The Problem with Time Out

The Problem with Time Out

In the past, Time Out was often advocated as a humane strategy to guide children’s behavior. When children “misbehave,” they are sent to a chair or other location that was separate from the group and quiet. Children are often admonished to “think about what you did” while in time out, and teachers typically control the amount of time spent isolated. A myth developed that time out should be one minute for each year of the child’s age. Who knows where this idea came from, but I can see no basis for it in our child development knowledge.

It’s important to understand that when time out was advocated as a humane strategy, it was intended to help parents and teachers find an alternative to corporal punishment – hitting and spanking children, for example. While I would certainly agree that time out is a more humane strategy than corporal punishment, it is not appropriate for helping children develop more positive behaviors. The same children who are in the time out chair in October are still there in May. They are not learning to change their behavior through time out.
            In addition, isolating children is almost always a painful psychological experience. Children who are often sent to time out develop a reputation for being a trouble maker or bad kid. They can internalize these judgments about themselves and this label becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
             It is also possible that time out is serving as positive reinforcement for the child. If the inappropriate behavior is used in order to get the child out of something (like clean up time, or seatwork in math) then the child might actually prefer time out. Even if this is not on a conscious level for the child, it is possible that the teacher’s actions in sending the child to time out will increase his or her inappropriate behavior.
            Another consequence of time out is that the teacher ends up controlling the child’s behavior. Our goal is for children to learn self-control so they eventually will not need an adult to help them distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate behaviors. We also want them to learn to control their own impulses and they won’t learn that if the teacher is doing the control work for them.
            So why do teachers use time out so frequently? My guess is that they often need a break from behaviors that are destructive, disruptive, or bothersome to them. Having a child separated and quiet for even a few minutes can give a teacher a needed break to gain her own self control, protect other children, and maintain the flow of the classroom. The other unfortunate reason is that many teachers don’t have alternative strategies to use instead of time out.They are not using enough techniques to prevent inappropriate behaviors, such as teaching appropriate social and emotional skills, and intervening in the acting out cycle early on.
So, is there a way to use time out effectively, rather than as a punishment? Yes! Time out can be used effectively if we see it as a way of helping a child gain self-control rather than punishing inappropriate behavior. It is useful to have a different name for this technique, which I will call “Alone Time”. This name implies that the child needs to be alone, but not necessarily “out” of the group. The goal  is to help the child calm down and gain control of herself – not as punishment, but as help. First, the child needs to be given control of the situation, so she should be told that it is her decision when she is ready to come back to the group. During this time, you can remind the child to use some relaxation techniques and check back to see when she has regained control. Once a child (and teacher) has calmed down, strategies to help the child learn more appropriate behaviors can be used – such as Tucker Turtle.

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