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Cruel Treatment of Special Needs Kids Must Stop

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Claire LaZebnik and Dana Commandatore: What would you do if you found out your son was locked in a cellar for five hours and was denied any access to a restroom, all because he didn't want his hair brushed? How would you react if your daughter came home from school with marks on her wrists and back because she refused to complete an assignment? Sadly, over-the-top and sometimes even abusive discipline of kids with special needs is common practice in public schools throughout the country, as a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has shown.

Young boy crying

As two mothers of boys with autism, this is an issue that takes our breath away. We owe it to the safety of our children to bring as much attention to this issue as possible. Children have died while being restrained. Others have committed suicide in an isolation room. These restraint and isolation techniques are theoretically used to control bad behaviors.

Since many of these kids have little or no speech, they often try to communicate through behaviors that are misunderstood and perceived as "disruptive." They're then punished for them. They need structured programs and positive behavior supports written by highly qualified school staff, not restraint and seclusion.

Here's a crash course in positive behavioral interventions: reward good behaviors. Reduce bad behaviors by NOT rewarding them.

Research has shown over and over again that this approach gets results, whereas physical punishment is both ineffective and inhumane.

Too often, kids with special needs are expected to "behave" but no one takes the time to teach them the right classroom behaviors. Instead, they get pulled out of the classroom for disruptive behaviors they can't control, a tactic which is often inadvertently rewarding (it means they get to escape from doing any work) and which doesn't teach them anything at all. The child's disruptive behaviors will only escalate in this situation, leading to a similar escalation in punishment.

If a student is having trouble in the classroom, the teacher or aide needs to make it very clear what behaviors they want to see -- e.g., sitting at his desk quietly working -- and once he understands that, immediately start to reward him for successfully maintaining that behavior for a period of time. Depending on the child's age and functioning level, his reward could be a piece of candy after just one minute of working quietly, or a gold star after ten minutes (and maybe ten gold stars gets him something he really wants, like a few minutes free to play with a favorite toy). Gradually, the length of time can be increased. So long as bad behaviors aren't getting him out of doing the work or allowing him to escape from the classroom, the child will quickly learn that sitting still and doing the work is ultimately far more rewarding than being disruptive.

In the two books Claire has co-authored with Dr. Lynn Kern Koegel, Overcoming Autism and Growing Up on the Spectrum, we offer many more strategies for teaching and rewarding the classroom behaviors we want to see while decreasing the disruptive ones.

Every educator and parent needs to know that positive behavioral interventions work and punishment doesn't. Restraints and isolation are neither humane nor successful strategies. Unfortunately, as it stands now, adults have more protection against abuse on the streets than children do in our schools. It's vitally important we extend the protections of the Developmental Disabilities Bill of Rights Act to include everyone regardless of age or location. Let's hope Congress hears this call and something is done to stop the abuse.

Are you outraged? Share your thoughts in our Special Needs Community group.


next: Not MY Friend!
8 comments so far | Post a comment now
Pop and Ice May 20, 2009, 12:48 PM

Parents dropping into school unexpectedly can curb this. Skip the office, go to the room directly, if you can. Schools have no right to keep you out nor do you need as escort.

M.A.P May 20, 2009, 2:49 PM

These children should be with teachers who are familiar with and even specialize in work with special needs children. They will have the tools and patience to know how to deal with the stressful situations that may come around. I think teachers that discipline in this matter should definitely be fired and if I was a parent of one of those children I would be beyond furious. No child should be treated like that, mental disabilities or not

RachelAZ May 20, 2009, 4:54 PM

Who WOULDN’T be outraged by all of this?

Lori May 20, 2009, 5:45 PM

Administrators also need to provide more support to the teachers who work with these students. I teach the severely emotionally disturbed and of course my stress levels get really high some times, especially when you’ve tried intervention after intervention and nothing seems to be helping. I love what I do but I would definitey appreciate more support from my principal.

ame i. May 20, 2009, 6:47 PM

I have one child in private school (attended public from K-4) and one child staying in public until 5th grade. I’m not a big fan of my county’s public system for my kids (they are gifted & our system only offers 2 hours of gifted enrichment per week), but I will say our public system does a wonderful job for the other special needs kids. Only teachers with degrees in Special Education are allowed to care for the kids and give aides specialized training. If a child needs one on one care, that’s what the child gets.
There’s a particular little guy at our elementary school with mild autism. He does great in the “mainstream” classroom but can get a bit distracted so he has his own aide. I watched him for a few minutes once while his aide took an important phone call. I looked down at him and said “Don’t run off on me now, okay?” His reply “Wouldn’t dream of it, ma’am!”
Our system does have a great advocacy (sp?) support group in place,our Special Ed. teachers & staff are held in high regard, and they are listened to when they let the system know what their kids need.
All children deserve to be treated with kindness and respect. The ones without voices deserve to have someone speak up loudly for them.

Cate May 22, 2009, 6:51 PM

I have recently resigned and retired under duress because of abuses in the classroom to which I was assigned as a one-on-one aide to a severely disturbed child. I was making progress with him when another student attempted to assault a co-worker with a bat. I was put in the position of having to disarm that student and get control of him. Because of very poor classroom management, I considered the danger to everyone’s safety to be so great that I simply could not participate in the program anymore. So after almost 20 years working with special needs kids, I resigned.

I have evidence of the teacher, who was not properly credentialed, mis-handling my student as well as others. She was a nice lady but she was just extremely unskilled and ridiculously unsupported. When I began documenting some of the problems and shared it (at her request) with the school psychologist, I was disciplined by the principal and told to cease my documentation immediately as it violated the student’s right to privacy. My documentation includes video of the teacher pinning my student to the floor by getting fully on top of him as in the case in Texas where a student was killed that way. The princial did not see my video, but she saw another incident of the same treatment and did nothing. My student was not physically hurt, and though he was violent on an almost daily basis, neither time was the restraint due to his attacks on others, but just his noncompliance in the classroom. I felt most of his behavior problems were primarily caused by improper placement where his needs could not be met. He was a danger to other students almost every day. He would purposely and willfully hurt other students any chance he got. He seemed to get some sort of charge out of seeing them cry. I had had some success in curtailing his chances to hurt others, but he was by no means safe. However, pinning him to the ground and enraging him was not a solution. He needed to be properly placed in an environment where his needs could better be met. But the school would not go against the ignorant prejudices of the mother who did not want her child to go to school where there were kids in wheelchairs - or so I was told. I was also told she was involved with a hate group and drugs and had made various threats towards school staff over the years. Though she was cordial to me, I was prohibited from speaking to her about her son.

I am out of the danger now and I just want to put that horrible episode in my life behind me. However, in light of recent news reports, I am struggling with whether to report what I know. Should I just destroy my information and avoid any right to privacy issues (and possible personal liability) or should I bring it to the attention of someone outside the school district in hopes that the abuses will actually be addressed? I cannot go to the mother as I do not even know her name and have been told such horrible things about her by the school that I am afraid of her as well. I know of no agency or group not connected with the school that I can take this information to. What should I do?

Cate May 22, 2009, 7:14 PM

I was also told she was involved with a hate group and drugs and had made various threats towards school staff over the years. Though she was cordial to me, I was prohibited from speaking to her about her son.

I am out of the danger now and I just want to put that horrible episode in my life behind me. However, in light of recent news reports, I am struggling with whether to report what I know. Should I just destroy my information and avoid any right to privacy issues (and possible personal liability) or should I bring it to the attention of someone outside the school district in hopes that the abuses will actually be addressed? I cannot go to the mother as I do not even know her name and have been told such horrible things about her by the school that I am afraid of her as well. I know of no agency or group not connected with the school that I can take this information to. What should I do?

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