Iowa may limit 'timeouts' in school

Iowa legislators may limit use of “timeout rooms” in schools, in response to a couple’s complaint “that their 8-year-old daughter was alone in timeout for more than three hours because she refused to finish a reading assignment,” reports the Des Moines Register.

“The problem that some of my colleagues have noted is an educationally inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint — ‘You were disrespectful; go into the timeout room,’ versus ‘You were disrespectful; how can we help you be more respectful?’ ” said Thomas Mayes, an attorney for the education department.

While three hours seems like an awfully long exclusion, what are teachers supposed to do about unruly children who aren’t in the mood to learn how to be respectful?

At home, short timeouts work best, writes a psychologist on Slate.

Timeout has nothing to do with justice, repentance, or authority. Rather, it follows a simple logic: Attention feeds a behavior, and a timeout is nothing more than a brief break from attention in any form — demands, threats, explanations, rewards, hugs … everything.

Via This Week in Education.

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  1. One could get a lot of reading done in 3 very quiet hours….

  2. Margo/Mom says:

    I hesitate to respond as this always ends up being such a hot button issue–as demonstrated by the long line of responses to the original article.

    I think one key point needs to be made. An eight year old not reading when she is supposed to be reading is not a situtation that signals danger to self or others–the kind of situation when time out “rooms” may in fact have some appropriate use. This may have been a time when it would be appropriate for another adult (principal, counselor, social worker, etc) should have been sought to have some needed conversation about what was going on–which is frequently what happens when a “discipline referral” is made.

    Moving forward from that point depends a good bit on the outcome of that conversation, and some adult, professional knowledge of the child. A kid who repeatedly struggles with reading may need some intervention/support. A kid who was busy talking to her friend needs another kind (and it may depend on whether they were discussing last night’s television show or trying to work out the end of a conflict that started on the playground).

    The problem with the presence of time out rooms is that they provide the illusion of a “quick fix” and appeal to the adult’s need to step in an control the situation (or the student). Putting a kid in a locked room for 3 hours is certainly an example of control. Did it achieve the objective (returning the student to a learning state). Not likely.

  3. Tracy W says:

    It seems a shame that legislators have to pass laws about these sorts of things. Regardless of anyone’s position on punishment, what’s the advantage of sending a kid to timeout for three hours? If you want to change behaviour, immediate and brief rewards or punishments strike me as at least as effective as long-lasting ones. Most people learn to drive a car adequately in the sense of being able to get it started and down the road, and I suspect that is because a car provides immediate feedback when you get something wrong. Put a car in the wrong gear and the engine immediately shrieks. The learner driver looks shocked and immediately tries to put the car into the right gear. Would we learn any better if the engine shrieked for three hours? Would we learn any better if the engine only shrieked briefly but we couldn’t try again for three hours?

    As for unruly children who are not in the mood to learn how to be respectful, I understand a response to that is the Teacher-Me game, by which the teacher sets up a game where the kids win if they act more respectfully, and the teacher “wins” if they don’t (I’m going to give the teacher the pronoun “she”, but this game can be played by male teachers as well of course). When the teacher “wins” she acts delighted, mocks that no one can beat her at this game, and so forth. When the kids win, the teacher acts astonished, shocked and eventually sulkily introduces a new game, one in which the teacher tells the students “I always win this one, you can’t beat me at this one”, while of course having set up the rules so the kids can win, as long as they try. Obviously “act respectfully” needs to be defined in more specific ways, eg “not talking while the teacher is talking”. Also, teenagers are more likely to see through this game.

    If schools don’t want responsibility for teaching unruly kids who aren’t in the mood to be respectful, it strikes me that the logical response is to lobby for an end to compulsory schooling laws, not put kids in timeout for three hours.

  4. Mrs Davis says:

    If George Bush had authorized this policy as part of NCLB, would Gerald Nadler be calling for its investigation as a violation of the Geneva Convention?

  5. Miller Smith says:

    Put the total responsibility for the child’s behavior on the parent. When a child acts in a “bad” manner, they are to be removed from the class setting and put in a “time-out” room until the parents come and get the child. The child is not allowed to ride the bus. The parents are put in a very bad situation if their schedules conflict.

    The child can only come back when the parent has taken corrective action. If it happens a third time the parent is required to go to parenting classes or proclaim their child “unruly” and turn them over to the authorities.

  6. Robert Wright says:

    Generally speaking, teachers are expected to tolerate too many disruptions, too many acts of open defiance.

    Fortunately, California has a law that states I have the power to suspend a child from my classroom for the rest of the period and for the period of the following day. This suspension may not be overturned by the administration. Unfortunately, many teachers don’t know this law exists, and many principals will pretend it doesn’t exist.

    I had a principal once who was very effective in the area of discipline. When a child was kicked out of class, he’d call the parent to have the child picked up. Nine times out of ten the parent would say, “I’m working right now. I can’t do it.” The principal’s response was, “We’re working, too. We can’t have him here.” Then the principal would drive the child over to parents place of employment and dump him there. The parent would protest, “I can’t watch him while I’m working!” The principal would respond, “That’s your problem. We’re not babysitters.”

    The result would be that the parent would communicate to the child, in very clear terms, that that better never, ever happen again.

    And usually it didn’t.

  7. Margo/Mom says:

    Robert–what you describe sounds like a totally appropriate response to a child not reading. Next time that child had better keep the book open and in front of her and pretend she’s reading.

  8. Robert Wright says:


    The fact that a child refused to finish a reading assignment could mean different things.

    I have students who refuse to finish reading assignments because reading is difficult for them. And some refuse because they’re lazy. And some refuse because their minds are elsewhere. None of these cases warrant a time-out.

    But when I hear a parent complaint “that their 8-year-old daughter was alone in timeout for more than three hours because she refused to finish a reading assignment,” I immediately suspect that this doesn’t accurately describe the events that took place.

    Any teacher can tell you that they frequently will have parents tell them, “I know this is true because my child said so.” And the parents will say this with a straight face.

    If in fact that’s what happened to the girl, then that school has serious problems.

    But my experience has been that 99 times out of 100 when parents complain about such things, there’s more to the story. A lot more.

    And let me add, I like and agree with your first post here.

  9. Margo/Mom says:


    Well, I’m glad that we agree on some things. But I have also experienced a principal who worked like the one that you mention. I have a child with special needs. At the beginning of one school year, with a new teacher, who despite years of experience and a fair amount of talents and skills, just flat out believed that my child “didn’t belong.” She left him outside on the playground the first day (“oops–I thought he ‘self-selected’ to go to the office”). Her response to the intervention specialist (who, sad to say, was brand new in her job) was “why don’t you come in and show me how it’s done?” She couldn’t implement any of the suggestions (like marking a space on the floor with tape during story time to help him understand his “personal space”) because she might have to do it for other children as well-even though she started to realize that maybe some strategies might work well with others.

    The principal thought it was reasonable to just sort of end the day early when the teacher thought that she had had enough–“there’s no learning going on.” Call mom–at work–to come get him. I learned (especially because by the time I got there the “crisis” had frequently passed and I was picking up a completely docile child) to ask, “Is this a suspension?” and require him to go through the appropriate steps and paperwork. This was to ensure that the clock was running on the 10 day limit allowed for removal from education under IDEA. He didn’t like that very much and responded by immediately eating up all 10 days, and then having him arrested. In the first month of school, between the time out of school and the time placed in supervised “time out,” (with worksheets–so that he was being “educated”), there was very little class time. Even though the “charges” against him were thrown out of court, my attorney convinced me that it wasn’t worth the fight to keep him in this school. So–yes, the principal “won.” We allowed the district to change his placement to another school (you can imagine how happy they were to receive a child midway through the year with a bad rep, no suspension days left and at least a month behind).

    I wouldn’t advocate his methodology.

  10. Legislating this is just nonsense. But IMO sending a kid to the TOR for three hours for refusing to read is also nonsense. TOR should be used for kids who’re disruptive/disrespectful, period. Again, this is just my opinion.

    If I have a kid who refuses to read, do an assignment or continually comes unprepared, I’ll obviously contact the parents … but I’ll only send him/her to the TOR if he/she becomes disruptive, and I’ll warn ’em thusly: “OK, fine, don’t do the work. But if you start talking or bothering others you’re out of here.”

    Nevertheless, I second Robert’s last comment. I’m skeptical of the story (or, at least, believe there’s more to it). And I’ve lost count how many times I’ve heard lines like “I know this is true because my child said so.”.

  11. “I know this is true because my child said so.”

    Perhaps the single most oft-heard sentence in juvenile court.

  12. BadaBing says:

    You were disrespectful; how can we disturb class even more by helping you be more respectful? I’m not going to send you outside for a timeout or write a referral just because you’re acting like the immature and obnoxious cretin you’ve been acting like all semester, so can we both sit down and talk this out while the rest of the class derails and nobody gets anything done? Maybe we can start by your telling me what it is I can do to make the class more entertaining and interesting for you blah blah blah…

  13. Ragnarok says:

    Robert Wright said:

    “Then the principal would drive the child over to parents place of employment and dump him there.”

    Of course the school also handed over the the kid’s parent a pro-rata portion of the ADA?

    Please confirm, Robert.

  14. Robert Wright says:

    I’m not sure about the regulations for ADA when a child only attends for a partial day. But I’m fairly sure this principal followed the regulations.

    I think if the ADA system could be done away with, we’d have much better discipline in our schools.

    Because of ADA and some other pressures, some students who need to be suspended are not suspended.

    One year we had a vp who said, “ADA be damned. Let them fire me; I don’t care. I’m going to suspend any student who deserves it.”

    So he suspended students left and right and, for some reason, he wasn’t fired. That was in September through November.

    The result was, discipline improved.

    By June, our school had fewer suspensions for the year than the other two middle schools in the district.

    But he was the exception. Schools are ADA driven. And discipline problems are swept under the rug so the principal can maintain good P.R.

    Students misbehave for a variety of reasons and suspension and other forms of punishment are sometimes counterproductive.

    That said, I believe that many students misbehave because they know the system is too weak and timid to do anything about it.

  15. Margo/Mom says:


    IDEA allows ten days of removal. In school suspension doesn’t count. If suspension is effective–how much do you suppose is adequate?