The Behaviour Question

Tom Bennett

I work in a supervisory role in a kindergarten for two- to six-year-olds in Asia, and I am experiencing slight cultural differences with my staff over behaviour management. Some have taken to putting coloured chairs out in the classrooms as 'time out' chairs. The children are really keen to avoid sitting on the red chairs, so it helps behaviour. My problem is that I think this is using shame and fear of being shamed to control behaviour, and I'm not a fan. Is this a valid behaviour-management strategy? I said I'd see if there was any research before banning it.

What you said


Sanctions should be things children dislike and want to avoid. This seems to be the case at your school, so it works. My advice would be to go with it. A great many outstanding, good, satisfactory and blinkin' useless schools use "time out" or "thinking" chairs. You certainly would see such things in Britain. It sounds like your staff have totally the right idea.

The expert view

I know it is fashionable to root all strategy in research evidence, but there needs to be an understanding of what you are looking for and why. You are looking for evidence because you have a gut feeling that there is something wrong with this practice. So be careful that you are not merely trying to reinforce your existing belief. The best evidence a teacher can rely on is this: does it work?

Also, this is not really an evidence question: it is a matter of values. The question is, "Is it right to use chairs as a time-out facility?", not "What does the research say?" Apart from the fact that it would be hard to find a study that focused this closely on an individual strategy (although I could be proved wrong), what would you then do with this evidence? Would you be sure there was no evidence that pointed in the exact opposite direction?

The reason I am careful before recommending studies and research is that educational science is often far from scientific, and can frequently suffer from the sin of certainty in its efforts to ape the natural sciences. And it just does not work like that. The best way to answer this question is to ask: "Does it work?" and "Is it moral?"

Does it work? Time outs are a well-worn strategy in many schools, either in the classroom or outside. They can be done badly. What they are useful for is to give emotional kids a bit of thinking time to reflect. Whatever you do to promote this will perhaps engender feelings of shame in the recipient, which at least has the virtue of encouraging them to see their actions as resulting in an isolating consequence. So, yes, it can work, used in moderation.

Is it moral? It is hardly abuse. If they do not want to sit on the red chair, there is a simple way to avoid it: don't monkey around. Asking a child to go from one chair to another chair is one of the lightest-touch sanctions there is. I would not have the slightest qualm about using it. Any behaviour strategy that helps them to learn and socialise is positive.

Tom Bennett is author of The Behaviour Guru and Not Quite a Teacher. His latest book, Teacher, is out now, published by Continuum.

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