Handcuffs Are Not the Solution to Children's Challenging Behaviors

Deputy Kevin Sumner -- a school resource officer in Kentucky -- made a poor judgment call when he on several occasions decided to place young elementary school children in handcuffs due to disruptive behaviors. For that reason he is now being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

About his client's actions, his attorney stated, "that's what the book says to do."

However, according to the National Association of School Resource Officers, the school resource officer (SRO) has three important roles at the school: Teacher, Counselor, and Law Enforcement Officer.

An important mission of the SRO program is to keep children safe and to prevent juvenile delinquency by building positive relationships between students and law enforcement.

Sumner may have acted in the role of a law enforcement officer when he handcuffed these students, but he certainly did not act as a teacher or a counselor, nor did he foster a positive relationship with the students.

When an adult responds to a child's behavior with pain inducing force, the child is more likely to become fearful and to reject any message the adult is trying to convey.

As any parent and teacher knows, children's behaviors can be challenging at times, and some children display more challenging behaviors than others.

However, sometimes the definition of "challenging behavior" is in the eye of the beholder.

A child who throws a tantrum because he doesn't want to do the task he has been asked to do may be seen by one person as extremely challenging and in need of punishment, whereas another person may see the child simply as in need of assistance and positive guidance.

Most often, challenging behavior is a sign of unmet needs. These needs could be love and appreciation, safety and security, sleep, nutrition, physical activity, or constructive guidance.

However, it is unfortunately all too common that caregivers -- whether it be parents, teachers, or school resource officers -- exacerbate the problems rather than alleviate them.

Research shows that adults are more likely to punish children with ongoing challenging behavior and less likely to encourage them and show positive attention when they behave appropriately. They come to see these children as "problem children," and any minor transgression is interpreted as an act of deliberate defiance.

Once a child has been labeled as a problem child, it may be difficult for him to convince people that he really is capable of appropriate behaviors and good deeds, and the adults around him stop expecting them and stop paying attention to them.

It may be less natural for us to specifically notice and comment on children's good behaviors, but it is an important part of the process when trying to eliminate inappropriate behaviors.

Anyone with the responsibility of caring for children -- and especially anyone caring for children with challenging behaviors -- needs proper training in developmentally appropriate practices and constructive guidance techniques.

Such training should include information about risk factors for challenging behaviors, such as genetic and biological factors, cognitive limitations, or issues in the home environment.

Most importantly, anyone caring for children with challenging behaviors should have training in how to recognize early signs of anxiety and agitation, as well as how to deescalate aggression and help the child return to a competent state.

The best solution for dealing with challenging behavior is to look at the reason for the behavior. Often it is not because the child wants to hurt someone else or be intentionally defiant. Often this is simply the only way he or she knows how to react to a challenging or threatening situation.

Sometimes the behaviors may mask a wounded self-esteem or a lack of confidence.

Sometimes the behaviors are a protective mechanism. The child may have experienced a lot of rejection and has learned that a strong offense is the best defense.

Children who have experienced rejection may also be deprived of opportunities to develop and practice social skills, and their behaviors may be the result of their social interaction challenges.

In the school environment, challenging behaviors often lead to exclusion, peer rejection and ridicule, and that, in turn, may affect the child's self-esteem and academic achievement. It becomes a perpetuating cycle that is hard to break out of.

It is these children who need the compassion of the school resource officers the most. The resource officers have an opportunity, and a responsibility, to help children break out of this vicious cycle by fulfilling their roles as teacher and counselor -- not just as law enforcement.