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Handcuffs Do Not Belong in Schools

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A sheriff's deputy from Kentucky is currently facing federal lawsuit because he handcuffed at least two elementary school students who were acting up. It turns out that both of these children have diagnosed neuro-developmental conditions including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which makes it difficult for them to control their emotions and behavior.

As a psychologist, I have worked with children who were labeled "Seriously Emotionally or Behaviorally Disturbed," and I have had children lash out at me both physically and verbally. I have been trained in how to handle these situations by first understanding what is going on with the child, helping to defuse the situation, and when necessary, utilize safe and proven methods of crisis intervention.

When I worked in New York at a school for children with very special needs there were times when we held the children, but we never used any type of actual restraint equipment-as in we never used straps or straitjackets or handcuffs. We did not have a police or security guard on school grounds.

Now, we live in an age where terrorists and disgruntled students visit our schools and bring weapons.

Therefore, most school systems have found it necessary to put police officers or school resource officers into their schools. So, when children get out of control, for whatever reason, teachers and school staff will often call in the police officer to help manage the situation.

Unfortunately, most police officers are trained in how to deal with domestic violence situations and other situations that involve criminal behavior. Most are not trained in managing significant psychiatric or neurodevelopmental problems. So, while it is easy to fault this one particular police officer who, in my opinion very incorrectly used his handcuffs to restrain children, the truth is, he is likely not trained as a mental health professional and didn't have the tools at his disposal to defuse the situation.

Children with ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorders, Anxiety, OCD, or other challenges often have severe behavior regulation difficulties as a result of how their brains work. They find it nearly impossible to manage very upsetting feelings, are quick to react to frustration, may feel easily slighted by peers, and may have co-occurring learning disabilities.

Sometimes traditional behavior management strategies can be very effective in these situations, including giving clear directions, star charts, and letting kids know that good things will happen if they cooperate and calm down or that they might miss something if they're unable to get their behavior under control.

Some children need a more specialized approach

At Rice Psychology Group we are big fans of using a collaborative problem-solving approach. You can find more info on this at Ross Greene's website and in his books The Explosive Child and Lost at School.

Dr. Greene outlines a method of helping children who, like the little boy in the video shown on TV and online, gets stuck in terms of how to solve problems in a flexible way and have trouble managing their emotions. His approach is:

  1. First, offer the child some empathy and reassurance. Use a calm voice rather than blaming the child for the difficulty that they're having.Assume that children are doing the very best that they can and if they could manage their emotions and their behavior, they would manage them. We know that children with ADHD often have about a 30% developmental delay in their ability to manage social and emotional situations (among other challenges).
  2. Next, define the problem. Once you have expressed some empathy, perhaps by taking a guess about how they might be feeling, ask the child to tell their side of the story. It's very important that we listen to what children are experiencing and what they think, because we might then learn the actual source of their discomfort. You may need to ask the child some gentle questions to make sure you really have a handle about what's going on.
  3. Then, invite the child to help. Ask them to help problem solve the situation so that they can move on, feel better, and somehow try to solve their problem.

These steps should all be done in a collaborative, positive, and brainstorming kind of way. We do not judge or tell a child that their ideas stupid or that what they think or believe is ridiculous or not based in reality. We meet the child where they are and try to understand how they got to this point.

The child in the video shown on the news is sitting in a chair and, while hindsight is 20/20, I wonder had that police officer kept his distance a little bit, if the child might not have become physically aggressive. We need to give the kids some space. Give them a chance to run through the gamut of their emotions while stressing safety - "Don't hurt yourself, don't hurt others, and don't destroy property!"

Sometimes you have to let it run it's course.

I recently heard it said that when a child who has a self-regulation problem like ADHD or an autism spectrum disorder and is in the throes of a tantrum, we might do well to consider how we cannot get a toilet to stop flushing mid-flush. We simply have to let the water do its thing. When kids with self-regulation problems get upset - we sometimes have to let the emotions run their course because the kids can no more stop the flow of their emotions than a toilet can mid-flush!

It is most important to remember when in a situation with a child who is having trouble controlling his or her emotions -Kids would if they could!

When they can't, it is imperative to keep in mind that police officers and school resource officers are not trained to deal with children with brain-based mental health problems. A mental heath or special education profession who is trained to deal with these situations should be brought in as quickly as possible.

When they can't, it is imperative to keep in mind that police officers and school resource officers are not trained to deal with children with brain-based mental health problems. A mental health or special education profession who is trained to deal with these situations should be brought in as quickly as possible.