Educational researchers are right: schools should dump naughty corners and time-out strategies

By Linda Graham

 Popular media erupted this week around the use of naughty corners in Australian classrooms. Two South Australian researchers, Dr Anna Sullivan and Professor Bruce Johnson, suggested the use of naughty corners and other similar time-out behaviour management strategies could be in breach of the International Convention of the Rights of the Child.

The point they made is these strategies can exclude children from the classroom and therefore have the potential to deprive them of their right to an education. Children who are regularly excluded will miss vital elements of their basic education. Other strategies, such as children’s names being added to smiley and sad faces on classroom whiteboards, could violate their right to be treated with dignity.

The comments section of The Adelaide Advertiser, the first news service to run with the naughty–corner-should-be-gone story, went into meltdown with statements including:

What about the rights of teachers who need time out from the bad behaviour of children? Bad actions have consequences so sometimes it is necessary for children to be removed from the class. Disruptive children must be removed from the class so the teacher can teach other children who want to learn. (Kerry)

And this:

It is easier to understand why our world ranking in education is dropping and that we have no Primary School in this State in the top 100 schools in Australia, when our Universities are so out of touch with reality. (David)

Most of the respondents, many of whom were teachers, could not understand what could possibly be wrong with these strategies; especially the seemingly benign use of visual tallies.

Strategies like the ubiquitous “happy/sad faces” (traffic lights, ladders, class dojo’s… take your pick) may seem unobjectionable to adults, however they tend not to work with the very children at which they are aimed.

Why not?  Well, those children tend to be less motivated by their relative position in the class, which is what these strategies rely on. Think about it. If they were, then they would already be up there with the “good kids” – striving to be in the top group for reading, to get the most gold stars, to receive the most pats on the back. They wouldn’t be horsing about instead.

The children at risk I work with don’t tend to be motivated by such tired, old gimmicks. And, even if you can get traction by introducing something they haven’t seen before (stickers, counters, reward charts, free time), the novelty wears off pretty quickly.

The only students you’re ever really going to reach with strategies that rely on relative position  (best, first, the one with the most stickers) are the ones you never have to worry about.  They are the ones whose names are reliably found at the top of the ladder, the green spot on the traffic light, and under the happy face on the class whiteboard.

In the meantime, what happens to the ones you really want to reach?

Well, they’re pretty intuitive. They’ve already worked out that they’re in the bottom reading group, have the least gold stars, and most wouldn’t know what a pat on the back feels like. They are used to seeing the names of the “good kids” at the top and theirs at the bottom. To be frank, they probably don’t need a visual aid to know what they’re used to seeing on their teacher’s face.

Don’t get me wrong. They don’t like being at the bottom; not initially anyway. For many, it’s a puzzle. They just don’t understand how they always manage to get it wrong or, perhaps more accurately, they don’t know how the hell the “good kids” always seem to get it right! And do it so effortlessly.

Little by little they cease to care. Some become hard-baked and bent on revenge. Most end up excluded in some form of time out: the naughty corner, the principal’s office, the quiet room, suspended. That’s a process that I want to understand as an educational researcher because it is complex, multifaceted and NOT driven solely by the child.

Let me tell you where I think it starts.

I was recently out in primary schools collecting data for a project that is tracking prep (kindergarten) children through to the end of grade three. The research, which has been seed-funded by the Financial Markets Foundation for Children, involves a multitude of child measures including the “Who am I?” Developmental Assessment, the School Liking & Avoidance Questionnaire (SLAQ), together with language, literacy and numeracy assessments.

It has been a real eye-opener for me to work with four and five year olds.

I usually work with disgruntled teens who aren’t particularly bothered if they can’t do something or at least are much less open about it. You’re more likely to hear them say that they “can’t be f***ed” doing something, rather than admitting “I’m just not able to”.

It is a totally different story with the preps or kindy children. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been met by wide eyes and doubt when I turn from asking them to draw a square (one of the developmental tasks on the “Who am I?”) to the dreaded triangle.

I also can’t tell you how many times I’ve been met by eyes filled with fear, when they’ve attempted to do it and their triangle looks more like a pear. I’m sure you’ve worked out that I’m not talking about the most competent kids in the class. Some of the children whose names are under the happy face can draw triangles that look like they’ve been traced using a protractor.

No. I’m talking about a particular sub-set of children who have trouble working out the difference between letters and numbers, who hold a pencil like it’s a nunchaku, and whom my grandmother would say have “ants in their pants.”

One little fidgeter sticks in my mind. Let’s call him Hayden.

Hayden was 4 years and 9 months old when I first met him earlier this year. The same age my son was when he started Prep. My son is now 12 and a rugby forward, so Hayden seemed tiny and completely unready for the demands of the classroom.

He was fascinated by everything though and especially interested in what I was doing. He kept coming up to me and asking “When’s my turn? I haven’t had a turn yet!”

On one of those occasions, he arrived with a small can of fizzy drink in his pudgy little hands that he put down to point to something on the page to which my current participant had just turned.  In that moment, his pinky finger brushed the top of his can of drink and it spilled over the “Who am I?” booklet.

I’ll never forget the look of sheer terror on his face as he stood rooted to the spot waiting for me to erupt.

Knowing instantly that’s what he expected, I put my hands in the air in mock surprise and said in a silly voice and a big smile (I’ve done time with a few Hayden’s):

Oh dear! Whoops-a-daisy!  I think we’ll need a paper towel.  Can YOU show me where I can find a paper towel?”

Brimming with purpose, he raced me to the corner of the room and pointed to the top of a cupboard.

Now, for those of you who haven’t met me, I’m only 150 cm tall. There was no way I was going to be able to get the paper towels down without breaking something. So, I asked the class teacher who was nearby.

I purposely didn’t say what the paper towels were for and I purposely didn’t tell her what had happened. The look of fear on Hayden’s face warned me not to do that.

We took off with our paper towels and began mopping up the drink. Kaylee’s “Who am I?” was none the worse for the experience and I was happy to tell Hayden that it was okay, it was an accident and everything was fine.

Then his teacher happened to put her head outside the door and saw what the paper towels had been for.

And it began.


And that was it for Hayden. He returned to time-out where he spends a great deal of his day, never finding his name under the happy face or on the green traffic light.

My challenge to the apologists in The Advertiser’s comments section is this: was that response deserved?  Was it appropriate?  Would the teacher dare to behave like that in front of Hayden’s mother or father?  Is that behaviour “management”?  Will it achieve anything remotely positive?  Most importantly, what is Hayden learning? If we constantly hit 10 on the Richter Scale, is he ever going to notice when the next teacher tries a 3?

I will tell you I believe his teacher is a good teacher. And I can understand how difficult and frustrating wrangling a class of 20 squirmy five year olds can be. But, I also know, having worked with many angry, adolescent Hayden’s that experiences like that have an indelible effect.

At first, they are shocked and scared and hurt. But, over time and with enough repetition, a big “F**k you” forms and some kids come out fighting.

So teachers, next time you wonder what on earth caused that child in Year 5 or 6 to tell you to get stuffed and run out of the room or the child in Year 8 to throw a chair, spare a thought about their earlier school experiences and the strategies used to manage their behaviour. I will lay a bet this child began as a Hayden.

( Read  The Adelaide Advertiser article and comments HERE )

Linda Graham  Linda Graham

Associate Professor Linda J. Graham is a Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology. She is grateful to have received funding for her research into educational responses to children who are difficult to teach from the Australian Research Council (DP110103093; DP1093020) and the Financial Markets Foundation for Children (2013-030).

For those looking to educational researchers for alternatives to time out strategies:- Persistent misbehaviour challenges teachers more than student violence and aggression

More from Linda Graham HERE

6 thoughts on “Educational researchers are right: schools should dump naughty corners and time-out strategies

  1. Sue says:

    This article is electronic gold! So many teachers and principals are hard working, good people but may not have stopped to reflect on the impact of strategies, responses and actions that have been ‘tried and true’ for so many years in many Australian classrooms. Perhaps, the examples given are perpetuated simply because they’ve always been done, rather than any value or merit in them. The focus, however challenging, difficult or emotionally taxing, must be on finding ways to meet the needs of every student, especially those vulnerable because of their behaviours. I will forward this article to the principals with whom I work and invite them to use it as a provocation with their teachers, if they have the courage to change the existing culture in some of the classrooms in their schools.

  2. Linda,

    While acknowledging that commonly used behaviour management strategies work best with the children that need them least – and that goes some way to justifying their use – I think that you are right about the way that struggling/vulnerable students become averse/negative towards commonly used behaviour management strategies. What your article confirms to me is the classroom teachers to not have the appropriate resources (especially time) to properly support struggling/vulnerable students in a busy, mainstream classroom. With three decades in the classroom under my belt, I do not think they are likely to get them, either- and the demands are ever increasing. While time-out or exclusion strategies do not work for the excluded student as we would hope they would, they DO give remaining students and their teacher time to get on with the business of teaching and learning. We all know that struggling/vulnerable students need a great deal of (the right kind of) support, but I think in the end, class teachers are torn between the needs of the few and the needs of the many – and there just isn’t enough teacher to go around.

  3. Kelli McGraw says:

    I hear you Irene. Some days when you are at your wits end the needs of the many do win out over the needs of the few – I have been a teacher of adolescents and I know that ‘frazzled’ feeling! But for this to be the default method of operation in a classroom is poor form, I think. If the needs of the few are on the losing end every time, where does that leave those few? And…what does it teach the ‘many’ about patience, tolerance and dignity?

    I also have concerns about the effect of rewards charts (and badges etc. used in ‘gamified’ learning) on student motivation. When students come to rely on sticks and carrots to motivate their behaviour, it leaves them ill-prepared for life-long learning where the reward for learning must come from within. They might make a fun ‘hook’ for activities in Term 1 while the teacher gets to know the students, but that’s as far as I would use such techniques.

  4. Kelli,

    Teaching adolescents is a different ball game altogether. I would never consider using star charts or badges or whatever with high schoolers – not so with younger students, though.

    One of characteristics of younger students is that they are egocentric (Piaget). Students who still see themselves as the centre of the universe find it very hard to consider the needs or points of view of others. Primary students are all about the moment, as well. Apart from generalities they are not interested in the future. For them a week is a long, long time. Try going over test results with primary students so they can see where they went wrong … they are completely disinterested.

    As students mature, many who are high achievers will self-motivate. After all, they know they are doing well and do not need token reinforcement as a reward for effort. However, the average primary student responds very well to token reinforcement and, it must be said, that for a frantically busy generalist primary school teacher, who is totally responsible for ALL key learning areas, as well as the pastoral care of thirty youngsters with diverse abilities and needs, day in and day out, the effective use of classroom management systems (that suit MOST students) is an essential adjunct to the sparing use of any individual strategies that require a high commitment of one-to-one time (which the classroom teacher simply does not have).

    What I learnt in my three decades working in primary school is that EVERYTHING works with some students and NOTHING works with all students. As with everything, the effectiveness of token reinforcement is in direct proportion to the skill and intelligence of the practitioner.

  5. Andrew Calvert says:

    I’m not even going to try to be polite about it…

    It is laughable that this type of anecdotal platitude is what working professional teachers get from education researchers. The classroom is an extremely complex place – pointing out that teachers losing their tempers is not always good for students is a wet-shit version of analysis. If 90/100 teachers struggle with it you can safely assume there is only so much emotional battering and neglect of other students a person can take…

    As others above have pointed out, our new pet policy in mainstreaming and differentiation (aided and abetted by how wonderful it works with economic rationalist budgeting) has left teachers balancing irreconcilable needs in the classroom. We’ve all had students that even given 1000% more time, patience, attention and affirmation than any other student in the classroom behave horribly to other students and disengage. No research thus far has come up with any robust methods for improving their educational outcomes. But everyday teachers rack up reams of hard, and hard-won, evidence on how they adversely affect other students, often for good.

    We need actual open-minded, rigorous, scientific research that has to prove itself consistently in varied circumstances before it gets taken seriously. Instead we get confirmation-bias and petty faux-60s ideology that can never be meaningfully tested or put into practice or deployed in classroom settings.

    The education academy has a very long and troubled time ahead of it if it wants to go past making the odd headline, impressing the odd bureaucrat and actually get to the point where classroom teachers take it seriously. We have been thoroughly betrayed by intellectually vapid charlatans and gurus like Ken Robinson for way too long now.

    I really hope the people writing this shit have as hard a time sleeping at night as I do thinking of the students the system lets down everyday. I somehow doubt they do…

  6. Lee says:

    Sadly, Many of us don’t really think about the Intrinsic v Extrinsic Motivation argument. Intrinsic is so much more difficult and time consuming work. We have to build positive relationships, interact informally and build self-esteem; where as Extrinsic motivation sees some jumping through hoops for a lolly. How much time does giving a lolly (sticker, toy) take?
    I’m also not sure that everyone who teaches “wants” to reach difficult children. (Most do but not all and I’m sympathetic to “Burn-Out” syndrome)

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