This post is going to focus primarily on understanding children's sense of time and using time out effectively. It will conflict with my follow-up posts related to self-regulation and conscious discipline, but I decided that was ok because we all need a toolbox full of tools rather than just one single tool and many of you are already using time out, so I wanted to offer some suggestions and ideas for you to think about in relation to it.
Some of what I discuss below came from the book Difficult Behavior in Early Childhood: Positive Discipline for PreK-3 Classrooms and Beyond.
Before Using Timeout: Understanding a Child's Sense of Time
Young children's developmental sense of time is situated in what is immediate and relevant to their lives. What is occurring in the present is relevant. What is not occurring presently might as well not be happening at all.
For young children, without a framework to organize and store memories, it is challenging conceptually to recall past experiences and anticipate future consequences. This makes it difficult for children to find motivation to repeat or avoid desirable or undesirable behaviors and their consequences.
Motivation for young children that is meaningful is what aides or impairs them in their immediate circumstances and immediate present.
Good teaching and a positive discipline remind children of past choices and lessons learned from realizing that the consequences of behavior reach into the future in foreseeable and manageable ways.
As you teach about choices and consequences:
1) remind children of a past choice that may impact their behavior
2) warn them about what happened after that choice, what happened as a result of their behavior
3) provide immediate motivation for children by naming immediate consequences for appropriate and inappropriate decisions and behaviors
For example, you might say, "Abby, calm down. Last time you got into trouble fighting over the blocks. You won't like being in timeout again." This message implies "you better not" rather than "you may not." When an implicit message is not enough, you need to make a clear and foreful command such as "You are not allowed to throw crayons."
Three Common Uses of Timeout and Why They are Unsuccessful
"Suffering Theory of Timeout"
This theory of timeout maintains the belief that being forced to sit away from other children is greatly upsetting to the child. For some children, this theory of timeout can be motivating enough to change the child's behavior. Whatever impelled the child to act inappropriately is not as powerful as the negative motivation to avoid timeout. However, there are some children who do not find being removed from the group to be terribly upsetting. They do not learn their lesson in timeout and in fact, may even have fun as they find creative ways to entertain themselves while sitting there.
Potential Abuse of the Suffering Theory of Timeout
A short timeout becomes a long timeout.
Sitting in a chair for timeout becomes sitting in a chair without any body movement allowed.
Being removed from the rest of the group becomes a denial of interaction with anyone or anything.
Sitting becomes standing. Standing becomes facing a wall or putting your nose in the corner or holding heavy books until your arms ache.
The "Think About it" Theory of Timeout
Asking a child to "think about it" implies that a child can judge all of the possible consequences of a behavior and then logically consider both the positive and negative aspects well enough to make a good decision and choose the appropriate behavior. This also requires that a child be able to look to the future and consider the consequences of the decisions they make in the present. However, if the consequences aren't immediate, then they aren't relevant to young children. If a child could actually stop and consider being in trouble at home, loosing a classmate as a friend, developing a bad reputation, and so on, then the child most likely would not have acted inappropriately in the first place. Some children are very good at parroting the right words of remorse and responsibility, but these words will only serve to get them out of timeout.
Young children do need to consider their actions and how their decisions impact present situations and circumstances. You need to model the thinking process out loud. A young child needs to be guided in how he or she should think about what they have done. This guidance will help them understand the principals of cause and effect and their responsibility in managing and developing their own lives, circumstances, and rewards. Young children are much more likely to pay attention to you modeling the thinking process when they don't have their own punishment to bypass.
The "How Would You Like it if..." Theory of Timeout
This theory of timeout is based on the belief that a young child has empathy and that it is developed enough to motivate change in behavior. However, young children do not have a mature level of empathy. Additionally, children may not have a particularly accurate sense of alternate perspectives. Meaning, young children do not have a good understanding of what another person feels or thinks and they assume that others interpret situations the same way they do.
Teaching Empathy to Young Children
To prompt a child to feel what another child is feeling requires consideration and thought. Most of the time we only ask the question "How would you like it if someone did that to you?" When trying to teach a young child empathy, a few additional questions could be asked. Here are a few examples:
Does Abby like being hit? (If the child does not answer or says he or she does not know, then tell the child that Abby does not like being hit.)
How does it feel to be hit?
How do you think Abby felt when you hit her? (If the child does not answer or says he or she does not know, then tell the child that it feels awful to Abby just as it would to him or her.)
Do you like to have blocks taken from you?
How do you think Abby likes having blocks taken away from her? (Again, you need to restate that Abby feels the same way that he or she would.)
In teaching empathy to young children, you need to direct the child to the similarity of feelings between the other child and him or herself. You will need to teach the child that there is room for the feelings of both children.
Developing a Sense of Community and a More Effective Timeout
You have to first establish boundaries and confront the inappropriate behavior. Name the behavior and confirm what is appropriate or inappropriate. Lead the child to think about what happened, the choices he or she made, and the consequences of the decision. Direct the child to think about the other child's feelings and how they are the same as his or hers.
"Abby. You hurt Braeden. We do not hit in our classroom. You sit down in this chair. You are in timeout. Think about what you did. Something happened and you did not like it, so you hit Abby. I understand that you did not like what happened, but you cannot hit Abby.
Since you hit Abby, you are now in timeout and that means you do not get to play.
Only the students who are kind to one another get to play in this classroom.
How would you like it if Abby hit you?
Does Abby like being hit? No, she does not like being hit. You would not like being hit either.
How does it feel when someone hits you? It does not feel good and you do not like being hit either.
How do you think Abby feels about being hit? It feels very bad to be hit, as same as it feels very bad to you.
When the child's timeout is over and you return to him or her you will need to explain the basic rules of the classroom community- that if he or she wants to participate and be included in the classroom community then he or she cannot harm himself or herself, cannot cause harm to others in the classroom, or harm the community process by taking the teacher away from facilitating other's learning. Relate each one of these rules of community to the inappropriate behavior the child displayed.
While a stay in timeout should remain short, some students will have to return again and again because you will want to follow through and be consistent in not letting them rejoin the group until they can obey the basic rules of the classroom community. You can repeatedly place a misbehaving child in timeout, but never for an extended period of time.
Timeout will not necessarily change a child's behavior, but it can decrease the destructive effect of the bad behavior on others and the operation of the classroom.
If timeout does not achieve the effect you are looking for, then work with the child to create a plan to do something different. Some children will repeatedly promise to not repeat their previously poor behavior, but when left on their own will continue to struggle with behaving differently. When having a discussion about what he or she will do differently next time, some children will be able to suggest an alternative behavior, while others will not. If a child is not able to give suggestions or other ideas for how to behave better then offer some suggestions for him or her. For example: You and the child might develop a signal for when they seem to be gravitating toward the wrong classmates, the wrong spaces in the room, or the wrong activities.
Timeout is not a magical wand that will solve all of your classroom behavior problems, but when done correctly it is one tool you can use.