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.
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:
- “Discipline for young children – Discipline and punishment: What is the difference?” An academic article by Velya Telep, Virginia State University
- “‘Time-Outs’ are Hurting Your Child” Time article, by Daniel J. Siegel, 2014
- “Seclusion and restraint in North Carolina schools” a disciplinary guide that helps to distinguish between some key terms as relates to the school environment
- “The proper use of time out” a guide for parents, from the site The Successful Parent
- “Discipline for Young Children: 12 Alternatives to Times Out” Positive Parenting Connection website article