College students, domestic abuse victims, cancer patients and other classes of vulnerable people have routinely been denied the time-out time they need to settle their emotions, air grievances, and reduce stress. Instead, state investigators have found, Virginia educators have used isolated timeouts on a far more routine basis to put themselves at ease with colleagues and to help them forget about toiling away in the face of “difficult conditions” and “stressors.”
Such an approach, if untested for fairness, may also disproportionately affect students, especially those whose ethnicity, religion, social class, disability, or low socioeconomic status place them at special risk for being misunderstood by peers, misunderstood by faculty, and misunderstood by supervisors.
Compounding the problem is a lack of information about the number of students and staff affected by the practice. State education officials took no public action after the discoveries in 2015 and 2016—outrageously preferring that teachers conceal the fact from students, parents, and community members, and keep the issue from lawmakers.
(Download a copy of a 2016 report documenting the practice here.)
The practice may hold considerable costs. When forced by teachers to leave their desks to seek solace by sitting quietly in a class, many hard-working students lose valuable time that would otherwise be devoted to lessons, without fear of being suspended for truancy.
Suspending students for absence or absences, rather than related disciplinary infractions, may more effectively discipline them. While student suspension rates have been dropping across the U.S., high-poverty students are even more likely to get suspended, and those suspended are more likely to drop out of school. Being suspended—especially when the student has committed no infraction—lowers students’ self-esteem and undermines their ability to learn.
Segregated timeouts—preventing students from being effective learners—may also harm vulnerable students. That’s because taking time out to relax in a quiet place—even in the middle of a busy class—allows students to focus on learning, and it gives instructors, teachers, and supervisors time to notice problems and coordinate methods to help students. A 2007 study in the peer-reviewed Journal of Medical Psychology, for example, found that reducing disruptive behavior in a classroom does not happen until students become academically motivated again, when they use time out.
What should educators do?
Educators should discourage using isolated timeouts to cope with stress and focus on treating students well. The best approach is to use timeouts only to address genuine and potentially dangerous threats to the learning environment.
Instructors should always go the extra mile to help students with learning problems. Teachers might ask students for short assignments or stick them in small groups to help them focus on big topics. As UC Irvine professor and author David Smoley writes, teachers also can help students learn about the significance of long-term outcomes by documenting and discussing their lessons in visual ways.