Isn’t it our moral responsibility to teach young children? And isn’t it also our moral imperative to teach children to behave appropriately? It is time to have a discussion about the mental health of all children in Minnesota schools.

We need to examine how mismanagement of children with behavior problems damages not only those children, but everyone in the school environment. We need to use what science tells us about childhood development to improve the learning environment for all children.

The rule on behavior interventions in the state of Minnesota is a misunderstood policy that has led to chaos in our schools. Most principals and behavior specialists have interpreted the rule as “we don’t ever touch children.” Ask any teacher or staff member in our public schools: We allow children to act in ways we would never tolerate in our homes.

There has been a great deal of misinformation and pressure to never touch children. This is not the intention of the rule.

This is happening in each and every school in Minnesota. Principals are afraid to touch children even to the point of letting them run out of the school, then calling the police to respond.

The only current solution is to move these types of children to a more restrictive setting full of similar children with behavior issues. The move to a different setting takes months, and in the meantime special education teachers and paraprofessionals burn out in their attempts to please children as they coax and cajole them to participate.

Because these children are learning as we interact with them, they manipulate the situation to get out of the room or get adult attention whenever they want it. If they want to go home, some children know how to get suspended. Without clear boundaries, we absolutely make children with behavior problems worse.

How many other children in our schools are quickly developing problems and are feeling unsafe or afraid because the adults are following this insane rule? We often “evacuate” classrooms as an out-of-control student rips bulletin boards or throws desks. Imagine a little girl in a pink dress waiting outside in the rain until another child’s outburst is over; only to come in and see her artwork is destroyed and her teacher is crying.

Mental health begins with security, safety and predictability — for all children. We need to provide appropriate discipline for young children as they are learning the rules in a new setting.

The behavior intervention rule was written so school staff do not overuse or misuse physical restraint and seclusion. With that being said, it was never the intent of this rule to stop physical prompting and forbid using common sense to help children develop appropriate school behaviors.

Instead of instituting a “hands off” policy in the first few months of school, we need to be utilizing shaping procedures in a flexible manner to help children adjust to school. As per the state of Minnesota discipline specialist, physical prompting is not outlawed in school. For young children, this means we can touch, hold, block and move children, even if they are resisting when resistance is minimal, according to state law. To not do so is to create more problems than are solved and is grossly unfair to children.

Seventy years of research into how young children learn supports setting expectations, reinforcing correct response and correcting misbehavior. Teachers should be encouraged to use, and later fade, appropriate amounts of physical guidance; just as we do in any developmental task young children are mastering.

We don’t expect children to come to school knowing how to read or write. We need to adopt the same idea about appropriate behavior. Correct children when you need to in order to assist them in learning expectations. Let appropriately trained professionals shape behavior while children are young so they learn boundaries in a safe, predictable and consistent manner.

We are failing our children and we need to challenge unreasonable rules and instead use common sense. This is an adult-driven catastrophe.

 

Mary Mitchell Lundeen, of Elk River, is a licensed psychologist. Shelly Hedstrom, of Woodbury, is a special education and regular education teacher. Judy Klein-Pells, of Darwin, Minn., is an early childhood special education teacher.