Special Education

PBS Show to Highlight British School for Children With Severe Disorders

By Christina A. Samuels — July 23, 2009 1 min read

When I wrote about restraints and seclusion several weeks ago, it raised a kerfuffle with one reader who thought disability advocates are drawing undue attention to the issue. Read the original post, and a follow-up. The implication was that sometimes, teachers just have to restrain or seclude children; the techniques have to remain a tool in their arsenal.

So when my editor sent me information about a documentary following a school in England for young children with severe behavior problems, my interest was definitely piqued. How do they do it, I wonder?

Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go is premiering July 28. For those who don’t have access to PBS or who miss the broadcast, the documentary will also be online.

Filmmakers visited the Mulberry Bush School to document its work with emotionally disturbed students aged 5 to 12. I read through the Web site trying to glean insights into this school’s therapeutic methods. One of the first figures that popped out is that it has an adult-to-child ratio of 108 to 40, which is extraordinary. It’s also extraordinarily expensive, at 123,000 pounds a year per child, according to one news report, or more than $203,000 a year. The money comes from the agencies that place students there. It’s a residential school, which allows for a great deal of trust and relationship-building between the children and the adults who care for them.

The Web site says the school does use “gentle restraint.” But, judging from this article in the London-based Times (this documentary aired a year ago there), nothing beats time and unceasing effort to care for these children, most of whom have been victims of horrific abuse.

The staff are hit, spat at, kicked and head-butted on a daily basis. The worst excesses are dealt with by a period of restraint. To be spinning out of control is not only a danger to others: it’s also a very frightening state for a child to be in. For all their stomping and swaggering, these children are desperate for someone to look after them. Holding them on a huge beanbag outside the classroom gives them a chance to take control of their feelings. But most importantly for children who have been serially let down by those who are supposed to care for them, the adults here don’t go away. Staff talk about “an unconditional regard for the child.” Privately they admit they are often pushed to their limits, but they get up the next day and do it all again.

I don’t blame teachers for saying that headbutting and kicking is not what they signed up for. But not all children exhibit behavior this severe, and yet we still cannot seem to find a place for them. Is there something that we can learn from the Mulberry Bush School, as unique as that program may be? I know I’ll be watching to find out.

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.