The following is one in a series of essays written by Catherine McTamaney about how to be a Montessori parent.
Time Out, The Naughty Chair, Take A Break. It’s got lots of names, but it generally works the same way. The child breaks a rule. The parent or teacher sends him or her to a special chair or bench to “think about it,” until enough time has passed that the child is welcomed to return to the regular activity. Some argue that “time out” is a chance for an overexcited child to calm down so he or she can make more appropriate choices. Others argue that it’s a necessary penalty for breaking the rule and will act as a deterrent to inappropriate behavior in the future.
In Montessori, when we chose particular systems or routines with children, we do so by first considering what we believe about the intrinsic nature of children. Then, we consider what lesson we intend to teach and, finally, how we think that lesson is most effectively taught. Consider that method for “time out.” What would one need to believe about the nature of children to think that “time out” will help improve the child’s behavior? First, we’d have to believe that the child was able to do the right thing, but chose not to. Then, we’d have to believe that time to think about his or her behavior is the most effective way for the child to understand what he or she had done. Finally, we’d have to believe that a predetermined punishment would help the child to avoid the behavior in the future. None of these presumptions are consistent with Montessori. While we recognize that children can and often do misunderstand the rules for appropriate social behavior, we don’t believe that punishing the child helps him or her to better understand those rules. Instead, we’ll look for ways to support the child in understanding how what he or she has done affects the community. Then, we’ll look for ways for the child to practice the skills he or she will need to behave appropriate.
For example, consider the child who runs across the classroom because he lacks the impulse control to walk slowly. Asking that child to sit still in a chair is unlikely to strengthen his ability to control that impulse, and it’s unlikely that the next time the child is impulsively driven to run that he will stop, think about his time in time out, and make the mindful decision to walk instead. The “time out,” then, creates a conflict between the adult and the child with little effect on the child’s behavior long term. Instead, the teacher may intervene with the running child, gently remind him that “Inside, we walk,” and walk back across the room with the child, practicing moving slowly. Later, the teacher may offer the child a lesson on walking on a line, or carrying a heavy container around the classroom, or walking with a goblet. In these activities, the child will begin to build his gross motor control and his ability to restrain himself from impulses.
When your child’s behavior needs redirection, begin by asking yourself, “Is my child capable of meeting my expectations?” Sitting still for an hour-long formal dinner, for example, may be beyond the capacity of even the most well-intended three-year-old! If the expectation is mismatched to the child’s development, change the expectation. If you think the expectation is appropriate, articulate the expectation in positive terms for your child, telling him or her what you expect (as opposed to what you don’t expect.) Say, for example, “Use gentle hands,” instead of “No pulling!” or “Speak softly,” instead of “Stop yelling!” Remind the child of what he or she should do, and then allow the child to practice. “Please tell me again in a quiet voice,” or “Show me how to pet the dog gently.” As our children learn the rules of society and develop the ability to follow those rules, we are best to look for teachable moments when we can help our children to practice rather than punish them for not already having mastered behaviors that we may not remember learning.
At the end of the day, “time out” may have its place. Tempted to raise your voice at your child? Give yourself a time out. Frustrated? That’s another good time for a time out. As adults, we can regulate our own behavior, and we can tell when some time to breathe and get control of our emotions is in order. Until our children develop the same ability, we might hold the time outs for ourselves and focus on modeling and practice for them.