Classroom safety and special needs

Noreen Moloney is a paid intern working on a research project with IMPACT. She’s also an experienced tutor for children with autism. So we invited her to comment in this week’s blog.

My eyes were opened to a different world of communication and learning when I worked as an ABA (applied behaviour analysis) tutor in a specialist school for autistic children. Walking into the classroom on my first day I was nervous about what I would see, as I’d heard stories of challenging and difficult behaviour. And yet, I could have been in any senior infants’ classroom, full of papier mache, play-doh and kids overcoming their apprehension on the first day at school.

The major difference was not among the children, but in the teachers and support staff who were there to offer active support through visual-based learning and ABA techniques.

So I was shocked when news emerged this week that children with autism as young as eight are being locked in what are known as ‘withdrawal rooms’for long periods without supervision although, in a frantic news week, the story only appeared in The

Some of IMPACT’s SNA (special needs assistants) organisers said they’d heard of the use of ‘quiet rooms.’ They said these were usually kitted out with bean bags and soft lighting to allow the child to de-escalate their own behaviour, and that a staff member was present at all times to support the children.  None of them had encountered the kind of facilities described in The Journal.

An experienced IMPACT member, who prefers not to be named, responded directly to the article by focusing attention on the lack of appropriate training to manage challenging behaviours among some children with special needs.  “The process of detaining children, as described in that report, can only be described as appalling.  Children with ADD, ADHD or ASD (autistic spectrum disorder) don’t do well in confined spaces. This is well known throughout the education sector so it is difficult to understand how anyone could even consider placing a child in such a confined space.

“More children are presenting now with challenging behaviours, in some cases these can be very extreme. But there is little or no training in appropriate methods of managing challenging behaviours. There is a real need for proper training to offer children the most effective and appropriate methods when they are having these kinds of difficulties. Confining them in the manner described is not a solution. It can only make existing problems worse because it is likely to cause a trauma for the child,” she said.

It would be naïve to deny that the behavior of autistic children in the classroom is sometimes difficult to manage, but the environmental triggers for these behaviours are something we need to understand. With impaired communication and social skills, children on the autistic spectrum can be daunted by the classroom environment and can experience a ‘meltdown’.

To lock a child up in a withdrawal room in these circumstances is a reminder of the previous generations of kids who were failed by the education system – before the development of the SNA service and techniques like ABA.  Some people learn differently, and I like to think we’re getting better at accommodating those who do, which is why that news came as a shock when I heard about it this week.

Every opportunity needs to be taken to improve the level of training available to SNAs and teachers. The access to mainstream education for children with special education needs has been one of the great leaps in modern education. We should continue to strive to improve on it all the time.

Noreen Moloney