Education: Keep Calm / The uses and abuses of calm rooms by local schools

Carrie Steingruber
August 2015 in
July 22, 2015
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“‘Bye bye, school.’ That’s what he kept on saying. ‘Bye bye, school.’”
Looking back, local mom Ashley Hall says the signs should have been obvious. Something was disturbing her son Travis. The then 5-year-old had just started kindergarten at a public school in Austin known for its top-notch special education program. This was Travis’ fifth school, and the third time the Halls had uprooted to a different district hoping to find the right place for their son, who has autism, sensory processing disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. The Halls were freshly unpacked, once again optimistic that they’d finally found the one; Travis, though, was trying to tell his parents the not-so-rosy truth. He resisted the school bus. He cried and threw more tantrums than usual. And when Hall would ask Travis about his day … silence.
When the school called a meeting, the Halls learned why Travis wanted to wave goodbye to the school. In his first week, the kindergartner had been accompanied to a “work carrel” area at least 10 times due to defiant and disruptive behavior. “He was required to sit at the desk with his feet flat on the ground and his hands on the desk and his head straight at all times,” Hall explains. “They had set a timer for five minutes, and he had to hold his body still for five minutes. If he turned his head or coughed or whatever, that time would stop and be reset again up until he could hold still for five minutes.”
On one occasion, Hall says, Travis wet his pants because his caregiver thought his plea for the restroom was a thinly disguised plan to make a run for it.
According to Hall, the school defended its practices, citing Travis’ “unteachable” behavior. When we asked for comment, the district was unable to deny or confirm that such corrective measures might be taken with a student, but a district representative insisted that discipline strategies — including a work carrel or calm room — are specified in the students’ individualized education plans (IEPs).
Hall may have said yes to a calm room, but she did not say yes to traumatizing her son.
Calm room, reflection room, focus room, recovery room — schools have all kinds of agreeable names to choose from when it comes to labeling the stark spaces that in theory are designed to keep kids safe during a meltdown. Some “rooms” are actually hallways or slices of office space where children can de-escalate within view of administrative staff; others are stand-alone rooms with or without a door (or anything else, like furniture). Local districts including Plano, Rockwall, Lake Worth, Birdville, Keller, Mansfield and Irving use calm rooms of one fashion or another that vary from campus to campus.
In a recent investigation, NBC 5 exposed an egregious abuse of one such room in Plano, where an 8-year-old boy with autism was locked in a closet-sized space, taunted by a teacher and even physically attacked. His parents were not notified.
The shocking video of the incident rightly puts calm rooms and the schools that use them under the public microscope. And what we see is a therapeutic tool sadly warped beyond its legal and ethical boundaries. While we must demand an end to the abuse, some experts and parents — Hall included — have no wish to see the end of calm rooms … on certain terms, that is.
“There is always potential for misuse of any intervention,” says Karen Toussaint, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Behavior Analysis at the University of North Texas. “We talk about these calm rooms — are they good or are they bad? It will always depend on how it’s implemented.”
Ignorance is dangerous
What you don’t know about your school’s calm rooms can hurt your child. But schools put the burden on parents to suss out the information they want. By state law, schools must notify parents when their child is restrained, but when it comes to calm rooms and similar spaces, schools have free reign to notify or not to notify as they please. If your child spends half the day in a calm room, you may never hear about it — especially if, like Hall, you agreed on the calm room as a behavioral strategy in your child’s IEP.
And without a killer cross-examination, you may not know exactly what you agreed to in the first place. Hall never imagined that “compliance activities” (a vague consequence listed in Travis’ behavior intervention plan) would involve forcing her overstimulated 5-year-old to sit still for five minutes. She never even saw the room or rooms he would be escorted to.
State law spells out a couple of basic guidelines for these rooms: each room must be at least 50 square feet, and the exit cannot be barred or blocked (including by a locked door).
Some local districts adhere to the law, but the lack of communication that surrounds calm rooms fosters a lack of accountability. To stand in the gap, Disability Rights Texas (DRT) has donned the role of district watchdog. The organization recently sued Mansfield ISD, simply to get information about the district’s 19 “blue rooms.” Like parents, DRT wants to know what’s actually going on inside these calm rooms and why students are ushered there in the first place.
Though the spaces see action during a crisis, such as when a child decides to hurl chairs at other students, DRT has discovered that “kids gone wild” is not the only trigger. Constance Wannamaker, an attorney for DRT, says they frequently find that teachers resort to calm rooms for everyday classroom transgressions like talking back and not staying on task. “We’re talking about behaviors that the teachers just either don’t know how to deal with or aren’t equipped to deal with,” she says. “We do understand that it’s difficult for these teachers. But if the rooms are there, and the teachers are told that they can use them, they’re going to do it.”
Experts fear that calm rooms are not just misused, but overused. “You cannot say, ‘This is what we have in place for every child,’” cautions Toussaint. “That’s the real problem. It has to be that we know what maintains the behavior for a child, and that this is a well-matched intervention. That’s the key.” While removing a child to keep everyone safe seems like a good idea, removing every child for every instance of misbehavior is not.
And certainly, abandoning a child to his meltdown accomplishes nothing. “It seems exclusionary: ‘I’m not on your team, I can’t help you,’” explains Casey Call, Ph.D., assistant director of education at the Texas Christian University Institute of Child Development. “Children begin to feel like they’re on their own.”
A different danger is that calm room frequent fliers will learn that acting out is a surefire way to get out of a frustrating task — an option that looks even better if the calm room includes music or sensory toys. “For those children, the calm room is probably the worst strategy you could do, because in the long term what you would likely see is an increase in problem behavior,” reasons Toussaint. “Is the child accessing things that are good for them by engaging in appropriate behavior? That’s the bottom line.”
When Travis began attending the educational program at It’s a Sensory World in Farmers Branch in January, co-founder and program director Angela Stephens realized she couldn’t use removal as a strategy for him because that would be tantamount to rewarding his disruptive behavior. “He wanted to be out,” she explains. “I didn’t want to reinforce that. It had become an escape behavior, an avoidance behavior.” Instead, Travis is learning to ask nicely if he needs to spend time in a “safe space” or swing (one of the center’s calming tools). “You’re trying to get them to the point where they are able to self-regulate, able to tell you what they need at that moment to be successful,” says Stephens.
The new self-regulation strategy has worked wonders in the short months since Travis arrived at It’s a Sensory World. No more work carrel for Travis and a lot more hugs for Mom, Hall reports. But tops in the “Most Improved” category is Travis’ ability to tamp down his emotions. “He says, ‘Momma, I feel anxious but I’m going to count to 10, and then I’m going to feel better.’ He says that, all those words!” Hall gushes.
Not all bad
Hall believes that when schools use calm rooms to teach this kind of self-regulation, kids like her son can reap therapeutic benefits instead of dreading the school day.
Stephens, who has a daughter with trauma disorder, agrees. “These rooms are actually an excellent intervention tool for these kids if they’re not presented to the kids in such a negative way,” she says. She spent nine years at a local private school that employed calm rooms — not as a punishment but as a teaching strategy. Counselors coached kids through the self-regulation process and helped them verbalize their needs so that eventually, the children learned to seek out the rooms of their own volition.
“It was also a place to take them out of the room for the protection of the kids that were in the classroom,” Stephens adds. “Some of these meltdowns can get pretty intense, which is traumatic for other kids in the room. I just know for my daughter, even just witnessing one of those meltdowns can be traumatic.”
If the calm room works like it should, children may end up seeing less of it, says Call. “What we have found is that when you’re connected to them, meeting their needs, teaching them proactively and mentoring their regulation skills, the need for a place like that will decrease dramatically.”
Irving ISD’s Wheeler Transitional Development Center has one “reflection room” that sees daily use by its fluid population of around 30 students with special needs who are all working toward reintegration into typical classrooms. The room is bare by design, both to prevent students from using props to harm themselves and to reduce distractions for students feeling overstimulated (but a kickboard, beanbag and foam square wait in the wings for children who need to push, punch or squeeze something). A clipboard hangs outside the room for staff to record the details of every visit, and that information is passed on to parents.
Mackenzie Casall, coordinating principal at Wheeler, emphasizes that the room is a positive, not punitive, place for students to refind solid ground with the help of trained staff members. It’s a safe spot to scream, talk through anxiety or even sleep. “They’re there to calm down; they’re there to gain rationality and get back to instruction. I think a room like that really allows for them to increase their time of learning and get right back in with everybody else.”
But the room would not be successful if it weren’t for strict guidelines and staff training, Casall asserts. “We’ve got guidelines, and we follow those guidelines. An adult must be present in the room. That is non-negotiable. And that when they’re calm, they’re going back to class. That is non-negotiable.” A flowchart detailing the cool-down process, including the non-negotiable rules, hangs next to the clipboard outside the room as a constant reminder.
On larger campuses, such accountability and staff support may be harder to maintain, paving the way for calm room abuses that go unreported, as in Plano. “I’m not going to sit here and say that I think calm rooms are a good idea in every school, because I don’t,” admits Stephens. “I think it’s the structure of the school, and it’s the administration, and it’s the team that they have. There are some schools that probably shouldn’t have them, because given the circumstances, they may not be used appropriately.”
Knowledge is power
To keep your child out of the headlines, find a campus that prioritizes treating the misbehavior instead of punishing the misbehavior — whether or not that treatment includes a calm room. Demand the specifics of the school’s behavior management strategies. What exactly happens if your child has a meltdown?  “Ask every single question you can possibly think of, and if you don’t get the answers that make you feel comfortable, then it’s not the right place for you,” says Stephens.
And if calm rooms are in the blueprints, don’t let yourself be blindsided like Hall. Visit the rooms, nitpick every section of your child’s behavior plan and do what it takes to keep the school honest.
Hall admits that she is still learning the ropes when it comes to running interference for her child.
“If I were to do it all over again, the first thing I would do is hire a school advocate, because you have to make sure the law is on your side,” she advises. “The second thing I would do is go and visit. Drop in on them. You have a right to drop in at any time and see what your child is doing.” She adds that asking questions shouldn’t be confined to the start of school. Keep asking about your child’s behavior management throughout the year and investigate the when, the why and the what-happened-after of every major meltdown.
“You need to just make sure you know what’s going on,” Wannamaker stresses. “Because if the parent doesn’t know anything, then obviously the parent can’t do anything about it.”

Published August 2015

If It Happens To You

If your child has been a victim of calm room abuse due to his or her special needs, report the incident to Disability Rights Texas, which is actively trying to clean up calm rooms across the state. Call the intake line at 800/252-9108 or fill out the online intake form at

An Alternative: Sensory Rooms

Some schools employ sensory rooms instead of or in addition to traditionally bare calm rooms. Disability Rights Texas (DRT) prefers this approach. “What we would like to see is situations where the child is taught to self-remove from the classroom and go to these calming areas, and they have in them things like music or sensory objects,” says Constance Wannamaker, an attorney with DRT. These items can help the child self-soothe.
Casey Call, Ph.D., assistant director of education at the Texas Christian University Institute of Child Development, lists essential oils, beanbags, stuffed animals and snacks as other sensory room accessories that can fulfill the needs that may have caused a child’s meltdown. In a research study conducted at an elementary school in Oklahoma, Call and her colleagues noted a drastic reduction in office referrals when students started the day in a sensory room and took sensory breaks throughout the day. “We’ve seen this implemented with elementary schools, middle schools, high schools and alternative schools,” she says. “You just have to have teachers and caregivers who are attuned to what the students need.”


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