Hands Off: Reducing Restraints in Connecticut Schools

Connecticut lawmakers and education leaders seeking to reduce the use of restraints and seclusion in public schools were encouraged this week by two UConn experts who offered a successful, research-driven alternative to addressing disruptive student behaviors.

More than 100 people attended a two-hour presentation at the state Capitol on Jan. 27, where professors George Sugai and Nicholas Gelbar described how a prevention and de-escalation strategy known as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) can significantly reduce incidents of seclusion and restraint, while simultaneously improving the classroom climate for all students.

George Sugai
George Sugai, professor of educational psychology, was one of two UConn experts who described to legislators how disruptive student behaviors can be reduced by building a positive school climate during a forum was sponsored by UConn’s Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities Education in January 2016. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Citing research from one alternative Connecticut school that implemented the PBIS model, Gelbar said that in the first year, restraints dropped by 25 percent and seclusions by 59 percent. The duration of the incidents that did occur also decreased 46 percent and 58 percent respectively.

“They weren’t completely eliminated, but they were dramatically reduced,” said Gelbar, assistant professor of community medicine and health care and research director for the A.J. Pappanikou Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities Education at UConn Health.

The use of seclusion and restraints in Connecticut public schools is a growing concern. There are more than 30,000 incidents of seclusion or restraint each school year, with more than half taking place in elementary schools, and hundreds in preschools. In the past three years, there were more than 1,300 incidents in which students were injured during a restraint or seclusion. The Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate has found that children are being placed in seclusion as punishment for refusing to do a task or being disruptive, rather than on an emergency-only basis as state law stipulates to keep them safe if they pose a danger to themselves or others.

UConn staff and researchers have been working closely with lawmakers, educators, and advocates to reduce the reliance on seclusion and restraints and to raise awareness of alternative programs like school-wide PBIS. Last year, the Connecticut General Assembly passed a law limiting the use of seclusion and restraints in public schools and encouraging school systems to come up with better ways of dealing with challenging behavior.

The PBIS framework is one such option. Supported by the U.S. Department of Education, school-wide PBIS is currently being used in more than 21,000 schools across the country, including many in Connecticut.

“This is important work,” said Isabelina Rodriguez, special education bureau chief for the Connecticut Department of Education. Rodriguez said the department is committed to establishing a statewide support structure that improves the academic performance of students at all levels and particularly students with disabilities, students of color, and students for whom English is a second language. School-wide PBIS is part of that effort, she said, and a program that state officials would like to see extended to hundreds of Connecticut schools through ongoing professional development opportunities.

R is for Respect and Responsibility

So what is the School Wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports model?

The main thrust of PBIS is that it teaches behavioral expectations and social skills the same way as any other core part of the curriculum. A school develops three to five behavioral standards that are positively stated and easy to remember. Those behavior expectations and the rules surrounding them are then explained to students, who are encouraged to follow them daily.

Some examples of behavioral standards adopted for students from pre-K to grade 12 would be:

Respect Yourself, Respect Others, Respect Property.
Be Safe, Be Responsible, Be Respectful.
Respect Relationships and Respect Responsibilities.

Those standards are then constantly reinforced through prompts and reminders during the school day. They also are monitored and modeled by the entire school staff, from the principal, teachers, and support staff to cafeteria workers, custodians, and bus drivers. Consistency and parental support for the initiative is key.

The use of seclusion and restraints in Connecticut public schools is a growing concern. There are more than 30,000 incidents of seclusion or restraint each school year, with more than half taking place in elementary schools, and hundreds in preschools.

Success, Sugai repeatedly cautioned, depends on a complete buy-in by staff, strong local leadership, broad support, and regular assessment of data to make sure that what is in place is working for individual students. The process usually involves a year’s worth of training and preparation by staff before implementation, and then ongoing development of additional “tiers” to enhance the program’s effectiveness.

“The ‘train and hope’ approach doesn’t work,” Sugai said of some school districts’ interest in taking a partial, one-day, quick-hit approach to PBIS. “This is a strategy and a process so we can pick the best intervention and support for a student and give that teacher or parent a better way to respond.”

Sugai, the Carole J. Neag Endowed Professor in Special Education in the Neag School of Education, was one of the founders of the PBIS model and has been refining it for the past 18 years. He is an international expert in behavior analysis, classroom management, and school discipline, and a speaker in high demand, who has served as a panelist and presented his research during several visits to White House for conferences dealing with school discipline, bullying, and other issues. He currently serves as co-director of UConn’s Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports in Storrs.

At the core of PBIS is understanding student behavior and how things like the “coercive cycle” can escalate behavior into a crisis. Sugai illustrated the coercive cycle by using the example of a child screaming in a car for their parent to stop for ice cream. At first, the parent may politely decline. The child screams louder. The parent may then raise their voice louder and be more stern. The frustrated child may scream even louder or engage in other difficult behavior in order to get their way. Unless the situation is defused, it can create a crisis.

Using the school model, Sugai said teachers and students likewise respond to and learn from each other’s behavior. When a behavior doesn’t work for either side, it can escalate. A behavior problem is a teaching problem.

When it comes to defusing and addressing troublesome classroom behaviors, he said improving school climate is effective if done properly: “Restraint and seclusion and the coercive cycle are all directly linked to the climate of the classroom, the climate of the hallway, the climate of the school.”

Associate child advocate Mickey Kramer, whose office’s critical reports on the overuse of restraints and seclusion helped prompt the new state law, asked whether PBIS was structured to recognize the role trauma can play in student behavior and potential interventions. Sugai said detailed individual student assessments and screening are a critical component of the first tier of the PBIS program, and incorporating mental health assessments and treatments for students who may need them is an integral part of the process.

Wednesday’s forum was sponsored by UConn’s Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities Education, along with the legislature’s Committee on Children and Education Committee.

Editor’s Note: The following story originally appeared on UConn Today, the University of Connecticut’s news website. A complete video of Wednesday’s forum can be found here. Additional materials from the presentation are available online here.