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Are Time-Out Rooms Too Much?


The Associated Press ran a compelling article this weekend about the use of "time-out" rooms for students with disabilities.

After failing to finish a reading assignment, 8-year-old Isabel Loeffler was sent to the school's time-out room — a converted storage area under a staircase — where she was left alone for three hours.

The autistic Iowa girl wet herself before she was finally allowed to leave.

Appalled, her parents removed her from the school district and filed a lawsuit.

Some educators say time-out rooms are being used with increased frequency to discipline children with behavioral disorders. And the time-outs are probably doing more harm than good, they add.

What the article couldn't say is how often "time outs" are used, because no one seems to keep systematic records of that kind of punishment. To my readers: is it your sense that the use of time-out rooms is increasing? A special education professor quoted in the story said that such rooms could be used effectively when coupled with social skills training, but that it rarely seems to happen that way. Does that seem to be an accurate assessment?


The professor appears to speak the truth, although it is difficult to arrive at honest appraisals given the lack of attention to compiling meaningful data. I will throw in my anecdotes that in over a decade's work in writing "behavior plans" for my son's IEPs, moving the emphasis from reaction to prevention has typically been difficult to impossible. Our first behavior plan (written by an "interventionist" new to her job who said that she enjoyed working with me because I knew all this stuff) was nothing more than a re-statement of the school's discipline policy as it applied to the targetted behavior. If he does X (as we know he will--he's done it before and nothing has changed), then he will get a warning. Then his mother will be called. Then he will get an in-school suspension. Then he will get an out of school suspension. Then they will call security. It took a matter of only days to run through all options and use up 10 days suspension (which I wasn't fighting--out of the belief that nothing would really happen until they were up against the wall and had to deal with the behavior). At this point they recommended a change in placement. I had an attorney (they also had him arrested, although even juvenile court was unwilling to accept charges against a 7 year old and threw the case out), who recommended that we get out of that school--nothing good was going to happen there. I knew the words Functional Behavior Assessment and said them over and over. Our first one was done by the same brand new interventionist--meaning that she filled out the form. She had no understanding of functional behavior.

We replayed the whole scenario at the next school and got 45 days in a special school (in lieu of suspension for having--not using, or threatening-- a pocket-knife). The view of the special school--by teachers on the outside--is that they can succeed because they have time out rooms (appropriately safe, padded windowless rooms with a viewing window in the locked door) and aides who are allowed to "restrain" children. I cannot state for certain whether or how much my son experienced these things in about 2 years at the school. I certainly witnessed other children being hauled physically around while I was there. There were lawsuits before we were there, and after. I believe that we hit on a fortunate time between lawsuits when there were additional resources pumped in, the alcoholic principal replaced and a fair amount of stability. To the extent that they succeeded, it was not because of time-out rooms and restraints, it was because they were the end of the road--there were no geographic cures available. The teachers who taught there (while not highly credentialled) were ones who had an affinity for this population. They did an excellent job of transition planning. But transition (mid year) meant a return to the "regular" school where they believed that success in the special school was due to restraints and time-out rooms. Supports couldn't be maintained because they weren't understood.

Even within the child mental health system, this is a problem. Residential facilities--where pay scales are lower than they are for teachers, go through newly licensed social workers (and aides) in rapid succession. The work is hard, the hours demanding and the pay is low. There have been difficulties there as well, regarding inappropriate use of time-out rooms and restraint that moves over into physical punishment. Training and the provision of alternatives has proven to be successful--even with aides who lack social work or other credentials.

It seems as though it will take a revolution in education to see social skills education as a part of the curriculum--at least on as as needed basis--and to integrate it into the regular classroom. It really takes a school-wide, comprehensive approach to support any individual intervention. Targetting only those kids with high needs leaves them with no net below.

Margo/Mom, it seems shocking that a school would have a 7 year old child arrested (but I know that it happens.)

You remind me that I need to add a story about social and emotional learning to my growing list...I had a chance to hear Mary Utne O'Brien speaking about this issue during a conference I attended this past summer.


I have never seen or heard of a time-out or isolation room used to benefit. Always punishment with no educational component. I have seen an increase as restraint aids have reduced. Also, an increase in time-out or isolation areas within classrooms with physical restraint increased. A human rights violation.

It is beyond my understanding how the US Dept of Ed has not outlawed this practice. We don't condone it in institutions. Think about the study done with laymen as prisoners and prison guards? Ultimate power corrupts. Cruelty knows no limits regarding highly qualified. When you have aids and teachers attending district sponsored training or online forums for credit, how will a parent ever stop this abuse when they have the burden of proof?

Since ABA has its origins in adversives, one can hardly doubt administration is prepared legally.

Most egregious is understanding children who are treated thus have been surrendered by staff from high expectations and focus is on compliance. Compliance at all costs. Break their spirit now and you will have a more compliant student later when they are older and bigger. Learning is a by product.

Why the new report published on student victimization didn't inquire about this issue or staff abuse, can only be seen as the continued systemic policy of blaming the student:


This report provides estimates of student victimization as defined by the 2005 School Crime Supplement (SCS) to the 2005 National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). NCVS is the nation’s primary source of information on crime victimization and the victims of crime in the United States and the SCS is a supplement to NCVS that was created to collect information about school-related victimization on a national level.

This report incorporates findings from student respondents ages 12-18 in grades 6-12 that were interviewed during the 2005 school year. It shows that student victims of crime are more likely to report conditions of an unfavorable school climate, security measures at school, and exhibit fear and avoidance behaviors. Additional topics covered in this report include the prevalence and type of student victimization at school and selected characteristics of victims, including their demographic characteristics and school type; and victim and nonvictim reports of the presence of gangs and weapons and the availability of drugs.

Use of Time Out Room Permitted


Couture v. Board of Education, ___F.3d___(10th Cir. Aug. 3, 2008) is an important Education Law decision to be aware of. The court held that a school district’s repeated use of timeout room because of student disruptive behavior was permissible even though the student had severe emotional and mental health problems. The court rejected claims that the school district violated the student's Fourth Amendment right to freedom from an unreasonable seizure and to procedural and substantive due process. The court also held that the student’s placement in the timeout room for failing to do his school work was justified at its inception, that lengthy timeouts were reasonably related to the school's objective of behavior modification, and that placement in a timeout room did not implicate procedural due process.

A similar type lawsuit has been reported filed in Iowa as reported in the September 19, 2008 Des Moines Register. Stay tuned as these type of cases raise important issues.

Mitchell H. Rubinstein

The use of the "time-out" room affects the child's ability to learn socially and emotionally. ASCD's blog recently posted a piece about social and emotional learning.http://ascd.typepad.com/blog/2009/01/obrien-speaker-spotlight.html

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