When we attended orientation at my son's preschool two years ago, one of the first things that caught my eye in his new classroom was a big, bright red plastic chair to the side of the room with the image of a teddy bear shaped into the back. As all of the parents filtered into the classroom and secured seats at miniature sized tables and woefully undersized chairs, one dad settled into the red plastic chair. "Oh, you've found 'the teddy bear chair'," the teacher snickered, "That's our time-out chair." We had a time-out chair in our house at the time, as I assumed most families with small children did, and so I didn't really give it another thought. In the two years that my son has been in that classroom, however, I have learned a lot about "the teddy bear chair." Of course, I get regular updates about it's latest inhabitants and the transgressions that led them there, but mostly I've learned what really takes place in that chair and how to implement that within my own home.
Evan attends a local Montessori preschool and, true to the Montessori method, they don't really believe in "time-outs" but rather "natural consequences." These are great for learning opportunities, but when a child is having an unusually off day sometimes you need the regrouping that only a time-out can bring.
"Negative" versus "Positive" Time-outs
If you Google "time-outs" you'll find that there are traditionally two types: negative and positive. Negative time-out is the type that most of us are familiar with (and some of us grew up knowing all too well). It's that secluded spot where you are banished in order to "think about what you have done." Positive time-outs are where the child is removed from the situation and first taught, then encouraged, to use self-soothing techniques in an attempt to regulate their emotions. This can be done in a lap, in a "cozy corner" or in some other comforting space. In both cases, it is recommended to talk to the child about the situation that led to the time-out in the first place once the child has calmed down.
Both of these have downfalls. Negative time-outs tend to elicit power struggles more than reflection and increased anger and frustration rather than a cooling-off period, while parents often view "positive time-outs" as less of a consequence and more of a reward for negative behavior. So, which should you use? Let's go back "to the teddy bear chair."
In Evan's preschool classroom "the teddy bear chair" offers a different kind of time-out, something his teacher refers to as a "working" time-out. Again, true to the Montessori method, natural consequences are used the majority of the time, so there are many days that "the teddy bear chair" gets no use. However on those occasions where a child is having an unusually off day, "the teddy bear chair" offers a way for the teacher to simultaneously remove a child from the situation and provide them with an activity that allows them to calm down and reinforce the skills they are learning in the classroom. The major difference is the "working" aspect. Unlike "negative time-outs" the child is provided with an activity rather than being stripped of all toys or privileges, but unlike "positive time-out" the child is given a directive rather than dictating for themselves how best to calm down.
After several conversations with Evan's teacher about working time-outs and our own power struggles over more traditional, "negative" time-outs, we decided to make some changes to move towards working time-outs. Here's what we did:
Ditch the time-out chair
- We ditched what we were using for a time-out chair and now use our dining room table. It's in a central location within the house and provides a work space for both children when necessary.
Ditch the timer
- When we did the more traditional form of time-out we did a minute for each year. Thus the five year old was in time-out for five minutes and the three year old for three minutes. Now time-out ends when they have completed the activity and we have discussed the situation that led to the time-out.
Shift your attitude
- The biggest change my husband and I had to make was our own mind sets about time outs. We had to get real with ourselves and admit that what we were doing wasn't working and then we had to reflect on why that was. The reality is that when I thought about myself and how I best deal with situations, I realized that it's not because I sit on my bed and think about my actions. It's because I allow myself a moment to regroup by taking my mind off of the issue before revisiting it. If this is true for me, why wouldn't the same be true for my kids?
- I'm not going to sugar coat it, this took some planning and preparation. I cleared out a space to store time-out materials and then scoured our home to find what I could use that was already on hand and Pinterest for more ideas and printable worksheets to have at the ready. I created a set of age and skill level appropriate activities for each child so that they are able to chose which one to complete when they are sent to "time-out."
Sending kids to their rooms to "think about it" often doesn't result in as much thinking as stewing. However, an activity, offers them a moment to shift the focus. In practice, I've watched as both children become engrossed in what they are doing. Tears dry, noses stop running, breathing slows. Once they have completed the activity, they've often forgot about the original situation...or at least why they were so upset about it. As the supplies are put away we talk about what happened and how they could have handled the situation, or themselves, differently and we part feeling like a lesson has been taught rather than just feeling more frustrated. The added bonus? Not only did that activity shift their focus, it reinforced skills they are currently working on. Rather than time wasted sitting on a bed, thinking about how mad they were, time was used to build their skill set and their self-confidence.
To learn about the activity pictured above and to find more activities appropriate for working time-outs be sure to follow Paiges of Gray on Pinterest. Our "Working Time-Outs" Board can be found here.
Photography by Paiges of Gray
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