How to Effectively Implement Time-out

By Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D.

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 Nestors 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.