Policy, Promising Practices, Well-being

Failing Joey

It’s time to allow teachers to give troubled Kindergarten students the physical support they need

Joey* storms over to the art table in his Kindergarten classroom and sweeps his arm across it, knocking markers and crayons all over the floor. “Joey, please stop that,” his teacher asks, but he proceeds to knock over bins of Lego and beads. As she has been directed, she turns away and feigns attention to other children in the class, but when Joey moves toward the computer all 26 of his classmates are ushered out of the room by the class’s Early Childhood Educator (ECE). This is the third time this week that Joey’s tantrums have resulted in the classroom being turned upside down. Yesterday he ran out of his class and then right out of the schoolyard, into the community. The principal and vice-principal followed Joey for half an hour as he wandered, watching to ensure that he did not get too close to the busy street – but they did not stop him.

How and why have we reached the point where responsible adults are stepping back from their duty to care for young children? Is it simply a fear of litigation that has brought this about? Has this hands-off approach evolved due to directives at the Ministry level, the Board of Education level, or from individual principals? Is it based on some pedagogy which suggests that children need to learn to set their own limits? In Ontario (and presumably elsewhere), this is a problem that needs to be discussed, because Joey needs help.

Joey cannot regulate his behaviour. And what is happening at school is not helping him; instead his needs are worsening and multiplying.

Joey is out of control. He is unable to regulate the storm of emotions that he experiences at school. Although Joey is three years old and legally old enough to be in an Ontario Kindergarten program, emotionally and developmentally he is even younger. His needs are those of a two-year-old – a language deprived, poorly nourished, overtired, and emotionally disturbed two-year-old. He needs a treatment program and a daycare-style setting. Instead he is in a Kindergarten program that is too demanding for him and drastically ill-equipped to meet his needs. Joey has a right to be in the Ontario school system, but his teachers do not have the right to provide him with the treatment that he needs. There are people with the expertise to meet Joey’s needs, but Board of Education policies, union directives and the fear of litigation do not allow these educators to do the right thing to help this struggling child.

Parents know what the “terrible twos” are like: toddlers, at the mercy of their own emotions, lie on the floor pounding their arms and legs, scream “No, I want it!” or hit and throw things in frustration and anger. Upset two-year-olds are not able to control themselves or follow verbal directions; physically (but gently) preventing them from dangerous or destructive behaviour is part of the toddler-care territory. For many reasons, Joey is still in the terrible twos. Guiding and consoling such a young child requires hands-on care. Joey has not had comforting reassurances after a tantrum, such as “It’s okay to be angry, everyone gets angry,” nor has he internalized important early childhood messages like: “Adults will keep you safe.” He hasn’t experienced the security of routines and limits to live within. Most of all, Joey has not been cuddled, hugged and loved.

Dr. Stuart Shanker, a Professor of Psychology at York University who has done extensive work in the area of self-regulating behaviour, writes:

“The tactile stimulation that the baby receives when you hold or stroke her release neurohormones that are highly calming; through your voice, your shining eyes, your smiling face, or gently rocking or bouncing your baby when she is fussy, you are laying the foundation for good self-regulation.”[1]

Joey doesn’t have this foundation to control his impulses or emotions. As a result, he cannot regulate his behaviour. And what is happening at school is not helping him acquire this foundation; instead his needs are worsening and multiplying.

There is a large and growing number of “Joeys” in Ontario who are in need of special care. They are becoming social pariahs among their classmates, learning that destruction of property is permitted and internalizing the belief that their behaviour is uncontrollable.

In many if not most boards across the province, teachers are not allowed to physically stop children if they resist being touched in any way. These “hands off” restrictions prevent teachers from doing what their common sense and parenting instincts tell them to do for an upset young child: to hold him and help him through his tantrum, to prevent him from causing serious damage, and to cuddle and reassure him when the storm subsides. This inability of professional adults charged with caring for young disturbed children to do what is so obviously needed is now a crisis in Ontario.

The root of the problem appears to be the fear of litigation. Yet Section 43 of the Canadian Criminal Code would lead one to believe that teachers and parents are protected by law for the basic restraint of a child such as Joey. Section 43 says:

“Every schoolteacher, parent or person standing in the place of a parent is justified in using force by way of correction toward a pupil or child, as the case may be, who is under his care, if the force does not exceed what is reasonable under the circumstances.”[2]

Certainly holding Joey to prevent him from destroying his classroom would be deemed “reasonable under the circumstances”; not only for the sake of safety but also to teach Joey and his classmates about rules and limits. The question then is: Is there additional legal documentation needed to protect teachers should they need to restrain a young student?

What can we do for Joey?

Typically, a boy like Joey is given an Individual Educational Plan (IEP) in which specific learning and behavioural goals are set out for each term of the school year. These plans are agreed upon and signed by teachers, principal and parents in order to ensure that all parties understand the goals and approaches toward a student’s learning. These days, school principals in Joey’s community will not allow an IEP to include words like “restrain” – it’s far too legally risky in the Board’s opinion. They also tend not to do IEP’s for JK students. Could the IEP, if signed by all parties, be the legal document needed for Joey’s teacher to take care of him? Is a new legal document needed for quick processing in September when disturbed children enter Junior Kindergarten? Regardless of these possibilities, the fact remains that if Joey’s parents do not wish to sign such a document, they are still entitled to send Joey to school.

There are Special Education departments that provide a wide range of services for special needs children. Fortunately for Joey, his school is in a jurisdiction where Special Education programs are more extensive than in many. Unfortunately for Joey, these programs are not available to JK students. Once in Senior Kindergarten, the long process of admitting him into a special-needs program might begin. The reams of paperwork and process that are required – behaviour reports, special interventions, psychological assessing – will mean that, if there is an appropriate program for him, he will not get access to it for a year or two. Consequently, those vitally important first five years of his life will have slipped away before his needs are met. Had Joey’s teachers been able to establish reasonable limits using calm, caring restraint when Joey started school, he would have had a chance to learn and adapt to the routines of the classroom and work through the “terrible twos” stage of development.

The interventions that can be implemented during Joey’s long wait are spelled out in a Board-approved document entitled “Behavior Management Systems” (BMS).[3] This program is clearly designed to approach children with behavioural difficulties without using physical contact. Numerous reasonable approaches to avoid and redirect violent behaviours and set appropriate limits are suggested. There is also extensive coverage of legislation, consultation, confidentiality and required paperwork. The overriding message is: do not engage in physical contact with children. Between the lines teachers read: cover yourself legally at all costs. The program appears to be tailor-made to suit the legal parameters that Ontario teachers are working within. It does not appear to be designed for a three-year-old such as Joey.

The BMS course does instruct how to safely restrain children who are demonstrating violent behaviour. The procedure is remarkably basic and logical in its approach to ensuring that upset children do not hurt themselves or others. For example, “when being attacked (punched etc.), educator blocks and takes hold of the student’s arm, passing the arm in front of the student. Wrap your arms around the student, passing the contained hand to your other hand. Take hold of the remaining arm…”[4]

Experienced Kindergarten teachers who take the BMS course tend to find it to be elementary. The redirecting, the safe classroom set-ups and the limit setting are all part of any good Kindergarten teacher’s repertoire. Joey’s teacher is a superlative, experienced, knowledgeable professional who has used techniques such as these for years. But despite their training and experience, Joey’s teachers, educational assistants and ECEs are being told by their Board and by their unions not to restrain children in any way unless personal injury is imminent.

So Joey’s tantrums are “managed” without physical intervention, despite behaviour that destroys property, puts himself, other students and teachers in danger, and is very likely frightening to Joey himself. Instead, and in all seriousness, the BMS course advises little Joey’s teacher to consider personal protective equipment such as helmets, shin guards, hairnets and emergency communication devices.

If this seems absurd in the context of such a young child, it is because one of the major faults in the BMS training is that there is no recognition of the differing stages of child development (beyond a distinction between “small” and “larger” students). Yet there is a world of difference, developmentally, between even a well-adjusted three-year-old and the Grade 1+ students this program is designed for.

How can we help Joey to join in to a mainstream socialization process and, eventually, succeed in school? In an integrated, full-day Kindergarten program, professional teachers – like mental health workers and police officers – need the legal protection and tools to do their jobs. They need unencumbered permission to use their professional judgment and their expertise to help children. They may also need the expectation re-established that dealing with temper tantrums, even violent ones, is a part of the Kindergarten team’s job.

There are numerous related issues to be added to this discussion, and the need to begin is urgent. Joey’s classmates are being impacted and Joey’s needs are being neglected – and increasing – while we wait.


* Author’s name changed by request. “Joey” is a composite, fictional student based on real cases in the author’s experience.



En Bref : Les écoles fournissent-elles aux jeunes élèves de maternelle bouleversés ou immatures les interventions dont ils ont besoin? D’après l’auteur, les politiques administratives et syndicales répandues qui défendent aux enseignants d’arrêter ou de retenir physiquement les enfants vexés ne tiennent pas compte des besoins fondamentaux de développement des plus petits élèves. L’interdiction de contact physique empêche les enseignants de faire preuve de bon sens et des compétences parentales de base nécessaires à un jeune enfant bouleversé : le prendre dans leurs bras et l’aider à traverser la crise, l’empêcher de causer des dommages graves ainsi que le cajoler et le rassurer jusqu’à ce que la tempête passe. Ainsi, ces enfants perturbés qui sortent à peine de la petite enfance ne profitent pas du soutien adulte qui leur permettrait d’apprendre à mieux se maîtriser. L’auteur conclut en préconisant « la protection juridique et les outils nécessaires au travail » des enseignants de maternelle.




Photo: Oksana Alex (istock)


First published in Education Canada, June 2016


1 Calm, Alert and Happy,” by Dr. Stuart Shanker (Toronto: Queen’s Printer for Ontario, 2013). www.edu.gov.on.ca/childcare/Shanker.pdf

2 Because it has been used as justification for corporal punishment, the current government has committed to repealing Section 43. But the Repeal 43 Committee (www.repeal43.org) cites other existing legal provisions in the criminal code and common law that allow for sensible restraint of children.

3 Behavior Management Systems: Ensuring Respectful Learning Environments, Practitioner Workbook (Ontario Education Services Corporation, 2006). The Ontario Education Services Corporation (OESC-CSEO) is a non-profit corporation jointly owned by all school boards in Ontario. 

4 “Behavior Management Systems, Practitioner Workbook, p. 53.

Meet the Expert(s)

Tim Grant

Prior to beginning his teaching career in 1990, Tim* worked in treatment centres for children and youth mental health programs. He has taught Kindergarten and is presently teaching elementary school music in Ontario.

* Author’s name changed by request. “Joey” is a composite, fictional student based on real cases in the author’s experience.

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