and eleven year olds are capable of providing one another. I like to remind the students in these moments, that they don’t need to be sent to that room, that no one does. But I think they might already understand this on their own.
Recently, a new family joined my program. The first thing they asked me was if their child would be subjected to use of the time-out room. They explained how often this happened to their child previously. They were concerned about its effectiveness. I simply directed their attention to the time-out room door with a smile and pointed out how our students had covered it with their artwork and that is the extent of how we use it in our classroom. The mother responded with a smile and an exhausted sigh of relief.
When one reads the files of any given special education student classified with an “emotional/behavioral disorder” one can find account upon account of aggressive behavior, opposition, noncompliance, etc. The reports reflect how these young people have extensive histories of being shuffled around from school to school, placement after placement as each incident occurs, often escalating in nature as the students grow older. As these children move through the education system, they acquire trauma after trauma, carrying the wounds of rejection inflicted upon them by institutions designed to control them, institutions in which they just can’t seem to fit in. They almost never receive appropriate or adequate care. They are shamed, yelled at, handcuffed, isolated by adults who demand compliance. These are children, however, and we are the adults. What exactly is our job as teachers and adult members of a community?
If school is meant to exist as a place of care, of curiosity, and growth, it has failed. However, the harsh and punitive environments of many of our special education classrooms and the policies such as aversive discipline reveal that is not why school exists.
It would appear that our true job as teachers is to prepare children to maintain the status quo, to fit neatly into their predetermined places in society as determined by their race, class, and gender. Poor students of color with special needs do not fit neatly into the mold of productive members of society, but rather have been deemed non-conformers, impossible to control. These are the students that we have decided need to be locked up and that will not change when they are no longer of school age. This is the school to prison pipeline in its most glaring form.
How many teachers feel inadequately prepared or supported? Too many. The teachers who resort to using the time-out room most frequently are certainly among them. Rather than paying for additional highly-trained therapeutic staff for classrooms, our administrations build time-out rooms. The structure leaves teachers overworked and unsupported, which feeds the process of reproducing oppression by controlling poor children of color, their minds, their bodies, their stories. Some might say the overuse of aversive discipline is a symptom of funding issues or bad leadership, a bad teacher here and there. However, this process is deliberate and pervasive. Classrooms, particularly self-contained special education classrooms, are not designed to honor children’s voices, experiences, and their histories of resisting unfair practices and policies. Once we’ve succeeded into forcing children into compliance, we will also have succeeded in breaking their intuitive sense of fairness and justice, succeeded in upholding the mission of compulsory education in our capitalist society.
In schools there are a variety of mechanisms in place to uphold the notion of aversive discipline as something useful and common sense. The very existence of time-out rooms in classrooms serve as a concrete symbol that they are needed and should be used. Our schools are drenched in such symbols, from metal detectors to cops in the hallways. These are the same symbols that dominate our streets, commercial spaces, and most institutions in our society. In the absence of a strong movement stating otherwise, these symbols dominate our perceptions of people and how we interact with one another. In my experience as a special education teacher, I have found, more often than not, other educators view aversive discipline as a common sense option, reaffirmed by the many social and environmental cues around them.
The proliferation of aversive discipline as common sense brings to mind the struggle faced by prison abolitionists to confront the notion that prisons are common sense, that we need prisons in our society and that solitary confinement is a reasonable response to noncompliance. We need to change these notions of common sense that our institutions and economic systems dictate. We must create the changes necessary so that it becomes common sense to support people and to never lock them up.