First a disclaimer – I didn’t use time-outs with my own children. The preschool that I work at reserves time-outs only for when all else fails. As a formal approach, they haven’t used this in at least the last two years.
Not positive discipline – Time-outs are not considered positive discipline. It’s not included in most positive discipline books. If you are comparing it to positive discipline techniques, it’s most like logical negative consequences. The difference is, you aren’t supposed to marry time-outs with all the other techniques. When you use it, in the moment, it stands alone. Logical negative consequences are often used in conjunction with other techniques including empathy, positive intent and choices.
Behavior modification tool – Time-outs fall into another category of addressing behaviors. It is a behavior modification tool. This category includes rewards systems, token economies, behavior charts and 1-2-3 Magic. Several of the time-out guidelines below, I learned in a Behavior Modification course in grad school.
A position against – In No-Drama Discipline, Seigel and Bryson point out that discipline moments should be focused on teaching and connecting with a child. They report that often when parents use time-out it’s focused on punishing and disconnecting with a child. Their position is that the appropriate use of time-out includes “brief, infrequent, previously explained breaks from and interaction used as a part of a thought-out parenting strategy (with) positive feedback and connection with a parent” which can be an effective tool. Unfortunately, in practice, they see time-out more often used in an inappropriate way, which means it is “frequent, prolonged and done as a punishment (with) parental anger and frustration.” This misses out on the empathy and problem solving of positive discipline and can register to the child as rejection.
Maybe ineffective – There are studies on both sides of this. Some suggest it can be an effective tool, and others suggest parents using time-outs are treading water at best or making things worse. Here are guidelines to use it in a more effective way.
Time-out is meant to be a simple, consistent way to address behavior. It is an attention withdraw technique, meaning the consequence for the behavior is the withdraw of attention.
Define a spot – Before you get started, it is helpful to define a time-out spot in your house. This might be the bottom step of a stair case or an empty foyer. While it’s fine to have a time-out chair, you may have the added difficulty of the child sliding off the chair or pushing the chair around. The discipline isn’t sitting on a spot, it’s the withdraw of attention. Others caution against using the child’s bed or bedroom for time-outs. Some argue their bedroom is their space in the house and should have a positive connotation. Also, you want them to want to sleep in their bed. Some say it’s not the best place because their toys are there, and they’d enjoy playing during the time-out. I also get it when parents say, “our house is small,” or, “the bedroom is the only place we can contain him/her.” I’d suggest picking a boring spot. If the family lives in the kitchen, then the spot should not be there.
Target a behavior – Time-out works best to lessen a behavior, by targeting that behavior. This means you are using time-out only and consistently for that behavior. Parents who use it, tend to use it widely. They randomly apply it – pull the dog’s tail, time-out, hit your sister, time-out, spit on the floor, time-out. When randomly applied, it doesn’t tend to lessen any of the behaviors. Targeting means you pick one behavior, (maybe the worst or most persistent behavior) and you narrowly and consistently apply a time-out. You might decide hitting has gotten out of hand for this child so you decide, “we are going to use time-out for hitting, and only for hitting.” When hitting happens, there is a time-out. Not a threat of time-out or a countdown of behaviors towards a time-out, but hitting is followed by a time-out every time.
Three through ten years old – The books say three to ten years old. There’s a bullet point below on time-outs with younger children. I also tend to think the upper end is seven or eight years old. By ten years old, many children are thankful you are withdrawing attention.
One to two minutes per year and starting on the low end – With a four year old this means four to eight minutes per time-out. I’d start at the four minute mark, because when the timer dings, they need to be in the time-out spot and relatively quiet to get out. If not, if they are running around or screaming, you might set it for another minute. This can add up.
A timer not your watch – A timer is objective. Everyone can see it so there’s less debate. If it’s your watch, a child may worry that you will leave them there longer. If you are angry, you might. Your watch also drags you in to more debates. You end up having to say, “two more minutes,” and, “not time yet.” A timer, you can just point to.
Ten word rule – As a parent you are limited to ten words. This might be, “that hurt, time-out. Sit. Sit. No more, go play.” This means you don’t lecture on the way there or have big discussions immediately following. Time-outs are based on the withdraw of attention to curb behavior. All this talk is a lot of attention on the heels of the withdraw of attention which defeats your purpose. You shouldn’t have to explain why they are there, they are only there for one behavior. And, while you need to coach the wanted behaviors, (below) it’s best to do that out of the moment.
Little parental emotion – In the same direction, a big emotional response is giving attention. Yelling, glaring, stomping around give the behavior that power. In the moment, time-outs are meant to be a calm follow through for behavior. It’s meant to be cut and dry.
If your child won’t stay – You might increase your physical presence. They won’t stay in the foyer, stand just outside the foyer with your back to them. They won’t sit on a stair, sit just behind them, hands gently on their shoulders. That’s about it. If you find yourself wrestling with a child to keep them in time-out, it is not working for you. They have your full attention.
Preconference – This is an important piece, and it’s when you really lose two-year-olds. The preconference is explaining all this to your child just before you start using time-outs to address a behavior. You might call a family meeting and explain, “hitting has gotten out of hand in our house. We are going to use time-outs for hitting. Here is where you sit. Here is the timer, and this is how long it lasts. When the timer dings, if you stayed here and are relatively quiet, you can get out.” Say all this to a two year old and they’ve forgotten by the next day.
As an informal approach – Several parents have said, “we do time-outs, but it’s not all this.” It’s more, “you need a break. Go take a time-out.” or, “go to your room. When you are calm, you can rejoin us.” I think taking a break to calm down, for the child to collect themselves is often a good thing to do. If you are using time-outs to lessen a behavior, I wouldn’t also call this time-out. You might also teach the other ways to calm.
Younger children – You lose most two year olds with the preconference. They are often, not good at staying put for the follow through. I think it can be fine to occasionally fall back on the guidelines if a limit is needed. If a young two year old bites your arm, I think fine to say, “ouch, that hurts!” set them down and walk away for a minute as a consequence. Remember the time limits, the ten word rule and little emotion. If you need better ideas for introducing positive discipline with young children, read The Discipline Book by Sears and Sears.
Time-in – I like time-ins. This is a period of time, maybe a minute per year of life, that you give empathy, connect and coach the wanted behavior. If your four year old just grabbed a toy, you might have them sit with you and say “I know it is frustrating to wait for a turn,” and then coach ways to ask, role play asking, give a puppet show to model or draw a picture of it going well together. It is good to remember to coach the wanted behavior out of the moment as well.