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Time-out

By Amanda McLean, Ph.D.

Consequences, both positive and negative, are an important part of child learning and behavior management. Time-out is often used as a consequence for problematic behaviors, but implementing time-out in an effective manner can be challenging. Below are frequently asked questions regarding time-out procedures:

What behaviors call for a time-out?

A good rule of thumb is to provide a time-out for any behavior that tempts the parent to raise his or her voice. Examples of behaviors that may warrant a time-out are physical aggression, noncompliance toward a parent’s instruction and major rule violations (e.g., running in the home, jumping on furniture).

Where is a good location for time-out?

Time-out means putting your child in a boring place for a brief period of time. The best location is one that results in a major reduction in the child’s access to social contact with others and to preferred activities. Relying solely on a bedroom can allow the child ways to amuse themselves and diminish the nonpreferred aspect of time-out. Additionally, if children are in their bedrooms crying or yelling, they may not know whether they are being ignored or just not being heard. Placing the child in a time-out location (e.g., an adult size chair, a quiet corner, a step) that is within the parent’s visual and auditory range allows the parent to clearly prevent the child’s access to social contact.

What if my child refuses to go to time-out?

This problem can be easily avoided by physically guiding the child to time-out rather than instructing him or her to go. Using an instruction sets the occasion for defiance whereas using guidance eliminates this concern.

What do I do or say to my child during time-out?

Time-out means time-out from attention, stuff and movement. If you are giving a child attention, then something is going on. Therefore, the cardinal rule is that all adult responses to children in time-out are nonverbal. Between the initiation of time-out and the indication that time-out is over, the adult should say nothing.

How long should time-out last?

Exit from time-out is typically a preferred event. Therefore, allowing the child to exit time-out when he or she is exhibiting more calm and composed behavior promotes the child’s ability to self-soothe.

What to do after time-out:

It is unnecessary to lecture children on what they did that led to time-out. Messages about discipline should be very brief. Following time-out, children should be given multiple opportunities to practice alternatives to the behaviors that led to time-out. The easiest form of practice is to issue several simple commands and praise the child’s compliance or use another time-out as a consequence for noncompliance.

What about time-in?

In order for time-out to be effective, children must be in situations that are preferred and stimulating so that removal from these situations is punitive. If nothing preferred was occurring prior to a time-out, then the likelihood that time-out is punishing is greatly reduced. Time-in is a procedure that maximizes preferred activities and may include physical affection, catching the child being good, compliments, special time and letting the child help.