Seclusion versus Time Out, and Alternatives

Why is it so wrong for schools to use seclusion, how is it any different from time out, and is time out a good idea anyway – what are the alternatives? These are important questions, that have come to the fore in light of recent national controversies, and the anticipated policy from the government on seclusion and restraint practices in schools. I felt I couldn’t adequately answer each question myself, so I set out to find the answers, and I want to share them in (what I hope to be) an accessible and simple way. I’d love to get your feedback and your understanding of these issues too.time-out-timer-stool-wisteria

Seclusion is not the same thing as time out (even though a room used for the purposes of secluding a misbehaving child may be called a “time out” room). For the purposes of understanding disciplinary practices, seclusion is about keeping a child in an area they cannot leave. This inability to leave can be because the door is locked, or the child is physically or intellectually unable to leave by themselves.

Compare this to time out, which is about removing a child from a situation or area, but not removing their ability to move. If you’ve stopped them moving from an area, that would be seclusion; if you’ve stopped them being able to move their body, that is restraint. Both  seclusion and restraint are more serious interventions than time out, and are meant to serve a restricted purpose (which I’ll get to below). Time out may be placing a child in the back of a room, or in a corridor, or somewhere else that removes them from where they were before, in a way that is meant to leave them un-engaged and quiet.

Seclusion and restraint are only meant to be used for the child’s own or others’ safety – they are not meant to be used as a form of punishment. They are last-option measures for when other interventions have not worked and the situation is one of crisis. Because of the function of these interventions, it is very important that the child is monitored the entire time they are secluded, and that the seclusion or restraint ends once the danger has passed.

Because time out is less extreme, it is usually used with a wider set of purposes than seclusion or restraint, though it is not a good way to discipline a child and is not recommended as a form of punishment. It is meant to be used as a way to remove a child from a situation where they are becoming distressed or causing distress to others, giving them a chance to calm down and reflect on their behaviour, before they rejoin the other children or the activity.

However, time out is increasingly seen as an ineffective and even damaging way to discipline a child. It can cause further (and long-term) distress and social isolation, it can cause heightened anger and resentment, and it can leave a child in an extremely emotional state when what they require at the time is guidance and assistance to get themselves back under control. The child may struggle to understand what they have done wrong, how to do it differently next time, and how to calm themselves. (It’s no good trying to get a child to understand and reflect on their actions, if they are in a heightened state of distress (which is what typically leads to a timeout scenario).) Since the purpose of time out is to achieve these ends, it’s good to be aware of alternatives that do actually achieve these ends without the added ill-effects of time out.

Alternatives to time out, include giving the child another activity that isn’t causing such distress (draw a picture, for example), giving them choices alternate to their current actions thus still allowing them to feel in control and take responsibility for their actions, walking and talking them through a calming strategy, taking them outside, or taking them to a chill-out area (as opposed to the more tedious and upsetting “sit by yourself and do and say nothing” option).

If you’re not meant to use time out for punishment, then what can you use to teach and alter a child’s behaviour? That very much depends on first figuring out whether it is blame-worthy behaviour, and whether the child has control over what they have done. This first step is extremely important for childen who have special needs, because they typically have less control, less awareness, or less understanding than their peers; there is no point to punishing someone for something outside of their control or understanding. To do so would be cruel and pointless. Instead the child will need other interventions tailored to their ability and understanding, to help them adjust their behaviour over time in a meaningful and relevant way.

If the behaviour is blame-worthy and was a controlled choice, then you can turn your mind to punishment, but even “punishment” here is not going to be quite what you’re after to change a child’s behaviour; what you want is consequences.

Consequences link to the behaviour, in a way that makes the lesson meaningful, relevant, and memorable. Consequences might be natural – flowing from simply how the world works, and allowing the child to experience that consequence of not doing what they were meant to – or logical, where the authoritative figure has explained in advance what will happen if the person does not behave the way they should, and the consequent makes sense in light of what the child has done (or not done). This “consequences” approach is more in line with the concept of discipline, and less so with the less-helpful notion of punishment.

Using consequences rather than punishment in a classroom setting, would make discipline more relevant and more effective, and should lead to improvements in behaviour over time (when you’re constantly sending a child home from school or putting them in seclusion, clearly it is not working – for anyone involved). Using the suggested alternatives to time out may seem time-consuming, but once the child starts to master strategies for calming themselves, they can start to take real responsibility both for their reactions when under stress and for bringing themselves back down to a place where they can integrate with the group again. Going for a walk, chilling out in a calming area with a soothing activity, or talking through what you did and why and how to act differently next time, don’t have to take a lot of time for the teacher, and would hopefully lead to less class disruption in the future – ultimately saving the class time.

Of course matters are complicated when a child has sensory issues and communication problems, such as children with autism have, but those are matters to be taken into account in what approach you use with a specific child, they are not insurmountable barriers to behavioural change or to discipline. Also, the better a teacher – and classmates – understand what upsets or distresses a child, the easier it will be for everyone to avoid those triggers or to see them coming or to know that they need to expect a reaction soon. It’s a matter of understanding, compassion, and problem-solving; it is the opposite of all of that when a child with special needs is placed in a seclusion room.

I’m no expert, I’m not a teacher, I’m just a mother trying to understand the issues, the terms, and the science behind the uses of types of discipline. There are lost of helpful resources out there, here are some I found insightful to get my head around the issues:



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Dental Fear or Dental Care

My children’s dentist is a free dental clinic attached to a school that is about half an hour’s drive from home. It’s not close, it’s not convenient, and I could get free dental care for the kids directly through their school. Yet I keep going back to this one place, even though my children never actually went to the school that the clinic is attached to. There’s nothing special about the building, there’s nothing special about the official range of services they offer. They aren’t a special needs clinic and they don’t offer to sedate my children in order to perform dentistry on them. But they do have something exceptional: a specific dentist. This dentist has no specific training for dealing with autistic children, what she does though is a perfect example of how inclusion can work, and how making inclusion work is in the best interests of everyone (not just the children).

Mouth checkup

I remember an early visit to this clinic, when I saw a different dentist than the one we now see. It was the closest dental clinic to my home at the time. That dentist quickly lost patience with my eldest son, and told me that if he wouldn’t comply with her instructions, she’d have to make a referral to a place where he’d have to be sedated in order for them to carry out dental care. I was shocked and upset, I said I’d have to think about the option, and left feeling quite upset – both that she believed he required such an extreme approach, and that she hadn’t persisted with a gentler approach.

In those early years, I quickly learned that my eldest son had a strong fear of dental work, and that he was going to need me by his side for every dental appointment. So once he began school, I signed a form clearly saying he was not to attend the roving school dental nurse clinics, where he’d have no relationship with the dentist and I couldn’t be by his side. The school ignored the paperwork, and sent him along to the dental clinic anyway, even as he protested that he “didn’t have to go” (because I’d told him he didn’t have to go to the school dental nurse). He was told “yes you do” and was forced to. His fear of dentists after that only got worse. (And yes, there was an enquiry – that went beyond the school and into the health sector – and an apology, for the incident.)

I thought this was just going to be the way of things – stressful, largely redundant dental appointments, eventually ending up with sedation to carry out the simplest of dental care.

Then I had yet another scheduled appointment at the initial clinic we’d visited- I was dreading the appointment, thinking she’d tell me me had no choice but to go with sedation. But it was a different dentist at the clinic this time. She was clam, she was reassuring, she was gentle and encouraging. She didn’t say he’d require sedation, but she did say we better come back again soon so she could keep a close eye on his dental health since she wasn’t able to get him to accept the process for taking x-rays and he had a limited time during which he’d allow her to work within his mouth. She also said it would be good for him to come back again soon so he could become more accustomed with the experience and grow to fear it less. I liked this woman, and I have chosen to only ever attend dental appointments when she is available ever since. And she only got better. So much better.

Each time we see her she seems to come up with yet another way to help both my children become more compliant and less fearful of the dental experience. This is the current list of things she does, that has built up to this point over the years, of her own accord:

She makes sure no other children are scheduled at the same time in adjacent rooms so there is no crying or screaming or distress from other rooms to add to my children’s anxiety; she always advises them of what she is about to do and shows them what equipment she will be using, to reduce anxiety and unexpected events; she involves the children in each process, answering all their questions and teaching them about why she does what she does; she schedules six-monthly appointments so there is less danger involved in her not being able to gather full information from them through x-rays between otherwise yearly appointments (their teeth are in great condition with all this care, as you can imagine! One temporary filling for each child, but that’s not too bad); she uses praise and rewards to keep them engaged and compliant as much as possible; she even specially reserves a parking spot for us so the children have less distance to travel. She always schedules my boys’ appointments together, and uses what she does to one boy, to help the other – to encourage the other to give it a go too, and to show them they need not be afraid.

She is aware of their sensory issues – she’d learned, for instance, that both my boys panic when the x-ray tab is put in their mouths because they both get the sensation they’re going to choke on it or accidentally swallow it. So she changed the positioning for the x-ray, and even managed to get my youngest to finally have an x-ray last time by sitting him forward to avoid the fear of choking. Little things; big progress.

She is not specially trained to deal with autistic children or children with special needs, but she hasn’t had to be, because she is so patient, so compassionate, and so thoughtful. She has built a relationship with both my children – and with me. I wish she was my dentist!

Her success with my children, hasn’t just benefited them through her ability to increasingly perform longer checks and more intensive care of their teeth; it hasn’t just soothed and comforted me, as their parent. It has also saved the public purse a heck of a lot too – otherwise having to send my children along for sedation at a hospital facility, which would have involved a lot more resources and people (and expensive ones at that) than them just seeing her briefly every six months. She has also saved the public purse from having to pay out for more drastic damage to my children’s teeth – because she sees them so regularly and is able to do more with them each time, there is less cost involved than had she not been able to get them to comply and their dental issues had got a lot worse than they are.

I wish there was a way to have her acknowledged publicly for what she does. I want people to see how it can be, to know it is possible to work with kids like mine without having to necessarily sedate them. To build meaningful relationships that benefit everyone. I want people to know how awesome she is, and to learn from her. At least I can blog about it!

The last time we visited her, which was only a few weeks ago, I was walking back to the car with both my boys, and my eldest turned to me and said: “Mum, I don’t think I’m so afraid of the dentists anymore.” I gave him a big hug and told him how proud I was of him. I wanted to rush back and give the dentist a big hug too! I hope she knows what a difference she’s made in our lives; I always do tell her how much I appreciate her care of my boys, and she turns the praise back on me and tells me what a great job I’m doing with my boys!

I’d travel a lot more than half an hour to keep someone this special in my kids’ lives.


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Seclude, Exclude, and Excuse.

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What does it take, to justify putting a child in a small, empty, locked, dark “time-out” room in a school, when they’d otherwise be playing with their peers, or learning in the classroom? The answer you’ll get most often, from … Continue reading

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“Education for All” Rally

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You may have noticed your Facebook friends’ profile pictures changing to the “education for all” picture. It should be simply a statement of something we can take for granted in this country – we’re told we have a world-class education … Continue reading

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American Accents Aren’t Disney’s Fault

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In a recent (and I would add “highly irresponsible”) piece of reporting from the New Zealand Herald, we are told that an explanation for children turning up at school with American accents is that children are watching too much Disney … Continue reading

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Teacher Aides and SENCOs in New Zealand Schools; symptoms of a broken system.

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If you want some insight on how children with special needs are valued and cared for (or rather, not valued nor cared for) within the New Zealand education system, I suggest you start by looking at two specific groups of … Continue reading

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Your Voice Has Not Been Approved

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I’ve been a very quiet blogger lately, quiet enough that you may have suspected I’d quit blogging. Hell, even I suspected I’d quit blogging. I’d started a new career, been published, moved house, got two new insanely adorable kittens, and … Continue reading

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Sesame Street’s “See Amazing” Autism Initiative Gets Everything Right

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Sesame Street’s new autism initiative hits it out of the park, but not everyone agrees. Continue reading

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Anxiety in Children (and why you shouldn’t let that “broken leg” stop you running races)

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What future does an anxious child have? That’s not just up to anxiety, it’s up to you too. Continue reading

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Funding Teacher Aides

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Who is responsible for funding teacher aides? The Ministry of Education here in New Zealand, claims they provide adequate funding and support for children with special needs, and so parents shouldn’t be paying for teacher aide hours. The schools say they … Continue reading

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