Rethinking "Take a Break Out"

What could fun, social interaction, and a relaxed environment have to do with it?

For Middle Level

For the past decade at Barton Open School, when 7th and 8th grade students need extra time to regain their self-control, we've used a "TAB Out and Back" system. TAB Out is the Developmental Designs practice that gives students a chance to get back on track by moving to a separate classroom to reflect and refocus. TAB Out and Back includes a Quick Conference between the student and the teacher who sent him before the student re-enters the original classroom. During the Quick Conference, what the student has written on a reflection is used to make sure he is ready and willing to get back on track. We've used various written reflection forms to support this approach. This year, we wanted to see whether our reflection sheet was helping students to identify the needs they seek to fulfill when they break the rules.

Effective written reflection
When a student arrives in the TAB Out room, she is asked to fill out a reflection sheet as soon as she can think clearly about what behaviors brought her there. The reflection sheet includes the following:

What did you do that broke our agreements?

Which class rule(s) did you break?
____be respectful
____do your best
____sharing is caring
____no loud emotional outbursts

What need do you have that you were trying to meet when you did that?
____I wanted to have some fun.
____I was trying to be noticed.
____I wanted to be in control
____I wanted to get even with someone
____I needed help
____I wanted to be liked
____Other? __________________

What will you do to meet your needs in an appropriate way?

Do you need help from anyone else? _____ Yes ____ No

If yes, what support do you need, and from whom?

What action(s) will you take to repair the mistake you made?

At the bottom of the reflection sheet, there are signature spaces for the student, the TAB Out room teacher, and the class hour teacher, who sent the student. A date is also required.

When the reflection is written, the student raises his hand to indicate readiness to return to class. The TAB Out teacher quickly reads over the reflection, checks to make sure the student is ready to return and repair the damage, signs the sheet, and sends the student back to class. When the student returns to class, he stands inside the door, written reflection in hand, waiting until the teacher can spend a moment with him.

Ensuring a positive reentry
In the quick social conference at the door, the sending teacher and student review the student's reflection, checking for understanding of what happened and effort toward positive change. Then the student is welcomed back to class.

Action research
In the first half of the year, I used the TAB Out room 42 times. My analysis of needs being met by the rule-breaking behavior on the 42 written reflections indicates that, 23 identified a need for fun; 12 identified a need to talk to someone; 6 identified a need to relax; and one indicated a need for more information about something that was of pressing importance (the student wanted to know who had taken his pencil!).

Need to adjust the written reflection?
From among the list of needs that are found on the reflection form, a large percentage of my students checked I wanted to have some fun. But the second most used need was a need to talk to someone-a relational need-and there was nothing on the sheet predicting this. Because the reflection data regarding the need for social interaction was so clear, I would add two more categories to our form:
____I needed to talk to someone
____I needed to relax

Using the data
I see more clearly now that fun, talking, and relaxing are very important to middle school students, and sometimes these needs can get in the way of learning. They can also damage individual relationships and a learning community's fabric. Students need to understand when discussion is appropriate and when active listening is required. For example, when a student steps over the line by side-talking during another student's presentation, the talker needs a teacher who will quickly redirect. The more we intentionally build into our lessons opportunities for fun, social interaction, and learning in a relaxed environment, the better climate we'll have.

Maintaining engagement
It is essential to meet these needs in a positive way while empowering students so they learn self-control. Every period of the day-not just advisory/homeroom-needs to have a built-in opportunity for positive fun. One approach could be to stop everything in the middle of the class, or at a natural transition near the middle, and play for five minutes. That would meet the need for fun, energize the students, and allow the teacher to bring them back afterward to a strong focus on learning. Using engaged learning strategies infused with social interaction and reflection can also help teachers craft lessons that meet students' over-arching need for connection with peers in a meaningful, positive way.

Food for thought
The fact that nobody checked off four of the categories-I was trying to be noticed, I wanted to be in control, I wanted to get even with someone, I needed help, I want people to like me-doesn't mean they have no purpose on the form. I feel that there were times when one of these categories accurately described what had transpired, but students either weren't able to see that need or weren't ready to recognize it, perhaps for developmental reasons. Nonetheless, the presence of these categories on the form allows a safe, introspective opportunity for students to wrestle with a wide variety of possible reasons for their misbehavior. It gives them valuable, specific information-food for thought.

Christopher Hagedorn taught 7th and 8th graders at Barton Open School in Minneapolis MN, and is now is an educational consultant.

Published January 2008/revised March 2010