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Avoidance tactics

When should you use physical restraint and does it work? Phil Revell joins a course to find out

The world is full of urban myths. In teaching, one of the most persistent is the belief that teachers must never lay so much as a finger on a child.

"It was a right bust up in a young colleague's lesson," one Midlands assistant head told me. "One boy was laying into another, I just charged in and pulled him off. He struggled and lashed out, shouting, 'You can't touch me, you can't touch me'."

But teachers can touch children. In a world full of accusation and litigation, it's something that needs to be approached carefully. But what kind of job would it be if a tearful child were denied a cuddle, or a successful teenager a congratulatory hug? And what kind of adult would allow one child to attack another without moving to intervene?

Government recognised the need for physical intervention in 1996 when guidelines were first introduced. Since then, guidance has made it clear that schools should have a policy on the use of force to control or restrain pupils and that this should be part of the published discipline policy, making it clear to staff, parents and pupils what is acceptable and what is not.

Further guidance issued last year advises that staff, including non-teaching staff, should attempt to defuse a situation first, but if children are putting either themselves or others at risk, then staff should use "physical techniques and methods with which they are familiar, confident and are permitted by the school".

Which is where Team-Teach comes in.


Team-Teach is the largest provider of positive handling training in the UK.

There are more than 1,500 tutors and nearly half a million people have taken part in its courses. "Teachers get themselves into trouble when they react instinctively," says George Matthews, who created Team-Teach in 1997.

Previously, he'd been a senior teacher in a special school for pupils with behavioural problems.

"It's about keeping yourself safe," he says. "It gives teachers personal safety skills and increases their confidence."

This is not a self-defence course. Most of the training focuses on the simple things - where to stand, what to say, what NOT to do. There's an emphasis on proper reporting procedures and documentation. Teachers often face accusations of assault, but Matthews claims that the Team-Teach process allows schools to rebut allegations and reduce the stress caused by the inevitable investigations process that will follow a violent incident.

"We are totally opposed to the 'show us how to grab them' approach. Our philosophy is about avoidance. We show people how to deflect the attack, defuse the situation."


The "avoidance" philosophy was obvious from the beginning of a two-day course for potential tutors. "Our reaction to a child's behaviour determines whether the behaviour becomes a conflict," says Angela Wadham.

"In any confrontation, the first person who needs to control their behaviour is you."

Wadham is a principal tutor with Team-Teach. With a long history in residential care, she is also a consultant and trainer to a group of children's homes in the Midlands. She says behaviour isn't random.

Institutions that have a lot of violent incidents will be places where children do not feel valued, where people expect things to end badly.

Children who explode with frustration probably have a multitude of problems and grievances. "We need to give positive experiences to children who behave the worst," she says. "To redress the balance."

There is a physical side to the courses, but tutors like Angela Wadham are meticulous about ensuring that people understand the difference between positive handling and violence.

Even something as basic as taking a child by the arm is carefully approached to ensure that teachers do not fall foul of the law. An open-handed approach avoids the grip that could lead to an injury.

There are techniques for removing a child from a situation, holding one in a sitting position, breaking free from a grab or stranglehold and releasing a child who has been held.

Not every situation requires a physical response. In one special school, staff were experiencing difficulties with a child who lashed out with his feet when he had his shoelaces tied. Teachers wanted to be taught a restraint technique to hold him down. The tutors suggested a footstool.

Holding the boy's leg at full stretch on the stool kept the teacher out of range.

Similarly, Wadham suggests that if a child is being held, the mediator needs to be a third party, not one of the team doing the handling: "Be at eye level, about two or three yards away."

This emphasis on the team is another mantra that runs through the course.

Tutors prefer to train all the staff from an institution. "People often want to send a couple of the bigger blokes as firefighters," she says. "But what kind of message does that send out? The kids gain the impression that only certain staff can manage their behaviour, and the poor blokes get labelled as heavies."


The course participants were a mix of residential staff, special school teachers and mainstream senior managers. "We need to persuade our managers to let everyone do this," said three teachers from an emotional behavioural disorders unit.

"I've found this course really valuable," said Suzzanne Tuckwell, assistant head at Staffordshire's William Shrewsbury primary school. "I'll be going back to my school for a debrief and I hope I can persuade my colleagues that this is something that school should consider. Whether we can afford it is another matter."

This endorsement is backed up by research from Portsmouth University's Institute of Criminal Justice Studies. Researchers Carol Hayden and Sue Pike concluded that these methods were effective "especially in relation to staff confidence and their sense of safety and security, as well as knowledge of the legal framework for physical interventions".

George Matthews would like to see all teachers trained in the Team-Teach approach. "On building sites, safety has become a matter of routine. People wear hard hats. But there is no hard hat in teaching. Philip Lawrence (the London head who was stabbed to death while breaking up a fight outside his school gates in 1995) didn't have the benefit of a risk assessment. Until we give teachers the training, how will they know what to do?"


See also: DfES Guidance on the Use of Restrictive Physical Interventions for Pupils with Severe Behavioural Difficulties Ref: LEA02642003. Although this document is aimed at special schools, the introduction makes it clear that the advice applies equally to mainstream schools that may have issues with extreme behaviour.

* The cradle hug, designed for nursery or small children. The teacher or assistant comforts the child and helps him to regain control

* The two-person seated wrap position: the emphasis is on reassuring the child and reducing risk and anxiety

* Two-person standing double-elbow hold: a useful way of escorting the child out of the classroom

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