October 17, 2008

Experts question benefit of school time-out rooms

By MICHAEL J. CRUMB, Associated Press Writer

DES MOINES, Iowa – After failing to finish a reading assignment, 8-year-old Isabel Loeffler was sent to the school's time-out room — a converted storage area under a staircase — where she was left alone for three hours. The autistic Iowa girl wet herself before she was finally allowed to leave. Appalled, her parents removed her from the school district and filed a lawsuit.

Some educators say time-out rooms are being used with increased frequency to discipline children with behavioral disorders. And the time outs are probably doing more harm than good, they add.

"It really is a form of abuse," said Ken Merrell, head of the Department for Special Education and Clinical Sciences at the University of Oregon. "It's going to do nothing to change the behavior. You're using it as an isolation booth."

Segregating children removes them from the positive aspect of the classroom and highlights that they're different from other children, said Stephen Camarata, director of the Kennedy Center for Behavioral Research at Vanderbilt University. And isolating an autistic child might be particularly counterproductive.

"They don't like being around other people so they might increase their negative behavior because they view it a reward," he said.

Though there is no data on the use of time-out rooms, Camarata speculates that they've become widespread as schools confronted a growing enrollment of children with behavior disorders.

"I believe it's because classrooms are much less flexible with more focus on compliance," he said.

The Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund in Berkeley, Calif., receives calls from parents across the country who complain about time-out rooms, said Cheryl Theis, an education advocate for the organization.

"Parents call and say their child's disability has been exacerbated by this and are traumatized by this," she said.

Merrell said he's encountered time-out rooms he felt were unsafe.

"I once consulted with a school in another state and had a weekly appointment with a child to do some counseling and when I got there they told me he was in a time-out room," he said. "He was in a janitor's closet with no windows, no ventilation, open cans of paint, a mop bucket with disinfectant and he had been in there for over an hour."

Merrell, who has published nearly 100 studies and 10 books on teaching social and emotional skills, said time-out rooms can be used effectively but seldom are. The key, he said, is to combine the time outs with social skills training.

Patti Ralabate, a special education analyst with the National Education Association, said time-out rooms are common but should be used sparingly.

"And when they are used, all of the educators involved need to have appropriate professional development to see how this is used and how to use them appropriately," she said.

Ralabate said a time-out room can be effective if it is intended to provide a space for a child to calm down and reflect on their behavior.

"If it is used to isolate the child, punish the child for a behavior, then we would view it as not productive and not positive," she said.

In Iowa, Doug and Eva Loeffler started to notice changes in their daughter in December 2004, soon after she began school in the Des Moines suburb of Waukee. It prompted them to take Isabel to University Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City for evaluations.

"We laid awake at nights thinking we'd have to institutionalize her," Doug Loeffler said. "We went to three evaluations at the hospital and all of a sudden we find out she's being mistreated."

Loeffler said they weren't told in school evaluation reports that their daughter had been restrained and placed in a time-out room. During one incident in December 2005, Isabel wet herself because she was locked in the room for three hours and not allowed to use a restroom, he said.

Loeffler said the time-out room rules required that before she could be released, she must sit on the floor with her legs crossed without moving a muscle for at least five minutes.

"If she said something, grimaced at them, they would restart the clock and she was not capable of doing that," Loeffler said. "That's why it was three hours."

Loeffler said the couple homeschooled Isabel until he took a new job and the family moved last year to California. Isabel has shown signs of progress and is back in public school, he said.

David Wilkerson, superintendent of the Waukee school district, declined to speak about the accusations because of the pending lawsuit. But he said time-out rooms are a "pretty common practice" and that the district complies with the state's guidelines for such rooms.

Loeffler said he is pressing ahead with the lawsuit and hopes to draw attention to the need for nationwide standards for time-out rooms.

October 15, 2008

Board games teach life lessons to children

When I was a child growing up on a farm, my family would spend cold winter evenings sitting on the family-room floor, playing Monopoly.

We would set the game board up on a card table, with the legs folded underneath it. This enabled us to slide the game under the bed at the end of the day. The next evening we only had to slide it back out and pick up where we had left off. This would continue for several days.

During the course of my childhood, several of the little green houses and red hotels had become lost. Occasionally one might be found under a sofa cushion or in the pocket of a pair of my brother's jeans. Our Monopoly money was very well worn. Sometimes, when money was changing hands, someone would get aggressive, and the money would accidently get torn in half. Several of the bills had been mended with tape that had yellowed over time. Who would have ever imagined that 40 years later, one could go to www.monopoly.com, download a PDF and print replacement money?

In my work as a play therapist, I encourage parents to play board games with their children. What's that, you say? You already play games with your children? Is it Guitar Hero? Is it XBox or any of the other video games on the market today? These are all wonderfully entertaining games, but when was the last time your family played a good old-fashioned, traditional board game?

Many of the games you played as a child are still being manufactured today. Do you remember Sorry!, Trouble or Chinese Checkers?

In addition to Monopoly, I suggest you consider - depending upon the ages of the family members who will be playing - Candy Land, Hands Down, Yahtzee. Another favorite board game from my childhood was Hi Ho Cherry-O. The dog swallowed one of the cherries, so we improvised and substituted the pointed end of a broken red crayon.

Board games imitate real life. For example, you have to cooperate and wait your turn. There are rules you have to follow. Someone will win and someone will lose. Board games have an element of learning as well. If money has to be counted, you are learning math. If you have to spend money, you are learning how to budget. By observing the behavior of adults during the game, children will learn how adults deal with winning and losing.

Ask yourself what you are modeling during the game. Do you lose graciously? Do you win without rubbing it in?

Sometimes adults will intentionally lose a game to allow a child to win. I suggest you play as well as you can and let the chips fall where they may. If a child is disappointed at losing, it's a good learning experience for him or her. Children will be able to take what they learned playing a board game and incorporate it into real-life experiences.

When there is tension or distance among a family, a board game can serve as an ice breaker. Remember the old game Don't Break the Ice? It's a perfect game to ease some of the tension and get family members interacting again.

Because board games provide an opportunity to interact with people, they promote social skills. Board games bring people together, both young and old. Board games can strengthen bonds between family members. Playing a game provides parents with an opportunity to start conversations with their children. It's a refreshing change from the traditional question, "How was school today?"

Caution: Playing board games together as a family can cause spontaneous laughter, fun and a good time.