Thursday, May 5, 2011

Help, I Need A Time Out!

 Soapbox alert!  Something really got me going today.

"Help, I need a time out!"  Have you ever thought that to yourself, when you've been at the end of your wits and your rope?  Have you ever wished your kids could tell you when they need a time out, instead of them melting down in some public place and forcing you to remove them?  (A few memorable occasions in restaurants and grocery stores spring to mind at this point.  Bad flashbacks, bad flashbacks. . . .) Have you ever wanted to tell another adult that they needed a time out to get a grip because they were losing it?  I sure have.

This is on my mind today because of an article on a local news network, about a mother who blew the whistle on an unsafe time out room situation at her daughter's school.  (The daughter has special needs, and the school specializes in working with children with special needs.)  I was distressed to read that the school's time out room was essentially a cinder-block closet, with little lighting and a couple pipes sticking out of the walls, and that students were sometimes left in that room for long periods of time, sometimes unsupervised.  What the heck?  As the mother pointed out, if she had done that to her child at home, CPS would have been called on her and she'd be branded an unfit mother in the media.  And this was a publicly-funded school.  The use of the room was discontinued after media attention and a State Education Department inspection, and the administration claimed to have no knowledge of prior complaints about the time out room (although other parents came forward to disagree with that statement).  Unbelievable.

Before you think I'm against time out rooms, I'm not.  There's a good reason to have a designated safe room for students to regain their self-control during or after a meltdown.  We had such rooms in the school where I taught - but they were of a reasonable size, well lit, ventilated, and with padding on the walls to minimize the injury a student could do to themselves, and students were NEVER left unsupervised.  I think every school should have a quiet room where a distressed student can have space to calm down, with help from staff as necessary - not just for special needs programs.

We used the time out principle a lot with our son.  He had meltdowns with distressing frequency until he was about 10 1/2-11, due to his Aspergers Syndrome.  (We still see the occasional meltdown - but more like a few times a month instead of a few times a day like when he was 3-8ish.)  Once Safety Guy was overstimulated and out of control, any attention he received just fed into the tantrum.  There was no reasoning with him once he was in full-blown meltdown mode.  Isolation was the best way to diminish his distress (and ours).

At home we'd have him go to his bedroom (which we started to do in his terrible twos, well before his AS diagnosis at 5 1/2).  In public, we'd have him sit in the car (or in his stroller or car seat when he was really little).  Visiting a relative, we'd use a spare bedroom.  None of these ways was a picnic for us, especially since we had to remain calm while enforcing the time out, often under the glare of public scrutiny or pitying relatives.  But he gradually grew to realize that he needed the time out when he was overwrought, and would sometimes even go to his room himself when upset.  (More often than not, we'd have to tell him to go.  For a while when younger he would physically resist us, and we'd essentially carry him there and then wait outside the door and listen for him to calm down.  Now he just goes when told, even though he's taller than I am now.  Thank you, Lord, that he thinks we could still make him go!)

The time out is useless if you can't talk with the child about what happened and how to avoid or minimize the problem the next time it happens (because there WILL be be a next time).  For that reason, we tried not to treat the time out as a punishment in itself, but as a solution to a problem.  We'd say to him, "I can see you're really upset, but we can't talk while you're acting out like this.  Go to your room, and when you're calm we'll talk about what happened."  Sometimes he listened to us and went on his own, sometimes he just pitched a fit while we put him in his room.  Either way, I had to remain as calm as I could, as matter-of-fact as possible.  It was hard, it was painful, and sometimes I failed miserably at keeping my own cool, but I kept doing it as consistently as I could.  I combined the time out with counting (the 1-2-3 Magic approach) - if I could catch the situation in time, I'd warn him that if he didn't get himself under control he'd have to have a time out.  I'd start to count to give him a couple chances to try to collect himself.  He knew that me saying "3" meant a one-way, all expenses paid trip to his bedroom.  Usually it would take 10-20 minutes for him to calm down once there, although quite a few memorable tantrums dragged on for almost an hour. Thankfully, that "count and isolate" approach still works for us now that he's 12.  We've also used it for his sister, Princess Yakyak, at times.  (I can't think of any child who never has a tantrum.)  We don't have to use it nearly as often as we used to, either.  Progress is a wonderful thing.

Kids can't do the "mind over matter" objective thing like most adults can.  Time out is an effective way to help them learn both consequences for inappropriate public behavior and self control, and if you can teach them self-calming techniques to use while they're in a quiet space, so much the better.  (We'd encourage our son to take slow, deep breaths, and to listen to music in his room.)  And, obviously time out works better for some kids than others.  Some kids feed off of the attention a tantrum brings them, and the more you try to talk them through it, the more agitated they become.  Some kids respond just fine to talking an issue through and don't need isolation to regain their composure.  Discipline is not a one-size-fits-all thing, and I believe having a time out room in a school (or at home) is just one tool in a teacher's or parent's child discipline kit.  The time out room should not be the ultimate punishment or consequence for a problem behavior, but a tool along the way to teaching better choices.

I really respect the mother who brought the unsafe situation with her daughter's school's time out practices to the attention of the proper authorities.  She's taken a lot of public flak over her actions - I'm amazed at how many people have slammed her instead of supporting her, and some of the comments about "those retarded kids" who "shouldn't be allowed in regular schools."  I hope her daughter has much better experiences from now on at her new school, and that other kids in her old school are spared such unsafe disciplinary practices.

The reporter of the story, Jim Kenyon, saw my comment on it online and asked if he could interview me for the news tonight.  This all happened very quickly - I commented, he asked on the comment board if I would give him a call, I thought about it for an hour and called him back, he asked if he could come to the house for a quick interview, I said okay.  He and his cameraman were here in 45 minutes - I've never cleaned my downstairs so fast in my life!  They were pleasant and professional, we had a nice conversation, and they left by 3:30.  Mr. Kenyon said they'd have a short clip of my comments on at 5, and a longer clip during the 6 o'clock news.  I didn't watch the first clip, and I probably won't watch the second - I'm not interested in seeing myself on TV.  But I am pleased that they were interested in my point of view.  Hopefully I was able to give the teacher's perspective, since there has been a huge amount of negativity toward them in response to the original articles.  That's why he called me, he said - he can't interview the teachers at the school (for obvious reasons), and felt that their side of the story was missing and they were taking an unfair beating in the media.  I hope I was able to balance the perspectives being shared.  The print article online is here, and I'll post the clips when I can get them.

My thanks to Blondee for bringing the original news story to my attention.

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