This blog is directed to professionals who are interested in the subject of time out, but many parents may also find it informative. The use of time out in schools continues to be controversial due in large part to its misuse. Yet, when it’s implemented and used correctly, it can be an effective tool for changing behaviors that disrupt the entire education process.
What is time out?
In its purest form, the term “time out” means that a child is being removed or isolated from anyone or anything that might provide reinforcement, reward or the perception of attention. In schools it is not used as a punishment for bad behavior; OK, it is not usually used as a punishment. While some educators use this technique for punishment, let me be clear that this is not the intent of time out, nor is time out an effective means of punishment.
Why is it used in some cases?
The rationale behind time out is often under consideration because the concept is not always used as it is designed. When I first started my teaching career it was common for time out rooms to be built adjacent to the classroom. It was also common to physically remove a child from the classroom and lock him or her in the room. Sadly, I have seen broken windows, holes punched in walls and other items destroyed during what someone was thinking was time out. Time out should never have the consequence of injuring a child or destroying property. If it does, it most likely won’t be effective. The door should never be locked; in fact, time out doesn’t always need to take place in a separate room. For instance, when my children were young, they would be placed in in time out in their bedrooms, sitting in a chair without toys, for a defined amount of time. They were told to reflect on why they were there.
This technique has been abused and because of that, some schools, school districts and even state departments of education think it should be eliminated. However, time out can also be effective.
What does effective time out look like?
The most effective way to use time out is utilize this technique to target a specific behavior or behaviors. For example, perhaps a child is disrupting your class to the point that no one is learning, speaking loudly, swearing or threatening other children. Once you have defined the behavior or behaviors that will result in a time out, you need to define where time out will take place, for how long and any constrictions that will result. The child should be informed that when he or she engages in the target behavior. he or she will be placed in time out in a small room, or a corner of a classroom, the hall, etc. The location of time out is best accessed if it is close to the classroom.
In my classrooms I used a “do nothing” chair; it was placed in a corner facing away from the other students. Students were told that when they were sent to the do nothing chair that they had to do just that: nothing except for thinking about the behavior that landed them there. When I was teaching students with identified disabilities, each one had individualized target behaviors; but, when I taught third grade, the target behaviors were specific to the class. The time was always defined as well. Students knew that time out for the first offense of the school day lasted for five minutes. When a child was placed in time out, I set a kitchen timer for five minutes; when it rang, the child could return to the class, providing they had behaved appropriately in time out. The rule for the second offense was 10 minutes in time out; the third offense allowed the teacher to define the time frame, but the child was always told how long he or she would be in time out prior to entering. Since it wasn’t a separate room, a teacher or aide had to monitor the child in time out to ensure that they behaved appropriately. During those times, I typically had my aide escort and sit with this child.
I discovered that some behaviors don’t work well with time out. For example, I never put a child in time out to do nothing when he or she hadn’t completed classwork. I felt that modeling this behavior in a controlled space just taught the child that it was OK to not do anything as long as he or she was quiet. There are other behaviors that logically do not send the message we want to communicate through time out.
When you are using a time out technique in your classroom (with or without children with disabilities), you need to inform some key people of your procedure and clearly define it for them. First, you MUST inform your principal and make it clear that you have taken provisions to not allow the procedure to harm children. If your principal can’t support the procedure you defined, then my advice is to yield to the principal and find a way to modify it so that he or she is comfortable with it. Because of the damage done by misuse, time out can be a controversial technique and you need administrative support just in case.
The second set of people who need to be informed are the parents of the children in your class with whom you may use time out. In my classes, all parents were made aware of the process for time out, and each parent knew the target behavior(s) we were using for their child. They were also informed of progress made in regard to these target behaviors. I informed parents about time out through the newsletter that I sent early in the school year, typically within the first week. They were invited to call, email or visit me if they had any concerns.
Your time out procedure for a child or children with severe behavior patterns must be even more clearly designed. I required my teachers to work strategies to address these problematic behaviors into a good behavior intervention plan (BIP) that was based on a functional behavior assessment (FBA) and made a part of the student’s individualized education plan (IEP). In cases like this, the time out will probably take place in a closed location separate from the classroom; however, never put the child in a closed room alone under these circumstances. You need a professional to escort the child to the time out site and monitor the child so that the child does not harm himself or herself. This professional should be trained in restraint techniques and behavior management specific to the child.
If you are going to use a time out procedure in your classroom, please remember the following:
- You need support from both the principal and the parents; thus, inform them of what you intend to do, how you will do it and what it will mean for the children in your classroom.
- Never close a child in a room without adult supervision
- Never–never ever–lock a child in a room
- Make sure that students understand the purpose of time out and what target behaviors will result in it.
Here are a few more good resources that can help you create an effective time out procedure: