Getting Physical

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Helen Woodley

Helen Woodley is a primary trained SENDCo currently working in a large KS1-4 Pupil Referral Unit in the North East of England. She spent 3 years studying Theology in Durham; Helen has worked in a wide variety of special school settings, including all age schools....
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Are physical interventions supportive or a necessary evil?

Like many teachers in specialist settings (and a growing number in mainstream), I am trained to use physical interventions. Call them what you will, from holds to restraints, myself and my colleagues are frequently called upon to do this and all of the schools I have worked in have used a company called Team Teach to train staff.

As a 23-year old NQT in a special needs primary, I quickly understood the need for training as some of my class would grab hair or clothes and we needed to be able to control these situations and keep the young person safe. Within other settings the need was different although safety remained at the heart of it.

When you are faced with a chair being swung at your head you have to know how to keep cool and have training that gives you confidence to cope.

What I’ve always liked is the message that it is 95% de-escalation and only 5% using anything physical. Added to that the restraints we do use these are nothing like that used by the police; they are generally very low-level and are always performed with colleagues and observers.

Degrading And Ineffective

However an old article as part of the Guardian’s ‘secret teacher’ page made me think about the other side of physical interventions.

Throughout my career I have been involved in ‘messy’ restraints; learning them with cooperative adults does not prepare you for a pupil in a red mist who you cannot reason with. They can be sweaty and emotional situations for all involved. Being a young teacher and having to ask a colleague to pull my shirt down as my bra was exposed is nothing I learnt about on my PGCE.

So I can understand the feelings of the secret teacher who felt ‘grubby’. I’ve been there: sweaty and covered in spit that certainly was not my own. I’ve also experienced, in all the LAs I have worked in, a lack of understanding about what physical interventions are all about.

I think many higher up in education would agree with the secret teacher that they can be humiliating for all involved. They can be. That’s undeniable.

Highly Supportive

Yet, the vast majority of the time, they are not and can be powerfully supportive.

For some young people they have been the only way they have known to get physical comfort from an adult; they have craved a cuddle and a restraint has swiftly moved into a hug and a gentle rock.

Other times pupils have reached the point where their explosive melt down and the subsequent restraint has led to them feeling safe and secure and being open to discuss deeper emotional issues. No one likes or enjoys using physical interventions; they are emotionally draining and can leave both of you physically exhausted. Yet out of that difficult moment, some real positivity is possible.

One of the key Government policies on this is  ‘The Use of Reasonable Force’  and it is clear in its message that sometimes physical interventions are necessary and I certainly agree with this. The restraints I have been involved in might have been challenging but, without intervention, the situation might have been much worse.Using a physical intervention is not easy and I would whole-heartedly recommend decent training and continued refreshers not only to ensure that the young person and yourself are safe but also to make sure that you are confident that everything was done and recorded properly. Those records you fill in are kept for a long time.

Don’t Be Afraid

But should we be scared of them? I would argue that we shouldn’t if training and the support of school leadership is in place.

The positives that come from the chaos can be life changing for pupils, and I certainly wouldn’t want to remove the added opportunity of deeper relationships with young people which also happen, as a result of such interventions.

So, what are your experiences? Do you see them as humiliating and dehumanising? Do you see them as supportive and necessary? When would you use them? When have you thought it was unnecessary and wrong? Do they have a place in mainstream?

I wonder where your own personal boundaries lie…


2 thoughts on “Getting Physical

  1. Great article. I also work in a school like this, and accept that the physical intervention is necessary, but not pleasant. However,when done right, and properly discussed afterwards, it can be a real boost to the relationships between staff and child.

    It is far more de-humanising to leave it until the police get called, and they get arrested!

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