School Climate & Safety

Often Effective, Timeout Target in Abuse Cases

March 19, 1997 6 min read

When she first heard the rumor in the spring of 1993, Charlene Rogers couldnt believe it. A 10-year-old boy had reportedly been confined in a cardboard box for discipline at an elementary school in Thomaston, Ga., where she is a school board member.

So Ms. Rogers went to see for herself. Arriving at the school unannounced, while the class was at lunch, she saw the empty box. Inside were two handmade signs. One read “bathroom,” the other said “help.”

A police investigation would later confirm that the boy, Raphael Chambles, had been kept in the box for two weeks of class time and that the signs were the only way he was allowed to communicate.

Ms. Rogers wasn’t the only one disturbed by what she saw three years ago. The news of the 3rd grader’s punishment worried other school officials and shocked the rural community in central Georgia.

“Everyone was concerned,” Ms. Rogers recalled recently. “I told the custodian the box had to go and it had to go now.”

The story is one of many reported abuses of a common disciplinary tool known as timeout. Educators and experts on children’s behavior agree that the method can be a useful one. It is widely used to calm troublesome or disruptive students by removing them from stimulating situations and placing them for a while in a quiet, neutral setting.

Teachers like the practice because it allows a disruptive child to calm down and reflect while the rest of the class can continue its lessons. Many timeout programs require follow-up activities such as having students write or talk about the behavior that got them into trouble.

But, as cases like Raphael’s and several others in recent years show, the practice sometimes goes awry.

“Timeout is an effective discipline strategy for both home and school,” said Bill Pfohl, the president of the National Association of School Psychologists. “Unfortunately many people do not understand the principles and therefore misuse or overuse it.”

Locked Closets

Most abuses occur, experts say, when educators don’t understand the purpose of timeout, or overuse it. Intended only as a temporary measure, timeout quickly becomes ineffective and even dangerous when children are placed in small, enclosed places for long periods of time.

“Locked closets, storage rooms--it’s all been done, but it’s not appropriate,” Mr. Pfohl said.

In Georgia, the Thomaston case is one of several reported uses of cardboard boxes for school discipline, said Denise Freeman, a spokeswoman for Citizens United for Rural Empowerment, an educational clearinghouse based in Tignall, Ga. Students have also been placed in broom closets, locked rooms, or plywood boxes designed specifically for timeout, she said.

“There are all kinds of abuses going on,” Ms. Freeman said. “If [the teachers] were parents, we’d have them behind bars.”

Similar incidents have been reported in Idaho and Florida. In Paradise Valley, Ariz., near Phoenix, the parents of a 14-year-old boy with attention-deficit disorder are suing the school district for allegedly placing their son in a locked booth in February 1994. A lawyer for the school district said, however, that the booth was not locked and that the discipline did not violate state regulations.

In Illinois, the state offices of the American Civil Liberties Union have received more than a dozen complaints in the past few years from parents concerned about the use of timeout, said Benjamin Wolf, an ACLU lawyer who specializes in children’s rights. “It’s a surprisingly widespread problem,” he said.

Boredom, Not Fear

Most experts say, however, that the abuses can be curbed and that timeout, when used correctly, remains an effective method for disciplining disruptive students.

“The concept of timeout is not flawed,” said Jake Burks, the director of instructional services for the 4,000-student Orange County district in central Virginia, which has a comprehensive timeout policy. “What’s flawed is how people use it.”

Interviews with educators and discipline experts reveal several elements considered vital to the effective use of timeout:

  • Schools and districts should have clearly defined policies for its use. Administrators, teachers, and psychologists should meet to discuss the principles of such a program and to outline the specific types of disruptive behaviors it will address.

“To use it for [students] who just aren’t doing their homework doesn’t seem appropriate,” Mr. Pfohl said.

  • Teachers, students, and parents should be informed about the program, so that everyone is aware and involved in the practice.

  • Timeout rooms should be simple, unstimulating areas. “The room is not dark, not scary, not frightening--just basically boring,” said Ron Drabman, a psychology professor at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.

  • Though the room should be isolated and away from stimulating or social contact, it should always be equipped with a designated monitor or teaching aide to ensure that students are both safe and well-behaved.

  • Time spent in the discipline room should be limited and should reflect the age of the student. Mr. Drabman recommends that students ages 5 to 10 remain in timeout no longer than 10 minutes; 10- to 14-year-olds should cool off for about 15 minutes.

  • Educators should continually monitor, evaluate, and adjust their programs.

That includes keeping detailed records on how often and for what reasons students are sent to timeout. If the same children are winding up there repeatedly, it may be a sign the procedure is not working.

  • And, to be truly effective, timeout must include follow-up activities.

“Timeout should be a small part of a positive program,” said Irwin Hyman, a professor of school psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia and an expert on school discipline. “The best way to deal with misbehavior is to talk about prevention.”

For example, educators should require post-timeout conferences with students and their parents to discuss the behavior problem and ways of improving it. “If you don’t do those things, you’re just crossing your fingers and hoping that miraculously this [problem] solves itself,” Mr. Burks said.

‘The Ticket Back’

At Prospect Heights Middle School in Orange, Va., students must complete a written plan while in timeout, describing their disruptive behavior and explaining how they will work to change it. Students then meet with their teachers to discuss the plans before they return to class.

“The written plan is the ticket back to class,” said Gena Johnson, the assistant principal.

The school also supplements timeout with parent conferences and a period set aside each day known as the “Works” class, for students to concentrate on special projects or behavior problems.

“We use interventions that make sense and focus on responsibility and alternative behavior,” Ms. Johnson said.

In Thomaston, Ga., the case of Raphael Chambles led to similar changes in discipline policy, said Larry Woodruff, the principal of Upson Lee South Elementary School, where the boy was enrolled. Although a police investigation found that no crime was committed, district officials later reprimanded his teacher and moved her to another classroom.

The incident caused a local furor in the 5,000-student district, which has since combined with the surrounding area to become the Thomaston/Upson County schools.

In response, the school board approved funding for a discipline room in each elementary school where disruptive students can be sent for time away from the class. A trained teacher’s aide monitors each classroom.

“These policies are pretty much in line” with what discipline experts advise, said Ms. Rogers, the school board member. “They’re not as harsh.”

A Larger Goal

Two years ago, Beth Fennell, a teacher at Walt Whitman Middle School in Fairfax County, Va., developed a timeout program modeled after the one in Orange. The Whitman program has since become the model in the 147,000-student district in the Washington suburbs.

The lessons timeout teaches students are about more than just discipline and academics, Ms. Fennell stressed. It also teaches them lessons on life.

“Separation and reflection,” she said. “It’s the kind of message we want to give to kids in many situations, that you don’t have to fight it out.”

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