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Time-Out, Punishment, and Time-Away (page 2)

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

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.

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