A version of this commentary appeared in Edmonton Journal, Vancouver Province and Regina Leader Post

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I’ve often wondered why there’s very little public outcry when the media reports on the cruel use of seclusion rooms for kids with developmental disabilities and delays in schools across Canada.

I’ve worked with kids born with developmental disabilities since I was 16 years old. I started out as a respite worker for families through Child and Family Services. Twelve years ago, when my son was born, I remember someone making a half-hearted attempt at reassurance after we were told he has multiple physical and cognitive diagnoses: “Well, this all will come easy to you. You’re really good at all things disability related!”

I chewed on that statement a lot, aware of the experiences of other families who’ve gone before me. The one thing I knew for sure, I was going to love my kid fiercely for the unique little thinker he would turn out to be.

Media and social media portray childhood disability in extremes making it difficult for those who don’t have first-hand knowledge to understand the complete picture. On one side, you see videos of cute little kids taking their first steps or uttering their first words and succeeding “against all odds;” on the other, I regularly encounter families who receive articles from well- meaning friends and family on controversial therapies claiming to “heal” a disability diagnosis.

It would be difficult for anyone to fully understand the lives of families like mine given the mixed bag of (mis)information out there.

So maybe this is why the use of seclusion rooms in Canadian schools never seems to get the attention it deserves.

Seclusion rooms are separate spaces used for the purposes of physically isolating a child in emotional distress. They can vary widely: sometimes padded, sometimes small and with no windows, some with dim lighting to help the child deescalate and some with a lock on the door.  Many Canadians might be surprised to learn there have been several reports of their use on children with disabilities in recent years in schools in British Columbia and Ontario – including a court case against their use in Alberta.

One challenging reality for some kids with developmental disabilities is that there are often triggers that cause a child to physically lash out or “melt down.” There are many reasons for this to happen, such as an inability to communicate, sensory overload or social challenges.

So what else can be done in place of “seclusion rooms” when this happens? Plenty.

It’s well understood in the field of developmental disabilities that a child’s behaviour is a form of communicating something amiss in the child’s world. Identifying and addressing the trigger can help prevent the behaviour.

A modern understanding of disability through research informs how to effectively deescalate these isolated “melt down” moments, seeking solutions that ensure everyone involved remains safe. Forcefully locking a child in a closet doesn’t come close to making the list.

Having regular conversations between parents, teachers and support teams at school to ensure everyone is aware of developments and on the same page with how to treat certain situations is essential. Whenever possible, including the student in the conversation helps them to understand their needs and potentially learn to communicate needs before things escalate.

The idea behind seclusion rooms comes from their use in mental health facilities. But while mental health facilities are subject to regulatory processes and inspections, there is little accountability for the use of these rooms for children in schools in Canada.

Alberta is moving in the right direction by convening a working group composed of parents, advocates, specialists and teachers to establish a new set of guidelines when isolating students with behavioural issues. It’s a first step anyway.

But it’s time for a national conversation on the use of seclusion rooms in Canadian schools.

Canada has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. These standards were created as a model for the safety and equality of all persons.

Now we need to be taking a good look at how we can ensure these standards can be upheld for all Canadian kids. Looking at eliminating seclusion room use would be a good place to begin.


Rae Martens is based in Calgary, Alberta. She is an active partner in child disability research. She is also a Contributor with EvidenceNetwork.ca based at the University of Winnipeg. This spring she spoke at the UN regarding rights-based approaches to childhood disability in Canada.  

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