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:
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.