Recently our local Western Suburbs community has been in the news with a story of how our State education system responds to student non-compliance, raising a question about the relevance of detention and “time-out” as way to change behaviour in children.
Detention has a long history around the world, as a means to both remove a disruptive influence and allow the perpetrator to experience the social isolation of exclusion from their peers. This system has formed the basis of jails and mandatory detention centres and, oddly, our mainstream schools.
In schools this isolation method is often implemented as “time-out”, in particular in primary schools, when children are isolated and asked to “think about” the impact of their behaviour. As a tool for challenging non-compliance it is extremely ineffective, and a cursory search online finds that it provides little success once children are over about 5 or 6. In those early years, with a five year old’s loose notion of time, ten minutes of detention seems like an eternity and shows some impact. For older primary students, it merely adds to their sense of isolation from their teachers and peers and often exacerbates the problem that has caused the behaviour; isolation. For the child, there is usually no “thinking” about the behaviour, it is just marking time till the session is complete, or gives them time to ruminate on the injustice they are experiencing. So, if not detention and time-out, what to use?
The simple response is to remember that when reacting to non-compliance, we should be teaching our children how to be safe, good citizens and thinking members of society, not sheep who will follow blindly. Our children need to know that they can say “no” when something does not seem okay. That is what good citizens do and that is how our children stay safe. It is always okay to say “no”. The challenge for our children is to learn to explain why they are saying “no”. Our job as adults working with children is to help them unpack that “why”. Even when a child engages in a behaviour that seems deliberately disruptive, there is a reason to unearth, not a reason to punish and silence.
Once we know the reason, the next step is to find a more effective way for them to have their voice heard, have their needs considered. Establishing that they can trust adults to acknowledge them, and supporting them in more effective ways to be heard is key to this. Our children need to know that we stand with them, not against them. As our society shifts and changes around us, the one truth we can know we can hold onto is that good people will always be needed to stand against injustice and inequality, even when everyone tells them to stop. That, will never change. Detention and Time-Out however, as a means of behaviour management, they have definitely had their day and it is time for them to be phased out.