Is Isolation Regulating or Punitive for Students?

Child with hands on head looking upset.
Child with hands on head looking upset.

Often those of us who are dealing with students who have struggled with their behavior or impulse control ask what the best strategy is for helping them figure out how to handle these difficult moments. In our schools, our detention facilities and in other types of programs our approach to these situations can make a huge difference in how students will respond, learn, change these patterns and find new pathways to cope with tough moments.

It can be confusing to figure out what is best to do. There are those in some programs and strategies who isolate students to separate them from other individuals and situational triggers. As these youth process what happened it can be very helpful to move them to a place of safety to discover their own emotions that lead to their impulsive behavior. There is a sense that this type of temporary isolation may be regulating as the student calms their stress response, works toward calming their emotions and becomes more cognitive in their perspective.

However, isolation in and of itself can feel very punitive particularly when there are no tools, no strategies, and no relationship to help students know how to respond to their own emotions and impact. Students need relationship and guidance in these difficult moments. It is not effective to communicate through isolation that they are somehow going to learn how to better deal with their stressors by being alone. If they were capable of that kind of self-discovery, they probably would have done it themselves.

Students who are angry, anxious, depressed or violent need a caring adult with whom to build a relationship who will keep them safe while they are reprocessing those erratic emotions. They need someone to teach them strategies and options to help them cope with their brain dysregulation. They must recognize that when they feel the urge to create chaos, they need to stop, find a regulation strategy, and create calm in their emotional state. Without that regulation they are incapable of building a relationship and finding cognitive clarity about their stress responses. 

When a student is attempting to break destructive patterns of behavior, they need a predictable and structured process that will teach them how to be responsible for their emotions and behavior.  It can be helpful to temporarily isolate a student for their own regulation but it should not be a measure of punitive consequence. It is a pause in life to allow their enzymes and emotions to regulate after which they need support and guidance in how they will discover new ways to help them cope with their triggers and angst. That cannot happen without a skilled and caring adult to help them find that new space of coping, responsibility and emotional health.

This is how we at Lakeside help our students grow in the awareness of their needs, their regulation and their strategies to live responsible lives. Isolation does not achieve this goal, connection does! All of us who deal with students need to keep this in mind when they have their difficult moments.

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO

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