Not a week goes by without me hearing of the tried-and-true method of giving a student some time out from a situation. This can allow for isolating the situation and keeping that particular student's peers from influencing his or her behavior. “Time out” gives them the opportunity to take a moment and get calm, thereby providing some time for the student to process and consider other choices. It can give the staff or administrator a break from the student so they can better rationally detach. It can also give the other students a break from an unproductive pattern of behavior. This is not a complete list of benefits, and we could probably add a half dozen more. But what about the risks or disadvantages?
This method can be overused by staff to the point where it becomes a “cure-all” for any behavior. It becomes a panacea for any and all acting-out behaviors to the detriment of other interventions. Other interventions become stagnant, and then we fail to use them even though they may be better suited for the task at hand. “Why manage Tony's challenging behavior when I can simply give him a ‘time out’?”
Just as giving attention to attention-seeking behavior can reinforce the negative behavior, giving a student some time out can also reinforce the negative behavior. If I, as your student, constantly rely on you giving me some time alone to fulfill a need, I can simply act out every time I need to meet that need. Reinforcement of the negative behavior is the result. After all, I can almost predict that you're going to give me that extra time. Similarly, its use can influence other students' behaviors to the point where they act out to get some free time.
The role of schools is to provide a safe environment where learning can take place. While time away from lessons may improve the safety aspect, it impacts the educational environment for that particular student. How can I learn when I'm not engaged in the classroom lesson?
It can even lead to abuse. A teacher may use it inappropriately simply because it has become such an accepted type of behavior management. You yell and swear, I give you a “time-out.” You refuse to do your work, I give you a “time-out.” You dare ask me an innocent question, I give you a “time-out.” Don't think this can't happen. Questionable and abusive behavior management techniques occur every day in our nations' schools.
I would appreciate hearing from all readers on this technique and your opinion of it.