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Using 'time out' as a discipline tool

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What Is time out?

Time out is a way of correcting behavior by placing a misbehaving child in a quiet place alone for a few minutes and then talking about the problem. Time out is a short, boring time away from other people. Time out is a technique you can use with children ages 3 to 12 when they are noisy, fighting, or doing something so annoying you can't ignore it. It is best to approach time out as a way to calm everyone involved, not as a way to punish a child.

Using time outs can be a helpful strategy because they:

  • Stop disruptive behavior.
  • Create physical distance between a child and the problem.
  • Give everyone a chance to calm down.
  • Giving time outs is not without its disadvantages.
  • Children may resist staying quietly in time out until they understand the rules. Adults must be sure to always enforce the rules the same way.
  • Time out is easy to overuse. It doesn't work as well when used too much, or used as the only discipline tool.
  • It's easy to misuse time out as a punishment or as a way to get a child out of your hair. It should be used as a cooling-off period and a chance to talk about the behavior after the time out is over.

How to use time out

  • Begin by talking about time out with a child or a group of children when everything is going well. Say, for example: “The next time you argue about toys, we will try a time out. This means that each of you will go to a different place for five minutes. I will let you know when five minutes is up.”
  • Assign each child a separate place to go. This can be a chair in another room, their own rooms, or a corner of the kitchen. Just make sure that the location is safe, well lit, and within your view if the child is very young.
  • When you have to call a time out, announce it calmly. Remain calm so the children will understand that it is not a punishment, but rather a time for everyone to calm down and think about what happened.
  • If a child doesn't want to stay in his or her assigned area, calmly return the child, over and over, until he or she does stay.
  • When the time out is over, let the children know they can return to their activities. Don't make a big deal about it, just announce that time out is over, or simply let the timer ring.
  • As they go back to doing whatever they were doing before time out, let each child correct the behavior. Or if  he hurt another child, to say he is sorry. You can take some time to talk about why he was on time out and how you expect him to behave now. Be sure to praise the child when he behaves the way you want him to.

Guidelines for using time out

Time out should not be used as a punishment or as a way to threaten, humiliate, or frighten children. Parents and caregivers can take a time out too. When things get too intense for both you and your child, remove yourself from the situation. For example, if your child is being really rotten at the dinner table, say: “I really don't like eating dinner when you are spitting your food on the floor. I am going to eat in the kitchen. When you stop spitting I will come back to eat with you.”

Where should the child be on time out?

Younger children should be kept within your sight. It may be that they need to sit next to you. Older children should go to an area that is well-lit and free from dangerous things. There should be no television, toys, books, etc. It should be far enough away so children can't provoke others, but close enough so children will know what they're missing.

How long should a child be on time out?

The younger the child, the shorter the time out. A good rule is to use one minute for every year of the child's age. Keep in mind that the goal of time out is to calm the child down. The amount of time this takes will vary from child to child. It is also important that the time out should be short enough so the child can return to the situation and correct his or her behavior. Praise the child for behaving better after a time out. Research has shown that 4 to 6-year-olds who are told to remain on time out until they decide they are calm and have thought about how to solve the problem are more likely to change their behavior in the future than children who are put on time out for a set amount of time.

At what age is it best to use a time out?

In order for time out to work, the child must be able to understand the ideas of being quiet and of waiting. This usually doesn't happen until a child is 2½ or 3 years old. For younger or very sensitive children, try a tiny time out. When a child does something mean to another child, remove the misbehaving child from the situation and place him or her a short distance away on time out. Then take care of the child who was hurt or wronged. After that, return to the child on time out and explain why his or her behavior was wrong.

Alternative strategies to use

Parents and caregivers may find themselves using time out too often as a response to misbehavior. When overused, time out becomes ineffective and will not solve the problem of why the child was misbehaving in the first place. Here are ways to reduce how often you need to use time out.

Have clear rules that you enforce consistently. It is essential to have rules that are clearly understood by both children and parents. It's also important that children know what will happen when a rule is broken and that parents follow through on the consequences. These may be loss of privileges, having to make restitution, parental disapproval, or natural and logical consequences. When children understand that there are rules and that when the rules are broken they will experience a consequence, they will be on the road to better behavior.

Pay attention to your child. Children often misbehave to get your attention. For example, it's 5 o'clock, you've just arrived home from work, and you're anxious to get a meal on the table. Jon is beginning to make a ruckus in the other room and you're tempted to put him on a time out so you can get the meal prepared. Try paying attention to Jon; give him five minutes of focused time, and in most cases he will stop misbehaving.

Change your attitude about misbehavior. Sometimes normal child behavior can be pretty annoying. Whining, not sharing, talking back, and out-of-bounds exuberance are normal ways for children to act at certain ages. Sometimes just understanding that this is typical child behavior helps parents learn to deal with it by ignoring it or finding other ways to correct the child. Reserve time out for the really big stuff such as safety issues, hurting others, or other behavior that violates family rules.

Try “Time Ins”. In her book “Time-In,” Jean Illsley Clarke describes an approach to parenting that helps parents and caregivers build a positive relationship with a child and teach responsibility and respect for others.

  • Ask – Find out what's happening in your child's life. Really listen to what the child tells you.
  • Act – Make sure children can achieve normal developmental tasks in a loving, supportive environment.
  • Attend – Pay attention to what your child does and act on what you see.
  • Amend – Sometimes adults make mistakes with children. It's as important for adults to make amends with their children as it is for children to make amends to adults.

Rose Allen, Extension Educator — Family Resiliency

Reviewed 2016 by Lori Hendrickson, Extension Educator — Family Resiliency.

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