The Miracle Worker

By: Joe Newman

With the rain coming down and school being out for the winter break I’ve had a chance to watch a bit of TV. Today I came across the The Miracle Worker with Anne Bancroft playing Helen Keller’s teacher Anne Sullivan. I was reminded of how many timeless parenting lessons it offers and was particularly impressed with the tenacity and clarity of Ms. Sullivan.

There is a scene when the Anne Sullivan character orders everyone to leave the dining room so she can stay alone with Helen and enforce the boundaries of sitting and using a spoon when she eats. Although the battle of wills takes hours to resolve, Ms. Sullivan repeatedly sets the boundary in the same way, over and over, until Helen finally relents and sits and eats with a spoon. I was also struck with Ms. Sullivan’s fierce conviction that boundaries be set with 100% consistency and knew how destructive it was to give in to tantrums. These principles are at the heart of setting effective time-outs, and once a parent has set a precedent with her child she always follows through with the boundaries set, everything else becomes easier and more possible.

Since last week I gave an example of using time-outs with a toddler, this week I thought I’d show how to use them with a very different group of children. The following is an excerpt from my book Raising Lions that demonstrates how time-outs were effective with a group of unruly middle-school students.

At a school for difficult children, Mr. Davis, a teacher who taught eleven- and twelve-year olds, asked me if I could come to his class and give him some advice on cleaning up the foul language his students used. The problem was particularly difficult during recess when the boys were playing basketball.

If they missed a shot, “F**k!”, if the other team scored, “G-d damn!”, if a teammate made a mistake, “What the f**k?!” They’d curse at the other team to try to get them riled and often tempers would get out of control and a staff member would have to break it up.

Mr. Davis would stand on the sidelines telling them to tone it down, “David, stop cursing,” “Alex watch your mouth!” or “Ryan, if you keep cursing I’m gonna pull you out!” When he’d had enough he’d tell a student he was out of the game. But this usually resulted in a big argument, “Why am I out? Ryan was cursing too. What the f**k! This isn’t fair. S**t.”

Mr. Davis even tried benching everyone for a day, “That’s it! Basketball’s over for today. Find something else to do.” But a day or two later the cursing was back in full swing. Mr. Davis felt constantly frustrated and boys seemed to sense exactly how much cursing they could get away with and when they’d see Mr. Davis was about to blow they’d pull it back or apologize and promise to stop.

I suggested that Mr. Davis use immediate one-minute time outs every time someone cursed, and to encourage compliance, he should increase the time if they argued, refused, or continued to curse. I talked about the importance of 100% follow-through and setting a strong precedent the first day he used the approach. We talked through the details and the best language to use and on the day he started I stood at the edge of the court to watch how it went.

Two minutes into the basketball game the cursing started. Mr. Davis stepped onto the court and said, “Everybody freeze!” The boys looked a bit puzzled. “Ryan, give me the ball.” Ryan gave him the ball and Mr. Davis said, “I need you to have a seat for one minute.” “Why? What’d I do?” Mr. Davis said to everyone, “Every time you curse you’ll get a one-minute penalty.” Ryan threw up his hands and said, “What the fu**k!” and Mr. Davis responded with, “Now you’ve got two minutes,” and tossed the ball to Ryan’s teammate and said, “Enjoy the game.”

After two minutes he sent Ryan back in and a minute after that he benched Tony for a minute. During the next thirty minutes he gave out 16 one-minute cursing penalties. The boys were visibly frustrated by the constant benching; at one point three of the eight boys playing were sitting down, but Mr. Davis was clearly less frustrated.
When they’d get upset he’d coach them through the consequence, “Easy… it’s just sixty seconds. Don’t worry about it. You sit for a minute then go back and play.” By the end of the game the boys were starting to tell each other to stop cursing, “Tony, thanks a lot! How are we supposed to win with two of you on the bench?” The next day Mr. Davis only needed to give six one-minute penalties and by the end of the week it was down to three.

I checked in with Mr. Davis about a month later and he told me that he still needed to give an average of two or three cursing penalties per game but he felt like now he had a firm handle on the situation. The immediate one-minute cursing penalty shifted the frustration and responsibility to control the cursing off the shoulders of Mr. Davis and onto the shoulders of the boys doing the cursing. By switching from responding with information (telling them what they already know) to responding with action, the situation quickly turned around. This small, regular consequence was sufficient to motivate the boys to exercise enough restraint to seriously reduce the cursing.

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