Is it Good Practice to Use Time-Out? (page 2)
The early care and education community has been debating time-out for years. The practice has been misused and overused, and in some places it is now banned. Time-out comes from the same roots as positive reinforcement: social learning theory and behaviorism. An extreme way to ignore inappropriate behavior, it actually means a time-out from positive reinforcement (Quinn et al., 2000; Webster-Stratton and Herbert, 1994). Although there are many variations, time-out usually involves removing a child from the group to sit in a remote area of the room, perhaps on a specified chair, for one minute for each year of his age, to think about what he’s done.
Adherents maintain that time-out tells the child that you care and want to help him keep himself in control. If it’s used sensitively and correctly, they say, it assists in maintaining a respectful, trusting relationship. They also believe that time-out interrupts and prevents aggressive behavior, protects the rights and safety of the other children, and keeps them from turning into an admiring and encouraging audience (Milne-Smith, 1995; Rodd, 1996). It allows the child who behaves aggressively, the child who is victimized, and the adult enough time to compose themselves without giving undue attention to the aggressor. According to the yea-sayers, time-out works if it’s used consistently and appropriately (American Academy of Pediatrics, 1998; Milne-Smith, 1995; Slaby et al., 1995).
Opponents argue that time-out is a form of punishment that teaches children it’s all right to use power to control others. They point out that children don’t understand the connection between their behavior and time-out, and time-out doesn’t acknowledge their feelings (Katz and McClellan, 1997) or address the causes of their behavior (Marion, 1999). Because teachers tend to use time-out when they’re angry, frustrated, or out of control themselves, their motives are suspect. Foes also say that rather than stopping challenging behavior, time-out actually increases it by making children more angry, hostile, and resentful. They suggest that when a teacher puts a child into time-out, he’s probably plotting his revenge (Katz and McClellan, 1997).
If the child refuses to move to the designated chair, you have created another problem, and no one remembers the reason for moving him in the first place. Why do teachers expect a child who’s defiant and noncompliant to be agreeable about time-out? When he refuses, do you pick him up? Drag him? Wait until he changes his mind? Or just give up? If you make a fuss, you may be placing everyone in danger, and you are once again demonstrating that the more challenging his behavior, the more attention you and his classmates will award him. The other children quickly learn this lesson, too. On the other hand, if you decide that you don’t want to fight and don’t follow through with your original request, the child learns that he may actually be in control. All of this scares the other children, who begin to doubt that you can keep them safe.
One of the most powerful arguments against time-out is that it damages self-esteem by punishing, embarrassing, and humiliating the child in front of his peers. In effect, it says, “You are bad, and I don’t want you here.” For children who belong to cultures where being part of the group is important, time-out is an especially dire punishment (Gonzalez-Mena, 2002). Techniques that preserve self-esteem are much more effective in the long run.
Last, but certainly not least, the adversaries of time-out note that it doesn’t teach children how to behave appropriately (Katz and McClellan, 1997; Rodd, 1996). The proof is that the same children find themselves in time-out again and again. Indeed, time-out may unintentionally increase behaviors you’re trying to eliminate. For example, if Andrew is throwing toys because he doesn’t want to put them away and you respond by putting him in time-out, he doesn’t have to clean up. If Jessica doesn’t know how to string the beads, she might sweep them all to the floor and push over her chair in frustration. If you send her to time-out, she manages to avoid this dreaded activity entirely, and she is no better equipped to do it the next time. In both cases, time-out has reinforced the inappropriate behavior and raised the odds that it will happen again. Likewise, a child who’s sent to the principal’s office doesn’t have a chance to learn the material you’re covering in class, and he will either fall behind or need your help to catch up—which may be what he wanted in the first place. This can have a domino effect. He won’t be able to do tomorrow’s work because he didn’t learn today’s, and he may spit on the floor rather than reveal his inability to solve the problem—and require another visit to the principal.
Interestingly enough, some of time-out’s staunchest foes believe in “time away,” “cool down,” “take a break,” “private time,” or “sit and watch.” This is because the two sides agree on the goals of time-out:
- To give everyone a chance to regain control in a safe place so that when the child reenters the group he is capable of success
- To teach children to recognize when their emotions are building to a dangerous level and to recognize when they are ready to function again
- To allow the rest of the group to continue its activities
Both sides agree that to be effective, the adult must be calm and respectful, not angry or threatening (Chornoboy and Keffer, 1996; Kleinberg-Bassel, 1997; Slaby et al., 1995).
Time away is really much more valuable—and not at all punitive—when you use it preventively. It is a kind of redirection, a way to teach impulse control and anger management. When the child feels himself becoming anxious or agitated, he can learn to move away, take a deep breath, close his eyes, do a puzzle, sort shapes, or play at the sand table. This self-directed change in locale, activity, or stimulation level allows him to settle his feelings, just as jogging or having a cup of tea often calms and restores an adult who’s struggling with a problem. The child may return to the group whenever he’s ready, knowing you’ll welcome him warmly. You can suggest that he take time away to begin with, but the ultimate goal is for him to figure out when to do this himself.
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