Booths and SEND, forced compliance v sensory processing

It was during a job interview – I had done my research beforehand and it was a role I was really keen to do. Things started well; I talked to some enthusiastic pupils and delivered an assembly on Mental Health. Then we came to the tour and three quarters of the way through I was taken to a room at the far end of the school.

“This is our isolation room. This is where pupils come when they refuse to follow our school rules. They stay in here for the whole day, including break and lunch times.”

This week’s blog is from Callum Wetherill, Teacher, Pastoral Leader and SLE

All that excitement that had built up over the morning, disappeared in an instant. I stood there in shock, not quite able to believe what I was seeing and hearing. I had spent nine years in education prior to this day, as a teaching assistant, teacher and Middle Leader; dedicating my life to children and young people with SEND in both mainstream and specialist settings. Nine years of building relationships with pupils who relied on me to teach them all about the often complicated world that they lived in. Almost a decade of working with families who trusted me to love, care for and nurture their child. Never had I seen this practice before and I vowed there and then that I would do all I can to make sure I never had to see it again.

These booths are there as a consequence to a child’s behavioural choices, a punishment when a young person fails to comply with the school rules. There is no choice, often very little adult support and although plenty of opportunity for reflection, I’m not quite sure how much teaching goes on during 6 hours of self-directed learning. To clarify, these are the booths we are campaigning to remove from schools.

Just over two weeks in to the #BanTheBooths campaign and I have read and heard so many different opinions on this single piece of furniture. Let me start by making two things very clear:

  1. I have advocated the use of, and indeed utilised individual workstations for pupils many times in my career.
  2. I am absolutely campaigning for the removal of isolation booths in school – no sitting on the fence from me.

“What a confused argument” I hear you shout. “Why do you say one thing and practice another?” I think one of the most misunderstood elements of the campaign up to now is what the isolation booth actually is and I am hoping to clarify this through this blog.

Most people who have been engaged in the discussion up to now will have seen various images of rooms with multiple booths of various shapes and sizes. In case you haven’t, here is one from the recent BBC article on isolation in schools (

I am fully supportive of the use of individual workstations in classrooms, but punishment booths are very very different in design,  intent and outcomes.

Safe spaces in classrooms can be effective in supporting pupils with SEND and particularly useful for autistic pupils, with a key focus on supporting individuals who have difficulties with sensory processing.

‘Sensory processing is the body’s ability to receive sensory information into the nervous system, process it and then allow the body to respond appropriately’ (Stephens, 2018). Pupils who are hypersensitive (over responsive) to sounds and visual stimuli will often struggle to remain focused in a busy classroom – every display, voice or window will make it more difficult for them to concentrate on the teacher or the work they’re expected to complete. Using a workstation lowers the level of external stimuli being received by the young person and allows them to focus on the task, usually without having to leave the classroom.

When a child self elects to use a workstation it is because they need support in regulating their sensory input. Too much and the body is overloaded, anxiety levels increase, the stress response activated and the hypothalamus causes the brain to go in to fight, flight or freeze. It’s not used as a form of punishment, it’s an intervention based on the needs of the individual. There are two chairs, where a supporting adult will sit and work with the pupil if they need it. It is a support mechanism which looks at underlying and often hard to recognise needs and allows for a pupil to learn, thrive and develop independence. A good place to start if you’d like to do some of your own research would be

I’ve used these workstations in both mainstream and specialist settings, with pupils with a wide range of needs. Indeed, in one class I taught, all three pupils used their own workstations to complete all non-group based tasks. My initial input was delivered with everyone together at the front around the interactive whiteboard, but these pupils had autism and co-occuring sensory processing difficulties, and benefited from their own space to focus. If pupils wanted to interact with each other, then they were encouraged to do so. If they needed adult input, then we would go and sit with them. Most importantly, if a child decided they wanted to work elsewhere, then this was supported – personalised and child centred learning which recognised difficulties and provided intervention in a supportive and non-threatening way.

Punishment/Consequence or Confinement booths used to sanction children are disproportionate, ineffective and unnecessary. We want them banned. Spaces for children with SEND used for one to one support are fundamentally different both in intent and in design.

Callum Wetherill

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