Alternatives to Time Out


Evy Fischlowitz Sussman

Evy Fischlowitz Sussman has worked in Early Childhood education for over 30 years. She presently is a primary school teacher in the Minneapolis public school system, and she regularly presents workshops at the annual NAEYC Conferences.

For years I heard myself say to 3 to 5 year olds, "That's enough now - you need to take a TIME OUT! Sit or stand here and think about why hitting (or pushing or throwing or knocking down someone or something) is not allowed in our school." I watched these youngsters watch us, look out the window, play with their shoes or their fingers, or their buttons. I saw them make faces and, once in a while, even fall asleep. I watched the other kids watch them, sometimes tease them, and frequently make their return to the group an unsuccessful event.

My attempts to solicit meaningful feedback regarding "Did you think about what you did to ___?"or "Are you ready to return?" or "Why did you do that?" yielded little of truth or value. There had to be another, better way to help children learn pro-social, acceptable behavior in these early years, in places where there is no private space, such as a bedroom, to send them. How long is long enough, and defining where "away from the group" is are issues which plague early childhood teachers. How can we preserve, protect, and instill real self-esteem? How can the teacher and the child both "save face," "look strong" and remain in charge? How can these behavior episodes become positive steps in the process of growing up?

I found that offering activities with absolute beginnings and endings (absolute beginning is not the sand table, looking at a book, block play or large muscle activities) answered most of my concerns for these "children in stress" (the ones who cause us so much stress!) - the ones who are in need of frequent cooling-off times and places. I would send them to a nearby table. I would choose an appropriate activity which would involve and engage them physically, visually, cognitively. The instructions would be, "Put this puzzle together," "String all the square (or red) beads," "Sort all these shapes," "Match these pictures," "Copy this pattern," "Let me know when you are finished. Then we will talk." The short phrases are about as many words and instructions as a child in stress can comprehend. Usually I try to say no more words than the child is old. Whenever possible, I make the decisions, no questions asked. The end of the activity is visual and concrete - the puzzle is complete, the beads are strung, the items are matched or sorted. The child is in control of the timing. Often, as children learn that this is the "time-out" technique that we use, they will self-regulate the amount of time-out they need. If they"re not ready to talk or return to the group, they'll do the puzzle again, or somehow delay finishing.

The process of fitting pieces into spaces or, choosing the right piece or color or shape, all help youngsters to calm down, to focus on the specific task, and to feel in control of the situation and in control of themselves. Sometimes I decide to extend the time alone by telling the child, "I don't think you're ready yet, let's do this some more."Often we begin talking about the completed activity first, then we talk about the troublesome behavior.

I have found that this technique meets many mutual needs when a child needs to be separated from the group. I need to be in charge. I want to keep the self-esteem of the child intact. I want positive learning and growth to take place. I want peace and order to reign in my classroom. I want this child to reenter in a positive, friendly manner. I want to set a good example of adult behavior for my students.

These "time-out" activities help me when I need them.

This article was taken from Show N Tell, Lauri, Inc.'s Newsletter. For a free copy, call Lauri at 1-800-451-0520

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