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Why we should #BanTheBooths by Wayne Beech

Let me set the scene: It is half past one, I am sat in my office and while the rest of the school settle into their learning for the afternoon, the verbal barbs of “let me out, this is child abuse, you’re not my dad!” echo into the otherwise tranquil corridor.

This week’s BanTheBooths blog is from Wayne Beech, Deputy Headteacher of a Primary School serving an area of high deprivation. 

His day has not been a productive one, with the Christmas season in full swing, the onslaught of Nativity practices, Christmas Fairs and regular interruptions to the timetable, his ability to cope with the school day has diminished. As a result, he became verbally and physically abusive to the adults around him and was sent out of class and placed in my office. He couldn’t have stayed in class, even if he wanted to- it wouldn’t have been safe or fair. 

After 20 minutes of time in my office, with me, he had calmed, we had hugged, had a snack and a drink and chatted about the weekend. This facilitated an opportunity to have a detailed and emotional conversation about what had led to his outburst, how we can put it right and create a plan together to avoid the same outcome again. My time with him, to me, gives a very clear example of why deep isolation booths used do not work. They fundamentally go against every instinct we have as professionals, adults, parents and humans. Against the core of the problem, which in my experience often comes down to one thing- a child who is already, in some way or another isolated.

“There is no better way to dismantle a personality than to isolate it” – Princess Diana.

I would defy anyone to find a credible piece of research that conclusively states that when a child is in utter crisis, the best strategy is to pop them into a cube for an extended period of time and hope the matter resolves itself. 

Do not get me wrong, I absolutely agree with the need to provide children with reflective time away from peers and adults to process their emotions and understand consequence. I am far from someone who believes that hugs and handholding are the only way to manage behaviour. But forced deep isolation?

With a decade worth of experience of supporting children with challenging behaviour, including leading a PRU, I have never seen deep isolation booths work. 

I suppose the question is “Who are they for?”

Booths are too often used to contain, control and constrict as opposed to reengage, rebuild and reflect. 

I don’t actually ‘do Edu-Twitter’ but the debate has reached beyond the realms of social media which has led me to read the opinions out there to try and see what people’s arguments actually were. From my perspective, the debate can be won on by a practical argument; the booths don’t work. 

When working with challenging children, it has been evident to me that the success of an isolation booth is based on 2 things, compliance and determination. 

Creating compliance is morally ambiguous. Repeated use of the sanction may, eventually, wear the child down to compliance in a ‘Pavlov’s Dog’ situation, but does it create responsibility or any adjustment in behaviour? Sit. Stay. Good boy. If only, hey?

Through the sheer determination of the school and specific adults, the child can be made to sit in a booth. Sometimes, additional support may be needed to ensure the child complies; it becomes a battle of wills on an epic scale, forcing the adults to think of creative and often inspired strategies to solve a problem they had created. Unless you are prepared to take the nuclear option of ‘positive handling’, this child will win, they are more stubborn, resilient and wily than we will ever be. 

There will likely be repeated attempts to leave, swing back on chairs, climb, talk, distract and generally become a nuisance. Have you ever seen a child in a booth? Often, the first a child in a booth will do is peer around the walls, trying to see what’s going on outside of their confinement and looking around for eye contact of peers or adults. Trying to connect with someone, anyone. 

A great leader I worked with a long time ago told me something when I was at the dawn of my career that has formed by approaches from then on: “You can’t tell them off if they don’t like you”. That stuck with me. Whenever I have supported a child in ‘isolation’, I have always learned a great deal from the experience, it might only be their favourite pizza topping or what animal they would be, but these are incredibly valuable strands of information. These snippets help to build rapport, talk down and prevent escalations in future. They bring the child back to who they are. 

 

Successfully reducing a child’s level of disruption or emotional outbursts is not about a room or a booth. It is about providing a safe space where strong emotions can be soothed and a child becomes ready to engage in reflection about what happened and what to do next. It seems obvious to me that often the children forced into isolation booths are those who are unable to adequately ‘reflect’ on their own or self-regulate (that is likely to be why they ended up needing behavioural support in the first place). Kids sometimes need a place to settle. If that safe space is a booth or a tent or a bean bag or a desk is neither here nor there. What is the sticking point is duration spent in the space and what the adults do before, during and after a child is removed from class. 

Perhaps renaming isolation time as ‘reflection time’ or ‘time out’ might be a useful way to reframe confusion about the intention of stress reduction when a child’s behaviour becomes problematic. Being ‘in isolation’ should not translate as being isolated. Placing children in deep isolation booths for excessive durations of time to create a feeling of isolation in individuals is terribly concerning. And again, if the aim is to create reflection and change, it won’t work so it’s time wasted, sorry. 

So, to those who are confusing isolation from the classroom environment with creating situations where a child becomes totally isolated ask yourselves: can a person who is deeply isolated then be expected to fully engage in a rich, respectful and reflective connection as a result of this isolation?

 It’s a no from me. 

Wayne Beech, Deputy Headteacher 

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