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Esther Leung
BY Esther Leung

10 Alternatives to Restraining a Child with Special Needs

Special needs caregivers often report that they are reluctant or upset if they have to physically restrain their children in certain situations.

The purpose of restraining is to keep something from continuing to take place, and is often a last resort. People wonder if there are ways to prevent the need for it at all.

Here are 10 different strategies that parents and caregivers can try to minimize and avoid physical restraining their children:

1. Acknowledge your child’s frustration

Often behaviors that result in physical intervention are due to frustration – our children are communicating how they are feeling through their movements. It’s important to pay attention and respond to what they are trying to tell us. While children with special needs may not be able to say how they are feeling, we can label it for them.  Label simple emotions and a possible reason why. Example: “You are sad because the TV show is over.”

2. Find distractions

Show a toy or start an upcoming activity.  Sometimes this can help children who are stuck in transitions.  Transitions are hard because the individual is focused on what is ending instead of what is coming next.

3. Keep a steady voice and use simpler language

When our children are upset, keep your language simple. If possible, use consistent language and familiar phrases. Minimize long explanations or instructions.

Think about when you are feeling upset and how it feels when another person is trying to calm you down: If they are talking too much, it also frustrates us and we are likely not hearing what they are saying. It is the same experience for our children. We also should be mindful of the tone and volume of our voices. Children will mirror our behaviors and emotions.

4. Find a calm space

If your child is still having a difficult time calming down, find a spot in the house where there are minimal distractions and stimuli. Create a space that is soothing and calming. Sometimes a break in a different space can help the child return to what they were doing before.

 5. Try not to take it personally

Another situation that restraints occur is when a child is physical towards another person, especially the parent or caregiver. Know that your child is not intentionally meaning to hurt you.

If your child is aggressive towards you, gently guide their hands down and move yourself into a position so there is minimal impact.

 6. Use planned ignoring

Ignoring a behavior does not mean that we do not respond to what a child is doing in hopes that the behavior stops.  Instead, planned ignoring is an intentional decision to minimize our reactions to behavior we want to decrease.

Focus on what you want the child to do instead of what you do not want them to do. Too many instructions in the moment will likely confuse the child or escalate behaviors. For example, a child throws a puzzle piece when we are asking them to complete a puzzle. Instead of having them pick up the puzzle piece or talking about how that was not a good choice, encourage him/her to finish the puzzle.

7. Give your child the chance to do it on his/her own

Children do not always want the adult to help them with a task, even if they do require the assistance.  Respect their desire to be their own person.  Give them time to try or observe the task first. Then ask if they want help or let them know you are going to help them, especially if you plan on using physical guidance.

8. Set activities up for success

Take time to assess if the tasks or situations in which behavior occurs can be modified for your child.  There is a possibility that your child could perceive the task as too difficult or too easy. Make the task interesting but also achievable for your child.

9. Minimize risk

If your child is demonstrating self-injurious behaviors, the ultimate priority is to keep him/her safe as possible.  This is often the reason why people end up using a physical hold for the behavior to stop.  However, stopping the movements may actually cause the behavior to continue or get worse. It is hard for them to learn new strategies in moments of stress. Instead of restraining movements, we can gently guiding our children’s movements so they do not hurt themselves. For example, if they throw themselves to the ground, allow them to do this, but guide them so that they do not hurt themselves. If there is head banging, put a pillow or use your hand to keep the head from hitting a hard surface.

10. Ask for Support

There may be other factors or considerations for your child where a more individualized approach is needed.  Contact your local community supports to speak with professionals and therapists who can provide insight and education about your child and family’s needs.

Esther Leung

Written on August 6, 2012 by:

Esther Leung is a special needs consultant who has worked with children, youth and families. She has 15 years of experience in a variety of settings including homes, childcare, schools and recreational settings. She now lives in Chicago with her husband and 2 young boys.
  • Heather Thomas

    Great article pointing out very effective ways to handle extreme behavior. I think another important one is to take care of yourself and to make time (even if its 10-20 minutes a day). I know when “my battery is charged” I feel much more confident and in control when dealing with my own three children.

    It is absolutely essential to find non-physical forms of child behavior management. I have worked with children since 1998 and have only needed to restrain two children as they would have caused serious self-harm.

    I don’t think people are aware of the injuries and deaths that have occurred with physical restraint.

    Thanks again for your message!

  • Kai’mam

    Very good article. I do most of the things this way . Not because i read about them, but as a mom from a severe classic autism diagnosed beautifull boy, this is what i learned by being the best mom i can possibly be. observe and try to see things threw his eyes…..

  • Cytgrandma4

    Good tips that can be tweaked to fit your individual child.  Planned ignoring leads to more frustration for mine, unless I set a boundary and give a short explanation.  ie. We need some time and space.  I’m going to ignore your talking for 5 minutes and get refocused, and you will stay in _______(he picks a room where I am not) so that you can calm and refocus.  Then we will come back together and talk. Sometimes he needs to go and do 5-10 minutes of physical action. Thanks for the ideas.

  • Dawn

    Great tips! We use encourage families to use alternate-restraint tactics at our Feeding Clinic. Some families have been told by other therapists to hold them down and force feed them. It is so frustrating to see this on a daily basis! Thank you for helping families get the right information! 🙂 
    Dawn Winkelmann, M.S, CCC-SLPSpeech Pathologist/Feeding

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  • rebelmom

    I totally agree with all this, but first of all, the #1 reason physical restraint is used is because the child is not only endangering him/herself and also a danger to other students. I say this because typically restraint is used in the classroom, rarely is it used at home! I say rarely, not “never”! Don’t get me wrong, I am not an advocate for restraint! Absolutely, there are alternatives, and if settings, materials, methods are set up correctly to begin with, the use of restraining is quite possibly a non-issue, but in some rare instances, it does need to happen for everyones safety, ie: when desks are flying, death threats are being verbalized, and the child is larger than the teacher all due to unforseen disruption in routine! Some things just cannot be forseen or helped and some children in new situations have not yet learned how to handle new situations – just saying! So proper training needs to be put in place not only for the one person (teacher) but for everyone!

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