Reframing Time Out

The ref blows the whistle, play comes to a stop, athletes breathe and come to the sidelines. Coach has called a Time Out.

“Okay, here’s what we’re gonna do…” “What’s going on? You’re better than this, let’s get after it! Team on three!” “I know you’re tired. Have some water, take a breath. You can do this.” “We’ve practiced this, but things aren’t going like we planned. Let’s try something different.”

Everyone takes a break and a big breath. Gets a drink of water and in the right head space. Rallies together and goes on to win or to lose.

In sports, teams are allotted a certain number of Time Outs per game, and they use them strategically. This gives players a break, a chance to get some coaching mid-game, a reminder of the common goal or of recent practice. Time out is good.

Children, on the other hand, learn very quickly to be scared of time out. If someone is doing something they don’t like, they threaten one another with time out. They are sure to let an adult know when someone should be in time out when a child has committed some real or perceived atrocity.

What if we changed time out? What if we used time out with children they way coaches do with athletes?

After all, isn’t that our role with children? Coaches providing guidance for success, cheering children on from the sidelines as the children are the ones who are learning, fighting for independence, growing, struggling, succeeding? The child is the one with ownership of the success or defeat, either way an opportunity for growth, we offer advice, support, and camaraderie.

We are not, as time out is sometimes employed, jailers, needing to confine or box-up children whose behaviors we find unsavory. Who we’re just done talking to about whatever latest crime they’ve committed.

We spend a lot of time thinking about what we’ve done. My world absolutely revolves around me; I can try to awaken my empathy and awareness enough to try and see the world from another’s perspective, but I will always live in my own head, with my own history and memories and world experience.

I don’t need more time to sit and think about all the wrong I’ve done. I need help being better.

I remember time out. I don’t remember it being particularly effective.

I remember stewing in my tiny anger, thinking about ways to blame my sister next time I wanted to do something that wasn’t completely on the up-and-up.

I remember feeling a strong sense of injustice, that I wished an adult would just talk to me, so I could explain myself.

I remember getting distracted, finding ways to entertain myself, not really thinking what happened was that big of a deal, but whatever.

In the classroom, we use a Thinking Chair. There are several situated around the classroom, available for children just as any other work choice. Children can use the thinking chair when they’re having a bit of trouble figuring out what work they want to do. Children can sit if they’re feeling a bit wiggly, and need a minute to get their body under control, or if they’ve had a disagreement with a friend and need a quiet, safe space to breathe and to be alone. Children can sit and take a bit of a break after a particularly arduous work, while they’re still figuring out what they’d like to challenge themselves with next.

An adult peeking in on a Montessori classroom might see a child sitting out and think they’re in time out. But the Thinking Chair is different from a Time Out in a very significant way.

In time out, an adult decides how long you need to be away from others. Your punishment is quarantine, and you’re told how long you’ll be ostracized.

With the thinking chair, a child decides when they’re ready. Sometimes we need a break. We need to have some personal space and the opportunity to be still and quiet. The thinking chair is available for that.

The thinking chair is available if you need to get your body under control.

The thinking chair is available if you don’t know what work you want to do.

Sometimes, an adult might sit next to the child in the thinking chair, asking questions. What’s going on? I’m worried about you. Are you okay? Would you like some assistance in finding a work?

The thinking chair helps a child to learn self-regulation. Sometimes, we feel cranky or upset about something, and having a safe, quiet space to sit and figure out your feelings before your body reacts in a way that you regret is helpful. You can still yourself enough to ask for a hug, for advice or help in speaking to a friend, for a listening ear to express your frustration you wanted to paint and it’s unavailable. Sometimes we really do need a true Time Out — some coaching, a break, time to rally before the next round of life comes our way.

Time out is an adult response after a transgression; the thinking chair is an opportunity to gain perspective and peace.

If we have to Time Out, let’s do it together. Like athletes. Like Olympians. Like Coaches.

We all need a thinking chair.

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