Toss away the stick of isolation

14th October 2011 at 01:00
So-called 'inclusion rooms' only serve to further disengage troubled children from education, says Paul Dix

I have been looking for the biggest stick. I searched right down the punishment scale. I rejected taking away pupils' points or phone calls home, detention and castigation. I looked over the cliff edge to exclusion, restraint, community service, even pain compliance techniques. I rejected them all.

You see, there are some punishments that sow the seeds for long-term behaviour issues. Punishments that teach more than just negative consequences for negative actions. Some punishments teach children that adults are giving up. And the punishment that just keeps giving (and keeps pupils giving up) is isolation.

Short time-outs can be a highly effective way to reset expectations or find a way around a problem. Prolonged or repeated use of isolation teaches children that they are not really wanted. Forcing them to feel as if they are alone with their problems is a disproportionate punishment. It cruelly demonstrates a collective lack of empathy.

We expend so much effort in telling pupils that they belong; they are one community, one team. We accommodate a huge range of diverse needs, but when the symptoms are behavioural we begin the process of shunning.

Increasingly, we find more creative language to disguise forced imprisonment. We casually refer to it as isolation, seclusion (like a secluded beach resort!), the hole, respite, time-out, the cooler, the grade room and, unbelievably, "the inclusion room". I can think of nothing less inclusive than a cell. Heaping punishment on damaged children is not right. It echoes a Victorian idea that children are imperfect adults who have to ripen or rot.

As the Howard League for Penal Reform has stated: "Children in trouble with the law invariably describe a sense of profound exclusion from a society which they do not feel included in or recognised by."

I understand the arguments in favour of segregation. I know that it is easy to manage, that it works well as a short sharp shock for some. I know children hate it and it takes the problem behaviour away from the diligent pupils. The sheer fact that it is easy should make you suspicious. Changing entrenched behaviour is hard work.

I sit in exclusion rooms with children who have been there for days, those who have their own chair and those who are carefully planning their disengagement from education. I know because I was one of them. Children who are deeply traumatised are treated as "behaviour problems" and leave isolation with no real understanding of how to change their behaviour.

I listen to the tough tactics and wonder why people are so wedded to pure punishment as a means to change behaviour. People change for good because of other people. Not because they fear their liberty being taken away. If pure punishment worked we wouldn't have youth reoffending rates of 74 per cent.

We already starve children of positive physical contact through a collective paranoia and often repeated scare stories. Now we distance them further by locking them up in school cells with a slightly terrified adult and occasional visits from a snarling member of the senior management team.

In a secure training centre for young offenders the longest that you can be placed in isolation is three hours. Have we grabbed the biggest stick from the end of the punishment line and tried to crack the smallest nuts with it? If segregation is the ultimate punishment of the criminal justice system, why are we using it so casually in schools? Most teachers learn early on that if you use the biggest stick too soon there is nowhere else to go.

Children interpret clear messages from repeated isolation. They view it as a wholly disproportionate response, a clear sign that the adults are giving up, that they have searched "the tool box" (urgh) and run out of ideas. Pupils plan to meet up in the exclusion room, not because they want to have fun, but because they know it is a lonely place. I applaud their compassion. I would try to do the same.

Expectations lowered and authority re-stamped, pupils emerge from segregation with a sense of resentment, not a sense of being reborn. Their resilience against authority is perversely enhanced.

I understand that some young people love the peace and calm that voluntary isolation brings. Some need temporary respite from the learning melee. I also understand that such rooms can be a place to hold children who need to be separated; that when Robert really kicks off there is nowhere else for him to go. Yet we dealt with all of these issues before exclusion rooms became so fashionable. If isolation is used to allow the child to calm down then it is over-egged in more than half an hour. If it is to give respite to teachers who are struggling then the child does not need to be imprisoned. How we treat the most damaged, the most vulnerable and the naughtiest in our society reflects our humanity.

The most enlightened schools believe "the buck stops here". "We will deal with the behaviours that we are presented with. You are part of our community and we are not letting you go. We will be true to our word that every child belongs in our school community." Those schools know that it is entirely possible to punish poor behaviour effectively and at all times reassure the child that their place in this community is not at risk.

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