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One of our goals for improving the quality of lives through effective intervention is to share with our readers research on effective treatments. We do this by summarizing peer-reviewed research articles. Yesterday, in response to our post on Scream Rooms (also known as Time Out Rooms), a twitter follower asked, “what else can teachers do?” Thus, it seems appropriate that we should review a study that demonstrates one effective alternative to time out.

Mark Durand and Ted Carr authored the article in 1992. The Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis published the article and you may read it yourself here.

Study Purposes

The purpose of the study was to determine which of two interventions would be effective at reducing attention-maintained challenging behavior (when children act out in order to get reactions from their teachers).

The authors also set out to determine which effects of the two interventions would generalize to untrained teachers. For example, a teacher could implement a behavior plan in her class but when the substitute teacher is present, he may not implement the intervention. If the child’s good behavior happens with the trained teacher and with the new/untrained teacher, it is said to generalize. If the child’s good behavior does not happen with the new/untrained teacher, the effects failed to generalize. Obviously, teachers would want interventions that work with them as well as with their substitutes.

Participants

Twelve children participated in the study. Children ranged in ages between 3.5 years and 5 years of age.  The children were diagnosed with a variety of conditions including attention deficit disorder, language delay, autism, or developmental delay. The children engaged in a variety of inappropriate behaviors including aggression, opposition, tantrums, and property destruction. Six children were assigned to one treatment group and six children were assigned to the other treatment group.

Assessment

The authors completed a functional behavioral assessment (FBA) for all 12 students. As part of the FBA, the authors completed a functional analysis to demonstrate that all 12 children engaged in various challenging behaviors in order to gain attention from their teachers (The authors referred to this as Study 1). This type of behavior is known as attention-maintained behavior.

Baseline

Before treatment, the researchers observed children during regular school work activities. The work was considered easy work but the teachers did not provide a high rate of attention for appropriate behaviors.

Intervention

The researchers compared the results of two interventions. (The authors called this Study 2). One intervention was time out. We discussed time out and its variations here yesterday. The second intervention the authors studied was called Functional Communication Training (FCT). You may read more about it here (You will find other evidence-based strategies on that website if you are interested). FCT has a substantial research base to support its use. With FCT, teachers simply teach children to communicate instead of acting out to get what they want. Often we teach children to talk but sometimes we teach children to use pictures to communicate if they cannot speak very well.

In this study, teachers implemented time out by simply removing all instructional materials and turning their backs to the children for 10 seconds each time the child engaged in challenging behavior.

During FCT, teachers taught the children to ask for teacher attention by saying things like, “Am I doing good work?”

Once the researchers demonstrated that the intervention was working, a new/substitute teacher was brought in to see if the intervention effects would generalize. (The authors called this Study 3).

Results

Time out effectively reduced the rates of challenging behavior for all 6 children in the treatment group. Similarly, FCT effectively reduced the rates of challenging behavior for all 6 children in the treatment group.

However, when the new teacher worked with the children, the results were remarkably different. Specifically, children who received the time out intervention, failed to generalize their good behavior to the new teacher. Essentially, their challenging behavior returned to pre-treatment levels with the new teacher.

On the other hand, children in the FCT group, generalized their good behavior to the new teacher. Not only did they maintain good behavior, they used their new communication with the new teacher.

Thus, while brief time out from teacher attention may be effective at reducing attention-maintained behavior, the improved behavior will not generalize to new, untrained teachers. However, FCT teaches children to use communication instead of challenging behavior. This results in improved behavior and the improvement carries over to new, untrained teachers.

So, if you find yourself wondering what to do instead of time out, try teaching the child to communicate instead of acting out.

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An elementary school has come under fire in Connecticut for using “Scream Rooms” as a method of discipline. If you haven’t heard, you may learn more about it here, here, and here.

What is a Scream Room

According to reports, parents described the rooms as 6-by-4-foot spaces with concrete walls used to isolate students with special needs who are disruptive in the classroom. As best as we can tell, Scream Rooms is simply another name for a Time Out Room or more specifically, a Seclusionary Time Out Room.

So what is a time out room? Let us first define time out.

  • A time out is a period of time when opportunities to access reinforcement are prevented.
  • Most people think of a time out as sitting in a chair and not being able to play.
  • Time out may also be missing recess for 5 minutes.
  • Time out may also include losing TV time after dinner.

Time out may be administered within a classroom so that the student does not lose instructional time. For example, the child may be asked to sit at the back of the class where she can still hear instruction but where she may not interact with others. This type of time out is called inclusionary time out.

Seclusionary time out is when the student is removed from the instructional setting and placed in isolation so that minimal or no interaction with others is allowed.

Thus, a time out room or a seclusionary time out room is a room where someone might go so that no other forms of reinforcement may be accessed (e.g., no social interaction, no music, no toys).

What is the Purpose of a Scream Room or Time Out Room?

Historically, time out has been used as a consequence to challenging or disruptive behavior as a type of punishment. The underlying philosophy is that if the child is engaging in behavior to gain attention, placing the child in isolation for brief periods of time immediately after the challenging or disruptive behavior will teach the child that acting out will not result in attention.

While this method has been supported with substantial research, the technique is often used incorrectly. Before a time out may be planned as part of an intervention for a student, a behavior analyst must first assess the behavior and determine why the child is mis-behaving. This is called a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) and we have talked about it here, here, and here.

Once the assessment is completed, an intervention is developed based on the assessment results. If the child engaged in challenging behavior to gain attention, a time out from attention following challenging behavior may be part of the behavior plan. If the child engaged in the challenging behavior to gain access to preferred items such as computer time or television time, then a time out from computers or television following challenging behavior may be part of the plan. If a child is engaging in challenging behavior as a way to get out of non-preferred activities such as school work or home work, time out from school work would be inappropriate and ineffective.

When time out is used as part of a treatment plan, its use must be carefully monitored with data collection and ongoing analysis to verify if the intervention is working as planned. All staff who use time out as part of a treatment plan must be trained to use the procedure. Additionally, the time out procedure must be supervised to ensure that staff are implementing it correctly.

Sadly, it does not appear that time out is being used in this way in this particular school. Based on the reports we have read, it seems as if staff sent children to these rooms to “calm down”. Based on the reports we have read, staff were not following carefully developed behavior plans. Instead, teachers appeared to be sending children to these rooms when teachers became frustrated with student behavior.

Rules for Restraint and Time Out

Currently, no federal legislation exists preventing schools from using seclusionary time out or time out rooms. However, federal legislation has been proposed. We used Wright’s Law(a helpful website for parents and teachers alike) to find additional information about seclusionary time out rules in each state. Many states have specific rules so parents, teachers, and behavior analysts should become familiar with the rules in their states. These states include: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Iowa, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington.

Connecticut has specific rules regarding the use of seclusionary time out. You may read the rules here.

The rule states that “no provider shall involuntarily place a person at risk in seclusion (there are two exceptions). This means that a child may not be placed there against his/her will (with those exceptions).

The state went on to define seclusion as the confinement of a person in a room, whether alone or with staff supervision, in a manner that prevents the person from leaving.

Seclusion may be used in an emergency. But remember, an emergency does not happen daily as described in these news reports. The rules also state that if seclusion is used, “it must be part of the IEP of that person AND that other less restrictive, positive behavior interventions appropriate to the behavior exhibited by the person at risk have been implemented but were ineffective.”

The rules also state that if seclusion as a behavior intervention is repeated more than two times in any school quarter, the IEP team must meet to review the use of seclusion, consider additional evaluations or assessments, and may even revise the child’s IEP.

Most importantly, when a student is placed in seclusion, school staff must attempt to notify the parents on the same day or within 24 hours. They may use phone, email, or a note home. Parents must receive a copy of the incident report within 2 days. The state even provides a sample of the incident report form that could be used.

And finally, the rule states that any staff who uses seclusion must be trained in that technique.

Please note that this rule applies only to students who have an IEP. Students who do not have identified disabilities do not have the same rights.

What Should Parents Do to Prevent the Use of Scream Rooms/Time Out Rooms?

If your child does not have a disability, then you should meet with your principal to discuss the use of such procedures. Again, your child does not have the same rights as children with IEPs.

If your child has an IEP, then you should:

  1. Learn your state’s rules about seclusionary time out
  2. Review your child’s IEP to be certain that it does not include seclusionary time out
  3. If you have concerns about your child’s behavior, you should request the IEP team to complete a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA)

We hope that none of your children have experienced these rooms. We also hope that we have helped you prevent the use of these rooms on your child.

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