Buddy Teachers

Buddy Teachers

It’s language arts time in Mr. Jeffrey’s third grade class. The children have settled into their writing assignments. Mr. Jeffrey is working with a small group when he notices Lucia across the room distracting her neighbors with chatter.

“Lucia, do your work and let others do theirs,” he says in an even voice. Lucia quiets down, but a moment later takes out some fingernail polish, starts doing her nails, and offers to do her neighbors’. “Lucia, time-out,” Mr. Jeffrey says calmly and firmly. Lucia goes to the time-out area but protests angrily. While in time-out, she bangs her feet loudly against a nearby bookcase, mutters insults about the teacher, and tries to catch her classmates’ eyes. After a minute or two of this, Mr. Jeffrey says to another student, “James, go tell Ms. Daniels that we need her.” James quietly leaves the room, returning shortly with Ms. Daniels.

Upon Ms. Daniels’s arrival, Mr. Jeffrey says to Lucia, “You need to go with Ms. Daniels now.” Wordlessly, Ms. Daniels escorts Lucia to her own classroom for a time-out there while Mr. Jeffrey continues working with the class.

Mr. Jeffrey and Ms. Daniels are buddy teachers, a pair of teachers in nearby rooms who have agreed to lend each other a hand with time-out, a nonpunitive strategy for helping children regain their self-control. In most cases, time-out takes place in the children’s own classroom: A child who is not following the rules is calmly and matter-of-factly asked to go to a designated spot in the room for a minute or more to refocus before returning to the group. (To read about the positive use of time-out in the Responsive Classroom approach, see “Positive Time-Out“.) But for those times when a student refuses to go to time-out, continues to act out while there, or resumes disruptive behavior upon returning to the group, teachers need a simple and effective way to handle the situation. Buddy teacher time-out is one such method.

Benefits of the approach

“Buddy teacher time-out can stop a negative cycle of behavior,” says Gail Sperling, first and third grade teacher at Yavneh Day School in Cincinnati, Ohio. “Some children continue to be stimulated by the other students in the room when they’re in time-out, even if the teacher has taught children to focus only on themselves during this time,” she says. “A change of scenery can help those children settle down.” Other children might continue to act out with regular time-out as a way of testing the system. In these cases, says Gail, buddy teacher time-out shows them that the expectations for behavior are firm.

Another important benefit of buddy teacher time-out is that it allows the teacher to continue working with the class. With the buddy teacher taking care of the child for the moment, the teacher can continue with the lesson as planned. This shows the child and the rest of the class that disruptive behavior isn’t going to derail the class’s work.

Finally, buddy teacher time-out can help the teacher stay calm as well. “When you’re at the end of your rope,” says Gail, “having a buddy take the child gives you some distance.” Later, when the teacher and child are both calmer, they can talk more constructively about the incident.

Tips for using buddy teacher time-out

Teach the procedure ahead of time

As with regular time-out, it’s important to teach children the buddy teacher time-out procedure explicitly and give them opportunities to practice it.

Susan Smith, a third grade teacher at Rolling Hills Elementary School in Holland, Pennsylvania, introduces the procedure during the first weeks of school after introducing regular time-out. Just as with regular time-out, she explains that the purpose of buddy teacher time-out is to help children regain self-control. Keeping her message and tone of voice matter of fact, she talks with the class about how sometimes a person goes to time-out and still can’t get calm. “I tell the children, ‘When time-out in our own room isn’t enough, we can try going to another room.'”

Then the class practices. Susan invites any child who wants to try a pretend buddy teacher time-out to do so. This year, over the course of several weeks, more than half the class went one at a time to sit for a few minutes in the time-out area in the buddy teacher’s room.

Meanwhile, Susan and her buddy teacher also teach the rest of the class what to do if a classmate goes to a buddy teacher’s room or a student comes to their room for a time-out. In both cases, the children are taught to keep doing what they were doing and not to interact with the child.

“All this practice makes the children feel that they know what to do, and it teaches them that time-out is for everyone,” says Susan. It can help remove any stigma that children perceive around time-out, whether in their own room or another room.

Keep the talk to a minimum 

In the opening example, Mr. Jeffrey does not argue, cajole, coax, or reason with Lucia. He simply gives her clear, brief instructions. The less the teacher engages with the student in this situation, the less interruption to the work of the class.

Similarly, Mr. Jeffrey does not make any extraneous comments to the messenger student or to Ms. Daniels. And Ms. Daniels does not ask what happened. She does not express sympathy for Lucia or scold her in any way. The job of the buddy teacher is to provide a safe haven for the student, not to interact with the child or process the incident. In any case, attempts to process or draw conclusions are seldom productive at this point.

Even the students are taught to be brief and to the point when they’re asked to go get the buddy teacher. “Mr. Jeffrey needs you” or “Mr. Jeffrey says to please come to our room,” a child might say, and leave it at that.

Show welcome when the child returns

After a while, perhaps at the end of the class period, the classroom teacher goes to the buddy teacher’s room. If the child has regained control and is ready to rejoin the class, the two return to the classroom together. It’s important at this point to convey welcome to the child and show that s/he is still liked and valued. “Have a seat at your desk, Lucia. We’ve just started our fish observations. I’ll be over to help you in a minute,” Mr. Jeffrey says with a smile. This conveys warmth and communicates Mr. Jeffrey’s belief that Lucia can and will get back on task. Later, when Lucia and Mr. Jeffrey are both prepared to talk, they discuss what led to the need for a time-out. Mr. Jeffrey realizes that Lucia is a struggling writer and needs more support to initiate writing. The two talk about how Lucia will get that support in the future.

A reality of teaching

Teachers sometimes worry that needing to rely on a buddy teacher for help is a sign of incompetence. On the contrary, it’s a sign of recognizing the reality of teaching. It’s a simple fact that some children and some situations require greater intervention than can be provided by a single teacher who also needs to continue teaching the rest of the class. Turning to a colleague for help is a perfectly responsible way to make sure all children get the care and attention they need.

Common Questions about Buddy Teacher Time-Out

Isn’t this a hassle for the buddy teacher?
Most teachers who have provided “buddy teacher service” say that the brief interruption is not a problem. Most children go to the buddy teacher’s room quietly and recover quickly without incident. This is especially true if students in the buddy teacher’s room know that their job is to leave the child alone.

Is it really safe for the buddy teacher to leave her/his class alone?  
The two classrooms should be near each other so that the teacher only needs to be gone for about two minutes. The children should be taught that if their teacher needs to leave the room, then it’s serious and their job is to keep working. However, if a teacher feels it’s not safe to leave the room, another adult, such as someone from the office, should take the child to the buddy teacher’s room.

Wouldn’t it be simpler to have the child go to the buddy teacher’s room alone? 
For safety’s sake, it’s important to keep an upset child within adult sight. Left alone, an upset child may never make it to the buddy teacher’s room, may deface the hallway or bathroom, or may go outside the building.

What if the teacher her/himself escorts the child to the buddy teacher’s room?  
The trouble is this pulls the teacher’s attention away from the class. It could also send the message that disruptive behavior gets more attention from the teacher than cooperative behavior.

Isn’t it embarrassing for a student to have to leave the classroom and walk into another one?
Children often feel bad when they’re not functioning well in a group. Teachers can’t and shouldn’t try to take away all the uncomfortable feelings. However, they can prevent a child from feeling further humiliated by the time-out procedure if they explicitly teach it to the class, have all the children practice it, and maintain a matter-of-fact demeanor when using it. It also helps to remind children often that we all forget the rules sometimes and that time-out is a way to help us get back on track while keeping the group safe.


For more on time-out see:

Positive Time-Out,” Winter 2004 Responsive Classroom Newsletter.

Teaching Children to Care, by Ruth Sidney Charney

Tags: Buddy Teachers