time-out strategies

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

 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