And the argument continues…time-out versus corporal punishment.  I could do a lengthy review of the research on both, but my bottom line will still be this: if you can utilize time-out and get desired (and better) results why hit your kids?  (See Nestor’s 9/27/10 post for a discussion on spanking.)

That being said, here are some steps and key points to keep in mind regarding time-out.  The technique is especially recommended for young children (2-4 years but as young as 18 months) and can also be used with elementary-age children.  Bear in mind that there will be variation among professionals regarding how to specifically do time-out.  I am including what has been effective in my work with families, including my own, across the years.  You know your child and your home better than anyone and the point is to make this work for you and your family.

The Purpose of Time-out

Time-out is not a punishment, per se.  Time-out is designed to stop unwanted behavior and to give your child some time and space from the situation that involved the behavior.  Think of it as taking a break, just as you would if you were trying to solve a problem and got stuck.  Sometimes having space from the problem can decrease frustration and other negative feelings as well as provide renewed energy and greater perspective.  We want our children to eventually learn how to stop themselves from negative behaviors and find a better route.  In addition, we want our children to learn responsibility and empathy, two skills that can help them throughout life in their relationships with others.

Preparing Your Child for Time-out

A child should always be told about how to complete a time-out before the technique is used rather than waiting until the heat of the moment to go over this information.  It is also important to make sure that your child knows and understands the family rules.  During a calm time, such as family meeting time, discuss the process of time-out with your child.  You can include examples of behaviors that would warrant a time-out and then go over the steps of time-out.

You can say something like this, “We noticed that sometimes it’s hard for you to follow the rules of our family, like when you yell at your brother.  We are going to do something called time-out when this happens because we want to help you talk nicer to your brother.  When you are told to go to time-out, you will sit on the chair by the dining room for five minutes.  During that time, we expect you to be quiet and safe.  You are not to shout, hurt or play with anything, or come down off of the chair.  If you can do that, then one of us will come and talk to you a bit about what happened and how you can make it better.  You can then go on with your day.  If you are noisy, disrespectful, or unsafe in any way, then you will be in time-out for longer until you can show us that you can calm down and be ready to talk.  We are doing this because we know that you can have good behavior and we really want to help you with that.  Do you have any questions?”

Of course, this conversation would be modified for very young children.  In this case, you could say, “When you do things that are dangerous or mean you will sit by yourself on this chair for a minute.  When you calm down, then I’ll let you get down.”

Steps for Time-out

1.  Designate a time-out location.  It is recommended that this location be easily viewed by the parent, away from stimulation such as TV and toys, and in a place where the child is not likely to cause any damage to surrounding objects.

2.  When your child misbehaves instruct him/her to go to that location for time-out and state the number of minutes it will last.  Very young children may need to be escorted, whereas older children should be able to go there on their own.  Many children benefit from having a visual of the time so using a timer can be helpful.  The rule of thumb is that time-out lasts one minute per year of age.  For example, a four year-old can do a four-minute time-out.  This time can be adjusted for children that need more time to cool down, need less time due to difficulty with focusing and sitting still, etc.

3.  If the child follows expectations for time-out, then approach the child when the time is up and go through a few questions.  Modify these based on the individual child’s abilities, such as language development.  Keep in mind that this is not a time for lecturing.  You are merely helping your child think through what happened and how it can be changed to be more positive.

Here are some standard questions you can ask.  1.  Why did you have to go into time-out?  2.  What would have been a better choice in that situation?  3.  Is there anything that you can do right now to make it better?  (This question is designed to encourage rather than force your child to make amends with somebody that he/she has acted poorly toward in some way.  It is always better to have a child-initiated apology/restitution that is genuine rather than a parent-forced one that isn’t.)

Again, for very young children that don’t yet have the language to answer these questions variations are necessary.  For example, you can say, “You had to go in time-out for throwing your food.  We do not throw food in this family.  When you are done eating you can say, “All done.””  Here you are labeling the misbehavior, restating the rule, and then stating the appropriate behavior.

4.  If your child does not follow the time-out rules (e.g., yells, comes down off of the chair), then it is necessary to inform the child that he/she will remain in time-out until the rules are followed for the number of designated minutes.  Restart the timer.  For some children, restarting the timer may not be necessary because they need only to be reminded that time-out will not end until the rules are followed and you can see that he/she is ready to talk.  Use your judgment on what you think will work best for your child.  Whatever you choose, do it the same way each time so the process is predictable.

I also like to use something called forced choice in the situation of non-compliance to put control back with your child.  You can say something like this.  “You can either keep calling out and remain in time-out for longer or you can sit quietly and we can have a quick talk so you can get on with your playing.  It’s your choice.”  Once your child is compliant for the amount of time that you chose, complete step 3.

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9 Responses to How to Effectively Implement Time-out

  1. justus says:

    Most kids experience time out as punishment unless it is framed as an opportunity for them to feel better and is a choice. The old “think about what you’ve done” approach doesn’t hold water with new neurology and attachment studies. Imposed banishment just gives time for more negative thoughts and feelings to build. Positive Discipline provides a similar resource a “positive time out” that allows for both the child and adult to have space while maintaining the loving connection.

    • Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D. says:

      Thank you for your comment, Justus. Yes! Time-out is best utilized when framed as an opportunity rather than a punishment. And it is best implemented from a place of genuine care and concern for your child rather than anger or hostility toward him/her. I had successfully used time-out in my clinical work for years and I remember when we started using time-out with our son. As I had seen in my clients, he eventually began taking his own space when needed. It demonstrated a huge shift in his ability to self-regulate, which does start occurring as children develop emotionally but was likely facilitated by having practice with the time-out procedure, as well as the modeling of it. As parents, we serve our children well by taking our own time-outs when necessary. It both normalizes the process and gives our children the opportunity to see how it’s done and how it can be useful.

  2. Karen DeBolt says:

    I have found the same thing that children see time out as a punishment, so often I will teach parents the need to create a different routine for “taking a break” in order to reteach the whole process. Also, I wonder if any studies have been done around the amount of time for a time out? I teach my parents to keep them to about 2 minutes regardless of a child’s age as that is long enough to help them do a “reset” but not so long that it becomes miserable. I work primarily with children who have ADHD or High Functioning Autism so that may color it some as well.

    Truthfully, I find that time outs become almost unnecessary if the other positive behavioral steps are taken like: specific praise, setting expectations, etc. The need for “taking a break” however is a life skill. That’s why I see the need to separate it out.

    • Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D. says:

      Great points, Karen. I agree that working around the child’s needs on the length of time-out is important. The minute per year guideline really is just a place to start. Many will probably find that it makes sense to adjust the time for their child.

      As with any behavioral intervention, one hopes that it will become less and less necessary to implement as behaviors become more regulated and children acquire more skills. And, yes, when a solid, structured environment is in place that offers limits, praise, positive role-modeling, etc. reactive interventions will likely become less needed.

  3. Robert says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post about utilizing time outs. I currently work in a child development center and have been lucky enough to have excellent teachers who I can model developmentally appropriate practices regarding discipline and positive communication with children. I see how my teachers and myself implement time outs and are following the recommendations you have stated for the most part. I really am interested in trying the “forced choice” technique with children to give them more control. I wonder if over time how the forced choice technique would affect the children’s behavior when there is a conflict or incident requiring a “time out.”

    I think educating the children about “time out” is a huge piece that some parents may not cover fully. I have learned in my little experience with children that they can get confused by an adult’s language so really taking time to talk about the time out and speak in a way that they understand your words is crucial.

  4. Baseer Qazi says:

    thanks for this contribution. Will try implementing your suggestions with the hope that its not already too late for my children, who are, 3, 6 and 7 already?

    • Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D. says:

      It is never too late to implement some new techniques. With practice, our kids can often surprise us with how well they can adjust to new routines, expectations, etc. Feel free to post back to the blog if you want to do any trouble-shooting or clarify any of the steps. Good luck!

  5. Erika Schwartz says:

    I really appreciated this article on time outs, and was tickled to see your encouraged use of “forced choice” as that is something that I use with my son instinctivilly to illustrate that he has two choices, but if he chooses to reject one it will result in automatically selecting the other, there is no option C. You stated it with such perspicascity that I was able to see the context in which I used it, and it IS when he is being absolutely non-compliant, which is not an everyday battle. He is such a happy kid that he is usually pretty obediant. But there are times when he might get overtired, he is 2 1/2 and he doesn’t want to go to bed, and he won’t relax in his chair and fall asleep in front of the tv like he always has. And I give him two options, you can sit in your chair and watch your movie or go straight to bed, if he ignores me, i turn off the t.v. and put him straight into bed, which he then goes ballistic and desperately wants to go back out and sit in the chair and watch the movie, and will fall asleep quickly. Is it bad to use that sort of reverse psychology? I just don’t like saying the same things over and over and not backing them up, but I DO NOT like him to go to bed in distress because he does not sleep well, he wakes up throughout the night. Is there anything wrong with doing this on occasion?

    • Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D. says:

      Thank you for your comment, Erika. It sounds like you have a wonderful son and I can tell that you really enjoy the little guy. I do so love forced choice. In fact, I think that I’ll write a more complete post on it because other readers have approached me about the technique as well. I do want to respond specifically to you now, though.

      I completely agree that we don’t want to send our children to bed in distress. In fact, the bedtime routine can be one of the most important routines of the day. I encourage you to read Nestor’s previous post on bedtime routines. It has a lot of good tips in it. As far as forced choice goes, the idea is to provide the child with choices and then prompt the child to choose one. If the child refuses to choose, then you simply state something like, “I am waiting for you to choose. If you don’t, then that means that I make the choice. Would you like to choose?” The example that you provided can work in the short-term and I think that we’ve all done it at some point. We make the choice, our kid goes nuts, and then we allow the child to make the choice. The unfortunate and unintended consequence that can occur in this scenario is that children can learn to tantrum to get what they want. So when you use forced choice and then have to move to making the choice yourself, it is pretty important to hold to that decision. In the case of your son and bedtime, I really do encourage a read through of Nestor’s post. Over the long haul, it would probably be good for your son to be able to fall asleep on his own in bed so he doesn’t become reliant on outside forces, like the TV, to fall asleep. A bedtime routine can provide a natural slowing down to the day that allows the child to then wind down and fall asleep.

      I’d love to hear back from you on how it goes with bedtime and forced choice. Best wishes!

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