Time Out – Term Versus Process: What Are We Really Concerned With? Part 1

I can still remember in the late 1980s sternly telling a preschooler in my classroom – “If you don’t stop by the time I count to three, you are going in time out!” As I got to that last magical number, the preschooler immediately stopped the behavior and avoided being marched off into a corner to be by himself. Time out for many preschool teachers like me was the go-to technique for managing behavior. It was a quick and straightforward approach to end a negative behavior or the perfect remedy to remove a child creating chaos in the classroom. Hip, hip hooray for timeouts, right?

Time out has been a popular discipline method for many families and child care programs over the past decades. This term was coined by psychological behaviorist Arthur Staats. According to the Washington Post article The man who developed timeouts for kids stands by his now hotly-debated idea”, Staats believed it was a great alternative to corporal punishment. Yet, in recent years the concept of time out has found itself in the middle of a debate that argues isolating children because of their behavior causes more harm than good.

Young boy screaming

This debate has been speeding down the early childhood railroad tracks for quite some time. My standing question has always been – should we be more concerned about the name we give it or what we actually do when we need to support and manage the behavior of a young child? I have witnessed repeatedly, early childhood teachers that have been educated and trained to know better still not doing better.

“Should we be more concerned about the name we give it or what we actually do when we need to support and manage the behavior of a young child?”

Many teachers may not use the term time out, but what takes place when they redirect or manage behavior still looks and feels like a scene out the time out storybook. The only difference is many teachers have given it another name. I have heard such terms as taking a break, the peace corner, and the calm down zone. Yet, what is interesting is, even though we have given the term “time out” a friendlier sounding name, the practices, strategies, and techniques used can still look and feel like time out.

So, my question still stands, are we concerned more about the name or the practice? Time out is exactly what the term is implying – having an opportunity to take some time out to recover from a negative interaction or behavior. It provides an opportunity to reflect, connect, and then redirect a child’s behavior. The creation of this term was not to isolate and disconnect young children from their peers, teachers, and classroom environment, but an opportunity to receive positive guidance in a nurturing and developmentally appropriate manner.

The Washington Post article highlighted Staats’ belief of the importance of teaching children which behaviors were inappropriate, but at the same time assuring the child an adult was available to help and support them. In other words, a time out with support. Yet, many times, as we escort or request children to go into the peace corners, calm down zones, or whatever else we are calling it these days is ineffective. This ineffectiveness stems from the fact that early childhood educators are not taking the additional step in creating a space where a child can have the support of an adult in order to recover from a negative situation or behavior.

Mother talking to young daughter

The early childhood profession still has some work to do as we continue educating our workforce in not getting so caught up with the name (time out), but instead focusing on what actually takes place during the process. A process that should include providing tools for young children’s backpacks in order to support their future interactions with peers, teachers, and their environments.

In part two of this blog, I will discuss strategies that can be used by early childhood educators to support their efforts in providing young children with effective time out strategies. Strategies that include reflections, connections, solutions, and appropriate redirections.

Until my next blog, think about it – are we really that concerned about what we call it, or should we be concerned about the quality of support we are providing?

– Jerry Graham, SBVP Virginia Quality Specialist