Like positive reinforcement, time-out—which actually means time-out from positive reinforcement—stems from social learning theory and behaviorism. Although there are many variations, it usually involves requiring a student to leave the group and go to a remote area of the room, the hallway, another classroom, or the principal's office. It reaches its extreme form in suspension and expulsion.

Misused and overused, the practice has been debated in the education community for years. Adherents maintain that time-out tells the student 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 students, and keeps them from turning into an admiring and encouraging audience (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).

Opponents argue that time-out is a form of punishment—that is, a penalty for wrongdoing, imposed by someone in power who intends it to be unpleasant in order to decrease inappropriate behavior (Quinn et al., 2000). Punishment also originates with social learning and behavioral theory.

Does punishment work? In the short term, yes. That's why teachers sometimes use it: It provides a quick fix. But its results are fleeting. To remain effective, it has to become stronger and stronger, and because the punishment suppresses the undesirable behavior only in the punisher's presence, the student may behave the same way when the punisher departs. As B. F. Skinner, the father of behaviorism, once said, "What's wrong with punishments is that they work immediately but give no long-term results. The responses to punishment are either the urge to escape, to counterattack, or a stubborn apathy. These are the bad effects you get in prisons or schools, or wherever punishments are used" (Goleman, 1987, p. B1).

A punishment that requires a student to move to a designated spot creates another problem. Why do teachers expect a child whose behavior is defiant and noncompliant to be agreeable about going to the back of the room or the principal's office? Do you raise your voice? Wait until he changes his mind? Or just give up? If you make a fuss, you may be placing everyone in danger and once again demonstrating that the more challenging his behavior, the more attention you and his classmates will award him. In fact, the other students may be waiting for him to act out and may even egg him on—because this spectacle is much more exciting than your lesson. On the other hand, if you decide not to fight with him and fail to follow through with your original request, the student learns that he is in control. All of this scares the rest of the students, who see that you can't cope and begin to doubt that you can keep them safe.

There are several other powerful arguments against punishment:

  • It makes students angry, resentful, and defiant and leads to more aggressive or devious behavior. Some educators suggest that a student in time-out is probably plotting his revenge (Katz and McClellan, 1997).
  • It teaches children that it's acceptable to use power to control other people.
  • It frightens, embarrasses, and humiliates students in front of their peers .
  • It damages their self-esteem and self-concept by saying, in effect, "You are bad, and I don't want you here." For students who belong to cultures where being part of the group is important, time-out has an especially strong impact (Gonzalez-Mena, 2002).
  • It doesn't address the causes of challenging behavior and fails to teach appropriate behavior. The proof is that the same students find themselves in time-out again and again. Indeed, time-out may unintentionally increase behaviors you're trying to eliminate. A student 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. 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 seem stupid in front of his peers-and require another visit to the principal.
  • It increases distrust and harms the relationship between adult and child.
  • It undermines a child's sense of safety and interferes with learning and the development of initiative and autonomy (Gonzalez-Mena, 2002; Hay, 1994-1995). Kohn (1996) writes, "To help an impulsive, aggressive, or insensitive student become more responsible, we have to gain some insight into why she is acting that way. That, in turn, is most likely to happen when the student feels close enough to us (and safe enough with us) to explain how things look from her point of view. The more students see us as punishers, the less likely it is that we can create the sort of environment where things can change." (p. 27)

Drastic Punishment

In 1994, in the aftermath of several school shootings, Congress passed the GunnFree Schools Act, which requires expulsion for any student who brings a firearm to school (Richart, Brooks, and Soler, 2003). All 50 states soon had laws or policies mandating zero tolerance, some even tougher than the federal legislation.

Although such a response to possession of a gun is understandable, these laws had another effect. In this hypervigilant atmosphere, it became much easier and much more acceptable to suspend and expel students for lesser offenses, even for minor misconduct. For example, according to a recent report (Richart et al., 2003), in Kentucky a "staggering" number of students receive out-of-school suspensions for "board violations" (such as disturbing class, failing to attend detention, profanity, smoking, and "defiance of authority," which are disruptive but not dangerous).

These arbitrary, authoritarian policies, which do not take individual circumstances into account, tell students that the school system doesn't listen to them or value them. Instead of helping them succeed, such a policy interrupts their schooling and puts them onto the streets at a period of their lives when they badly need stability and guidance (Richart et al., 2003). With unsupervised, unstructured time on their hands, they band together, taking lessons in more serious antisocial behavior from their deviant peers (Dishion, McCord, and Poulin, 1999). For some students, getting out of school may even be the goal. When they return to class, they trail farther behind and their attitude is more defiant than ever (Richart et al., 2003). Some experts call suspension the beginning of a "school to prison pipeline" (Richart, 2004, p. 4). The situation for students of color is especially grim. Nationally, the rate of suspension for African American students is far greater than the rate for White students (Richart et al., 2003).

Although in-school suspension is an imperfect solution, at least it keeps students out of trouble and sometimes even provides a supervised learning situation.

What's Different About Time-Away?

Interestingly enough, some of the staunchest foes of punishment and time-out believe in "time-away," "cool-down," "take a break," "private time," or "sit and watch." The two sides agree on these goals:

  • To give everyone a chance to regain control in a safe place so that the student is capable of success when he reenters the group
  • To teach children to recognize when their emotions are building to a dangerous level and to know when they are ready to function again
  • To allow the rest of the group to continue its activities

Advocates for both positions also agree that what a teacher does is actually less important than how she does it: If you ask a student to leave the room when you're angry, frustrated, threatening, or out of control, your motives are suspect and the effect is punitive. To be effective and nonpunitive, your demeanor must be calm and respectful. Kohn (1996) says, "The teacher's tone should be warm and regretful, and she should express confidence that the two of them can eventually solve the problem together" (p. 128).

Time-away is also extremely valuable when you use it preventively. It can offer a kind of redirection, a way to teach impulse control and anger management. When the student feels himself becoming anxious or agitated, he can learn to move away, take some deep breaths, close his eyes, count to 10. 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 calms and restores us when we're struggling with a problem. He can return to the group whenever he's ready, knowing you'll welcome him warmly. You can suggest he take time away to begin with, but the ultimate goal is for him to figure out when to do this himself.

There may be occasions when time-away inside the classroom doesn't work, and you must try a variation, such as asking the student to leave the room for a prearranged destination—a hiatus with the hall monitor or a colleague who has agreed to take in your students who need some space. The student can bring along a book or a folder of work to do and come back when he's ready (Watson, 2003). However, if the challenging behavior continues after his return, you may have to use your last resort—the principal's office (which may also entail a telephone call to his parents). In case a student refuses to go, a system must be in place—for example, you can send a note informing the principal of the situation, and someone will come to collect him. This move should truly be a last resort, used sparingly. Of course, long before you ever put any of these strategies to use, you must discuss them with your students and be sure that they understand the reasoning behind them.