Time-Out, Punishment, and Time-Away

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

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)
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