Article: ‘Stew in your own juice’: A social justice perspective on the use of isolation rooms in schools in UK.

Author: Catherine Fraser-Andrews and Emma Condliffe | Tags: , ,

This article by Catherine Fraser-Andrews and Emma Condliffe explores the use of isolation rooms in UK schools from a social justice perspective. The authors explore the spatial, temporal and social experience of isolation rooms and the consequences it has on students.

The disciplinary measure of removing a student to a ‘removal location’ (DfE, 2022) is a pressing issue within education. Despite a lack of evidence supporting the practice’s efficacy (Martin-Denham, 2020), it has become widespread in schools throughout England (Sealy et al., 2021). Concerningly, the Department for Education (DfE) has again endorsed the practice in its most recent behaviour advice for headteachers (DfE, 2022).  This seems curiously at odds with the DfE’s commitment to ‘treat one another with dignity’ (DfE, 2022) and warrants further critical analysis. From a social justice perspective, removing students from the classroom is unjustifiable as it has significant potential to erode self-worth, induce shame, and diminish students’ dignity (Condliffe, 2021; Ofsted, 2021). Afterall, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) clearly states that schools must respect children and young people’s dignity, which raises questions over the legitimacy of removal as a form of disciplinary punishment within an educational context.  Inherently, removal locations, commonly referred to as isolation rooms, are places where students are left to ‘stew in their own juices’. This idiom outlines the deliberate act of leaving someone to worry about something they have done wrong (Macmillan Thesaurus, 2023). Its synonyms such as ‘terrify’, ‘frighten’ and ‘intimidate’ reinforce the punitive nature of the practice.  Therefore, whether it is called isolation, internal exclusion, reflection, time-out (Condliffe, 2021), or even ‘garden time’ (Paterson et al., 2011) with its ominous parallel to ‘gardening leave’ as a segue to permanent exclusion, the use of the isolation room is, in our view, irreconcilable with the principle of dignity.

There are many voices and perspectives surrounding the continued use of isolation rooms in schools in England. However, as Ofsted (2021) argue, the most important views on the topic belong to the students who experience these spaces. Condliffe’s (2021) study of the perspectives of students with repeated experiences of isolation rooms provides a forum for those voices. By valuing students as experts by experience, Condliffe’s work offers a fresh perspective on the impact of isolation rooms. In this article, we extend that perspective further by viewing the use of isolation rooms through the lens of dignity (Oxley & Holden, 2021) whilst arguing that their continued use in schools is incompatible with the principles of social justice.  Dignity from a human rights perspective is defined as an intrinsic entitlement to be valued and respected (United Nations General Assembly, 1948). It is understood to be at one end of the self-esteem spectrum, with shame at the other (Chefetz, 2017). Dignity enables students to hold a positive self-evaluation whilst shame obstructs this.  By design isolation rooms leave students to ‘stew in their own juice’. Thus, provoking unpleasant negative emotions which are magnified and intensified in isolation, leading inevitably to negative self-evaluations, the opposite of dignity. In this article we examine the spatial, temporal as well as social experiences of isolation rooms and how they intersect to undermine a student’s dignity.

Spatial Experience

The spatial experience of the isolation rooms is highly conducive to ‘stewing’. Students in isolation rooms often sit in individual booths, expected to complete the day in silence, with limited access to resources, learning or otherwise.  Their movement is restricted, as is access to facilities such as toilets (Barker et al., 2010). The décor is barren, and often students have to face the wall for the duration of their punishment (Barker et al., 2010; Martin-Denham, 2020; Sealy et al., 2021).  Given that a lack of intellectual and physical stimulation induces stress, it is unsurprising that students’ reflections on the spatial experience include: ‘a dog in a cage’ (Sealy et al., 2021), ‘like prison’ and ‘claustrophobic’ (Condliffe, 2021). In Sealy et al.’s (2021) research, students noted ‘the fact is in the “box” you’re more stressed out’ which is significant because stress has been found to erode self-esteem (Galanakis et al., 2016). The negative impact on self-esteem was observable in the separation that created a sense of being ‘less than’ highlighted by students in Condliffe’s (2021) study. As such, placement in isolation rooms was experienced as a comment on the self, a person with ‘psychological flaws’ (Sealy et al., 2021), an undesirable ‘to get rid of’ or ‘move away’ (Condliffe, 2021). Students felt they were perceived negatively by others which deeply impacted their sense of self (Condliffe, 2021) and violated their dignity (Réaume, 2003). The available literature provides evidence to suggest the spatial experience of isolation rooms is dehumanising for young people and therefore indefensible as a disciplinary measure in schools.

Temporal Experience

As well as spatial experiences, isolation rooms use temporal experiences as a means of further separation (Barker et al., 2010). This issue is compounded by the absence of a legal limit on the amount of time students can be subjected to isolation rooms (Sealy et al., 2021). Martin-Denham’s (2020) report and Condliffe’s (2021) thesis share the voices of students who have spent, weeks, months or even years in isolation rooms. The emotional damage of such a persistent and pervasive experience during a child’s formative years is concerning. However, the use of isolation rooms is more insidious still. It fortifies the threat of punishment for non-compliance (Sealy et al., 2021), and serves to engender a sense of loss (Condliffe, 2021). Government guidance in principle, prohibits students being physically prevented from leaving isolation rooms. Nevertheless, this does not prevent it from happening or mean students do not feel ‘locked in’ (Condliffe, 2021). The omnipresent threat of a longer sentence if the student ‘chooses’ to leave (Sealy et al., 2021) dispels any illusion of choice. For some students the presence of an enforcing adult is enough for them to feel ‘trapped’, and as such represents a violation of their free will (Condliffe, 2021; Ofsted, 2021). A lack of free will can elicit a threat response in the students and induce emotional distress, experiences which are irreconcilable with a student’s dignity (Galanakis et al., 2016). Furthermore, many isolation rooms run to different timings from the rest of the school (Barker et al., 2010; Sealy et al., 2021). This means students often miss out on socialising at the start and end of the day as well as break/lunchtimes, inducing a sense of loneliness (Condliffe, 2021). In many cases the students in isolation can still hear or even see the usual life of the school but are excluded from participation. Barker et al. (2010) argue that this practice is intended to reinforce the students’ ‘punishment’ by reminding them of their ‘isolation’. Some students reported that this induced a feeling of being left behind whilst the world moved forward without them (Condliffe, 2021). Similarly, some students felt this was a ‘deliberate’ attempt to ensure maximum social isolation and force their introspection through the experience of ‘detachment’ (Condliffe, 2021). Experiences of detachment and being left behind are at odds with a student’s dignity when anchored in their intrinsic right to be valued and respected.  Thus, the practice of ‘removal’ is in clear breach of both international laws, and DfE advice.

Social Experience

In large part the social experience of isolation rooms is better conceptualised as an antisocial experience that is enormously damaging to students’ self-worth. Being set apart from peers can provoke a sense of being relegated to an ‘out group’ (Condliffe, 2021). Students in Sealy et al.’s (2021) research shared that ‘it feels that it could be the end’, highlighting their fear that being in isolation would lead to the loss of friendships and permanent ostracisation. Students spoke of being assigned a ‘reputation’, positioning them unfavourably within their peer group and in the eyes of teachers. Students reported feeling that their association with the isolation room had caused teachers to treat them differently (Condliffe, 2021). Unchallenged in the context of the isolation room, these negative social evaluations often become negative self-evaluations (Milia et al., 2021) with implications for self-esteem (Chefetz, 2017; Galanakis et al., 2016). Some students reported that being sent to the isolation room signalled a relationship of ‘mistrust’ between them and the adults, which contributed to an oppositional ‘them and us’ relationship (Condliffe, 2021). In part, the mistrust stemmed from some students being unsure of the reason for their isolation (Condliffe, 2021) along with a sense of voicelessness created by having no trusted adults or peers to advocate.  This deliberate disconnection from support made the students more emotionally vulnerable, leading to a state of ‘high alert’ which negatively impacted social and emotional development (Sealy et al., 2021). Such mistrust has implications beyond the isolation room itself. Afterall, a student who has suffered the emotional distress of isolation must then, somehow, process the experience. However, without strong trusting adult relationships, Chefetz (2017) questions where students turn to find support for making sense of their experience. A further barrier to meaning making is the shame induced by those enforcing the exclusionary punishment of isolation.  According to Brown (2013) shame is the intensely painful belief of being unworthy of belonging or connection.  This insidious emotion in Brown’s view is likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behaviour (Brown, 2013). Therefore, this suggests that isolation rooms have the potential to incite the very response they are designed to eliminate. Another damaging aspect impacting the social experience of isolation rooms is the sense of neglect. Students reported feeling invisible in isolation rooms (Condliffe, 2021). Such invisibility led to beliefs that their very existence was being denied, leaving them feeling disconnected and cut off from the social world as if ‘out of sight – out of mind‘ (Condliffe, 2021). The feeling of forced disconnection entwined with shame (Chefetz, 2017) further assaults the dignity of students subjected to isolation rooms.

The Consequences of Consequences

Martin-Denham (2020) reported on students’ physical and psychological responses to the emotional distress of being in isolation. Feelings of dizziness, shortness of breath, stomach aches and headaches were commonly reported as responses to being isolated. Isolation induced internalised stress responses such as self-injurious behaviours, hair pulling, and scratching (Martin-Denham, 2020), as well as externalised reactions such as running away or the impulse to hit out (Condliffe, 2021). But, of most concern, and running throughout all the literature, is isolation’s tendency to induce rumination rather than reflection. The spatial, temporal, and social experiences of isolation are all negatively charged. Being left to ‘stew in their own juice’ inevitably leads students to ruminate instead of actively reflect, thus undermining the proposed aim of isolation spaces masquerading as ‘reflection rooms’. According to Milia et al. (2021) rumination is a significant cause of shame and emotional distress.  Internalisation of these unpleasant emotions, particularly shame, are immensely damaging to a student’s sense of self (Sealy et al., 2021). Shame’s inherent insecurity becomes attached to self-identity, reinforcing internal dialogues of unworthiness inflicted by ‘an external authority’ (Oxley, 2021) like the school system.  Such a ‘gross loss’ of self-worth (Chefetz, 2017) shaped by the treatment of others (Réaume, 2003) significantly undermines students’ intrinsic right to be valued and respected, thus diminishing their dignity.

Students should not be exposed to negative, unpleasant emotional experiences in school. From a social justice perspective, it is of concern that isolation rooms have become a mainstay of discipline in English schools given the impact they have on inducing shame, eroding self-worth and diminishing dignity. Afterall, it could be argued that their very existence contravenes human rights because, regardless of their ubiquity, isolation rooms remain incompatible with upholding the dignity of the students that experience them.

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Last Updated: 14 July 2023


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Emma Condliffe is an educational psychologist, Catherine Fraser-Andrews is a SENDCo in a secondary school and doctoral student.