Healthy Kids    

Effectively using the “time out”

Life would certainly be a lot easier, and parenting would be almost stress-free, if our children said yes to our requests and immediately stopped engaging in the behavior we believe to be undesirable.
Unfortunately, this is just every parent’s fantasy.

Our children don’t always listen, and at times they try our patience to their limits.  Finding a means to change non-compliant behavior is one of the most frequently cited concerns parents raise when disciplinary issues are discussed.

Years ago, before discipline and behavior management systems became a packaged commodity for post-modern parents, kids who misbehaved were often removed from the current activity and sent to their rooms. Even without a myriad number of resources on behavioral management at their fingertips, these parents were implementing a technique now referred to as “time out.”

Time out is one of the many disciplinary choices parents have at their disposal when their children engage in behavioral indiscretions.  The time out procedure as a behavior management tool can be an extremely effective technique when used correctly and judiciously.

What is time out? Time out is a type of disciplinary technique that can successfully change a child’s misbehavior without a parent threatening, yelling or raising their hands. In a time out procedure, a child is removed from a rewarding or enjoyable experience for a designated period of time, the goal of which is to decrease their undesirable behavior.

Time out allows a child time to cool down, regain their composure and control over their behavior. A child in time out is similar to a hockey player having to spend time in the penalty box for inappropriate behavior during the game; he can observe but he can’t participate until he has served his penalty. If he engages in that behavior again, another time out penalty will be imposed. It’s up to him whether he plays or sits in the penalty box. This element of choice is one of the many benefits of the time out procedure.

How much time should a child spend in time out? A general rule of thumb is one minute for each year of the child’s age, always keeping in mind a child’s development level as well as their age. Parents can start a time out the procedure with their children as early as 1½ years of age. Regarding the minutes in time out, keep in mind these are quiet minutes; often, the child needs to be reminded of this.

The timer begins only when the child is quiet and reasonably calm. Any inexpensive kitchen timer will suffice as the timing device.  Some time out procedures such as time spent should be modified for children with specific problems such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, or any other type of developmental issue or delay.

Time should also be extended for more severe offenses such as hitting or other types of dangerous or potentially destructive activities. The amount of time in time out doesn’t have to be lengthy for the procedure to be effective; it does, however, need to be consistently applied. Consistency is crucial!

What are the guidelines for setting up an effective time-out procedure? The following are proposed guidelines for parents to follow to structure a successful time out procedure:

  • It is important that your child is aware of and understands the specific behavior that is being targeted for reduction or elimination, as well as the length of time they will be spending in timeout
  • The timer should be in plain sight so your child can see the passage of time. Watching the timer can actually have a calming effect on a child’s behavior while in time out.
  • The time out area used should be the same for each time out and should be easily accessible. The area should also be a place where the child can be monitored. If the behavior is occurring outside the home you might consider a contingency plan. For example, if you’re taking your child to the mall, be familiar with a quiet spot where timeout can be accomplished. Most environments have rest areas where this can be accomplished without any undue attention.
  • The time out area should be free of anything that the child finds enjoyable or reinforcing. They are not being placed in timeout as an alternative playtime. For many kids today being sent to their room as punishment, with their TV’s, handheld electronic games, i-pods and media centers, going to their room may be like going to an arcade. The time out area should also be free of distractions. Always keep in mind that time out is a form of punishment and should be treated as such.
  • Before beginning the time out procedure, prioritize the target behaviors that are being considered for change. Don’t select too many behaviors to change as that can be confusing for your child and also result in your child spending too much time in time out. Prioritize 2 or 3 behaviors to begin with and be realistic and specific about your goals for change.
  • Fully explain the time out procedure to your child. Show them the area for timeout and the number of quiet minutes that they will spend there, as well as explaining the rules that apply when they are being placed in the time out area.
  • Like any other disciplinary technique, time out should be administered on a consistent basis. If you are using time out for non-compliant behavior then each instance of non-compliance should result in a time out.

What can I do if my child is resistant to go into time out?

  • If your child is initially resistant to sitting in time out you may consider sitting with your child or if your child is young enough, place them on your lap.
  • Tell them their refusal will result in their time in time out being doubled.
  • You might try working on a reward schedule for compliance in the timeout procedure. For example, make a chart and put a gold star on it for each time they comply to serve their time out penalty. Perhaps earning points for each gold star.  This could also be tied to providing additional rewards for complying with desired behavior without the need for time out. Remember, the goal is to achieve the desired behavior.
  • If a reward schedule doesn’t work, then some type of response cost WHAT DOES RESPONSE ‘COST’ MEAN? might be implemented. For example, tell the child that until they agree to the timeout they can not watch TV, use their computer or engage in another activity that they might enjoy for a specified period of time.
  • Be patient and recognize that not all children respond similarly to time out procedures. Some children will respond immediately and behavior change will be swift; for others, it might take a much longer period of time. Don’t become frustrated and give up. Time out as a disciplinary technique is not a panacea but it does have many benefits as the management technique of choice for numerous reasons.

When do I stop using time out? Time out is a tool that you can use effectively and systematically until your child ages out. Time out is a very useful behavior management procedure that should be utilized primarily for preschool, and elementary school aged children. Adolescent time out procedures will be saved for a subsequent column.

With a well-structured time out procedure implemented within the family and consistently applied by both parents, threats and screaming matches between parents and their children can all but be eliminated.
If you want a more in-depth discussion about time out procedures, as well as additional information on the basics of behavior management, I recommend, “SOS Help For Parents,” by Dr. Lynn Clark.