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Have you watched the BBC programme Don’t Exclude Me?

The BBC documentary series Don’t Exclude Me, which has now aired two episodes, follows the school experiences of Oscar and Jack. It depicts the daily reality for many children with additional needs, including the unnecessary use of judgemental and coercive language, public shaming and restraint. Both boys are at risk of exclusion due to poor inclusion practices.

A lack of knowledge on restraint

Staff shown are not properly trained in empowering, supporting and facilitating the growth of children with additional needs. This means they are unable to respond to the boys with timely and appropriate preventative techniques. Staff also have little knowledge on children’s rights and how/when restraint might be used. The principles of ‘least restrictive’ and ‘last resort’ are foreign to them.

Oscar and Jack are described by their parents as ‘nice boys.’ Jack’s mother feels that the child the school describes to her is unknown. At home Jack is a warm, loving boy. Oscar experiences distressed behaviour at home, meanwhile. His parents need support and are asking for help. The series shows Oscar to be a loving, incredibly remorseful and diligent boy after he loses control.

Behaviour as communication

We know that behaviour is communication. For both Oscar and Jack, their distress is clearly a response to stressors experienced in the environment. Their unique needs are not supported, and interventions are not applied soon enough to enable the boys to remain settled and regulated.

For children with additional needs it is not possible to ‘make good choices.’ Behaviour is no longer a choice when our bodily systems and brain functions are overwhelmed. Don’t Exclude Me shows the use of judgemental language that will be familiar to some viewers – e.g. ‘I know you can make a good choice…’ Sadly such language can and does exacerbate trauma, school refusal, mental health problems and the development of a poor self-concept. Children can internalise that they are making a choice when in actual fact their behaviour is beyond their control.

Compassion and affirmation

The Restraint Reduction Network (RRN) believes that behaviour which challenges must be managed with compassion and affirmation. Behaviourism, coercive and judgement-laden language delivered in response to young children’s behaviour – behaviour that isn’t volitional or wilful – can be very harmful. Kind, person-centred, trauma-informed and rights-based approaches should instead be used to help children thrive. This naturally involves listening to children, understanding their feelings, and adapting the environment to meet their unique needs.

Alexis Quinn, Manager of the RRN, is a former school teacher and has herself been subject to restraint. She says: ‘Far from boys like Oscar and Jack being excluded, schools must reflect on the reasons children are distressed, taking preventative, empathic and pro-active strategies to help such children thrive. Restraint is, and should always be, a last resort when imminent danger is present. It should never be something that is used to manage behaviour that challenges. Schools would do well to remember that the use of restraint can, and sometimes is, life-threatening.’ 

Recording to challenge restraint

In July 2021, the RRN welcomed an Equality & Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report concluding that restraint in schools should be monitored, recorded and analysed with the same rigour as school exclusions. ‘This is something the Network has been calling for this for a long time,’ says Quinn. ‘We know that restraint is far less likely to be used if we know how, where, why and when staff are resorting to it. Recording is the only way to challenge and minimise.’

Importantly, the EHRC report noted that schools are often doing their best. Southend’s Milton Hall Primary School – which features in Don’t Exclude Me – is such a school. Yet its staff, including behaviour expert Marie Gentles, are clearly in need of help to understand what constitutes restraint, what needs to be recorded, and how analysis can help support pupils and staff.  

The RRN believes that all staff in contact with children with additional needs require substantial training in additional needs, preventative approaches and restraint. In the documentary, Marie Gentles states that the behaviour management strategies she uses ‘work for all children.’ But they do not. Children with sensory processing challenges, communication difficulties and trauma histories will not respond positively (in the long run) to coercion and behaviourist strategies.

A push for mandatory standards

The RRN is involved in an ongoing push for Mandatory Restrictive Practice Training Standards, akin to those already in the health and social care sectors. These must insist that people with lived experience are involved in the training of staff. This would enable teachers to hear the short- and long-term impact of their actions on children.

Mandatory Training Standards would guide teachers on how to use preventative approaches that help meet the individual and unique needs of their students – thus reducing the need for school exclusion. The standards should also include guidance on what constitutes ‘restraint’ and restrictive practice, and how these must be used as a ‘last resort.’

As part of these mandatory standards, every incident of restraint and/or seclusion used on a child must also be recorded. A standard recording template that can be used nationally must be created so that data can be collected, published and appropriately monitored. Parents/guardians must be informed of every incident.  

Challenging bad practice

The International Coalition Against Restraint and Exclusion – founded by RRN Trustee, Beth Morrison – has now written to the BBC, asking them to remove Don’t Exclude Me from viewing. They cite the obvious Human Rights breaches and normalisation of bad practice in the programme.

We request again that the government strongly consider the recommendations made in the EHRC report, and act. Together we can end the routine and ‘well-intentioned’ abuses perpetrated against children with additional needs; abuses perpetrated in the name of behaviour management.

Alexis Quinn is the Restraint Reduction Network Manager / Coordinator, Autism campaigner, activist and international speaker. She is the author of Unbroken, which tells her story of being detained under the mental health act against her will, and the harmful restrictive practices to which she was subjected. She now writes about her experience and campaigns for systematic change to stop abusive practices, promote neurodiversity and end the stigma surrounding mental health.

To find out more about the Restraint Reduction Network, please visit: www.restraintreductionnetwork.org or join the debate @theRRNetwork