Is Time Up for Time Out? The Use of Seclusion and Restrictive Practices in Schools

Maybo Australia's Learning Disabilities specialist Mark Wakefield, questions the use of seclusion as a means of managing challenging behaviours. The example of the classroom 'cage' quoted was in an Australian school, but there have been reports in the British media of pupils placed alone in rooms to either control difficult behaviour or reduce the impact of this behaviour on other pupuils.


A recent example where a child who experiences autism was placed in what was effectively a cage within the class highlights the use of seclusionary practices within schools. This is an extreme example but not an isolated one, unfortunately. More often the use of “time out” is quoted and while this sounds more acceptable it is the thin end of the wedge in terms of seclusionary practice.

How many times have you heard the phrase “you need some time out” or observed a child placed outside a classroom to “cool down”? Time out is one of those expressions that has entered the common vocabulary and is now used intuitively without much thought about where it came from and why we are using it.

“If we take something away from a child they will come to realise that it is their behaviour that caused it to happen; and so they will make the link between their own behaviour and the loss of the item and learn not to do it again.”

When using this scenarion there are issues which should be considered: 

  1. Is the child sufficiently cognitively developed for them to make the link; in other words is the child old enough to understand what is happening?
  2. Does the child have a specific intellectual disability, which may impair their learning from such situations?
  3. Does the child have any other condition which may impair their ability to learn in the ways that neuro typical children do (Autism, ADHD, Attachment disorders e.t.c.)
  4. If the school is following a model of Positive Behaviour Support (PBS) should they be relying on a model that uses a punishment as a learning trope?
  5. Is the model of “time out” sufficiently understood by those applying it to use it as a method of supporting a child to use other behaviours?

What exactly is “Time Out”?

Cooper, Heron and Heward (2007, p.357)1 state that time-out 'is defined as the withdrawal of the opportunity to earn positive reinforcement, or the loss of access to positive reinforcers for a specified period of time, contingent on the occurrence of a behaviour'.

It should be noted that there are two methods of time out - “exclusionary” and “non exclusionary”. The definition states time out from the positive reinforcement or lack of access to the positive reinforcer and not necessarily time out from the room (exclusion), but even in the exclusionary option this does not mean that it must be in isolation; which is often the chosen method employed in schools. The thought process may be:

It is the removal of a child from an environment that is reinforcing to the behaviour or the removal of the child from reinforcing activities that maintain the behaviour.

Many schools are now using a Positive Behaviour Support (PBS) approach to dealing with the problem behaviour that children are utilising. In this method there is an emphasis on reinforcing positive behaviours and controlling the environmental factors that may be reinforcing the behaviour and changing the pedagogical approach to better suit the learning style of the individual. In a PBS approach the “time out” method of managing behaviour would be inappropriate as it is essentially a punishment based intervention and fundamentally at odds with the concept of redesigning environments, changing the method of teaching (pedagogy of the teacher) or assessing the function of the behaviour in order to ascertain the maintenance factors for the behaviour being used.

In effect, time out is a reactionary strategy that is based upon manipulation of the consequential maintenance factor, rather than a proactive approach that is based upon teaching new behaviours and prevention of the behaviour occurring again, which is supported by PBS.

Maybo believes that the use of PBS and the understanding of human behaviour through a functional analysis are important when dealing with pupils who exhibit difficult to manage behaviour and as such we use these skills and strategies in our training to help staff better understand and manage these situations.

Our training will help staff to develop new skills and use these to improve the outcomes, not just for the individual who is using the behaviour but also for the rest of the children in the class who are also affected by the loss of teacher time spent dealing with the behaviour of that child. For the school as a whole the possible reduction in additional support time and teacher stress are benefits that cant be ignored.

1. Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied Behaviour Analysis. New Jersey: Pearson Education.




Posted by Maybo on January 3, 2017


Please note: All comments are reviewed before being displayed on our website.