One size does not fit all when it comes to consequences and time-outs are no exception. I worry when I hear:
• a kindergarten class has a time-out behavior management system for all kids.
• a third-grade teacher always sends chatty kids to the hallway to work.
• a fifth-grade teacher routinely sends all disruptive students to the principal's office after two warnings.
Consequences are a small part of changing a student's behavior in addition to teaching new skills and using preventative interventions. However, teachers do need to respond to a student's challenging behavior in a way that will prevent reoccurrence.
Time-outs don't work for everyone and teachers who don't understand when they should avoid using them could be accidentally intensifying the behavior of some students.
Students with Avoidant or Escape-Motivated Behavior:
Recently I observed an all-too-familiar interaction between a teacher and student. Ms. Johnson passed out a math quiz to the class. "Jack" immediately commented, "Ms. Johnson is an idiot." She reacted by asking him to sit at a desk in the hallway.
Jack's behavior was definitely out of line and Ms. Johnson's response was an attempt to reduce his interruption of the class and to deter him from making more disrespectful comments in the future. Here's the problem. If the intent or function of Jack's rude comment was to avoid or escape the math quiz, the time-out just reinforced his behavior because he did indeed successfully avoid the test. Therefore, he's likely to repeat disrespectful comments in the future because they get him what he wants.
Teachers are really adept at seeing the intention to avoid a situation in some common behaviors, such as a student frequently complaining of a stomach ache so she can go to the nurse or faking a sprained ankle to get out of P.E. However, when the behavior is disruptive, oppositional or non-compliant, the teacher's first thought may not be to consider the student's motivation to escape.
Here's where it gets tricky. With some students, even a temporary escape from an activity or situation can be reinforcing. If a student is sent to the principal's office but has to bring work and complete it, the student has succeeded in successfully avoiding the task for a few minutes. It's the same idea as hitting the snooze button on our alarm clock in the morning. It only delays the inevitable need to wake up, but the delay is so worth it we routinely hit "snooze" every day.
Students Who Entertain Themselves When Alone:
When students engage in what is called self-stimulatory behavior -- rocking back and forth, singing to themselves or repeating movie or TV scripts to themselves -- they typically find it pleasurable. During time-outs these students will likely engage in these pleasurable behaviors, which makes the time-out reinforcing rather than deterring. The student might learn to purposefully behave inappropriately to get sent to time-out.
Because it's almost impossible to prevent a student in a time-out from engaging in these
behaviors, in these cases I would avoid time-outs completely.
Students Who Might Harm Themselves:
For the student who is prone to self-harm behavior, like picking their skin or hitting their head, time-outs might not be safe. By the very nature of a time-out the student has low or no supervision because he or she is being removed from other people. However, in most situations, students who engage in self-harm behaviors actually need increased supervision. This indicates time-outs are not safe choices for these kids.
When Time-Outs Can Be Helpful:
Time-outs can be very effective in situations where the student is behaving in a certain way to get attention from adults or peers. Time-outs are a great fit for students with attention-seeking behavior. Removing the audience and the source of attention will deter these students from repeating the inappropriate behavior.
The time-out is certainly not a one-size-fits-all answer to handling challenging behavior. Each student has to be evaluated individually if the response and intervention are going to be effective. Only in this way can we help prevent students from repeating and escalating their challenging behavior.
Jessica Minahan, M.Ed, BCBA, is a board-certified behavior analyst and special
educator in the Newton, Massachusetts public school system. She is the co-author of The
Behavior Code: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging
Students, written with Nancy Rappaport, M.D. (jessicaminahan.com)