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Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Time Out: What Is It and How Can You Make It Work for You

Written by  Esther Boylan Wolfson

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You have heard your friends talking about it, you've seen some articles in parenting magazines and know it's supposed to be "the thing to do" but you are just not sure how it is supposed to work. Or you've been trying to do it, but it's just not working for you. Here is a step by step program for setting up a time-out program and more importantly "getting it to work."

Why "time-out"?
Young children sometimes get so caught up in what is happening around them that they have trouble getting control of themselves and calming down. They need help with the transition from "bad" to "good" behavior. Time-out helps them make that transition. It gives them a specific period of time to "cool down" and provides them with a concrete time that the "bad" incident will be over.

For what age children is "time-out" appropriate?
A formal time - out program such as the one I will describe below is appropriate, in my opinion for children aged 2-5. The concept of taking a "time-out" period, is important for younger children also. If a one year old is having a tantrum, it can sometimes help to take them out of that situation and put them somewhere quiet and out of the way until they calm down. But actually setting up a formal place with a timer (as I will describe below) is probably not appropriate for a child under age 2.

Of course, developmental age does not always correspond to chronological age. If you feel your child is particularly mature, you can try earlier. If you try when he/she is just two and it does not work well, try again at 2 and a half.

How do I set it up?

  1. Choose an appropriate time-out location.

    The time-out location should always be in the same place. This way a child always knows exactly what to expect. The location should be a place as quiet and as isolated as possible.

    You must also consider that at least in the beginning you will probably have to be available to supervise the time-out period so it must be somewhere that you can stay nearby. A corner upstairs might be ideal, but if you have three other children that might need you during that time, it might not be practical.

    If you spend a lot of time in your kitchen, choose a space in the kitchen. If you spend more time by your computer, put it near (but not in) the computer room. Do not put it in a play-room or in a room with the television or computer. These items are too distracting to children during time-out. It also must be a place where you can keep a chair permanently waiting or have a chair handy at any point.

  2. Buy a kitchen timer or choose a location near a built in timer. Make sure that your time-out location has a place to put the timer so that it is not in the child's immediate reach and your child can still see the timer.

    My time-out location is on a chair placed right next to my microwave, which has a built in digital timer. This works for me because

    1. It is in the kitchen where I spend a lot of time in any case.
    2. It is not near any toys, T.V, etc..
    3. My other children are not usually running in and out all the time
    4. The digital timer on the microwave is ideal because the children can see exactly how much time has passed and how much time they have left. The negative is that it is next to kitchen drawers and it took time until my son learned he could not open and close those drawers while he is sitting there.

Overall, the positives outweighed the negative. There is never a perfect place. Pick the "best" you can.

When should my child be sent to the time-out location?

Establish Priorities
Before you begin you must decide exactly which behaviors you feel are most important for your child to work on. I suggest starting with no more than three defined behaviors. If your child has difficulty with aggressive behaviors (which my four year old certainly does) you can choose behaviors such as "hitting, kicking and biting." If you want to make it broader you can use a term like "hurting other people"(but don't forget to remind your child which behaviors "hurt") Do not use a term so broad that your child can misunderstand what behaviors will result in a time-out. For example, the term "not listening to Mommy and Daddy" is not enough.

Choose Realistic Goals
Choose goals that are appropriate for your child's age. Do not expect your two-year-old to never get angry. Before choosing behaviors think "Is this something my child should be able to do at his/her age?"

How long should my child be in the time-out location?

I generally recommend setting the timer for the number of minutes that correspond with your child's age. (2,3,4, or 5 minutes). If the child has trouble sitting in the beginning, it sometimes helps to set the timer for less time and gradually increase as the child's time-out behavior improves.

Before you start, do the following:

Explain to your child the time-out procedure

Show them the time-out place

Show them the timer, set it for them and let them hear it ring.

Tell your child which behaviors you will be working on. (Say "This is what we are going to do when you _________ " and fill in the behaviors you have chosen. )


Do not present "time-out" as a punishment. Tell your child "This is going to help you learn to behave nicely."

Now you are ready to start. Here is what I recommend to do:

  1. For the first week, give your child one warning. The first time he/she does one of the behaviors you have chosen say "remember you need a time-out if you ____. If you do it again, you will go to the time-out corner." ( After a week you do not need a warning.)
  2. The second time your child does one of those behaviors, immediately send or take him or her to the time-out area.
  3. Do not discuss anything. Say only "You need a time-out."
  4. Set the timer for the appropriate number of minutes.
  5. Until your child shows that he/she will stay in the time-out unsupervised, stay where you can see them and insist that they sit.
  6. Do not talk or play with your child while he/she is in a time-out. If you give attention to your child while he/she is in time out then your child may want to go to time-out to get that attention.
  7. If they talk to you - ignore them. (You can say, "We can talk about that when your time out is over.")
  8. When the bell rings, remind your child why he/she was sitting. If he/she is old enough, ask the child to tell you, if not, you should repeat it for them.
  9. Ask you child to say "I'm sorry" to you or the offended party. (If that's appropriate to the reason he/she is in time - out.)
  10. Once he/she does that - the issue is over. Say to your child "O.K., good job (if appropriate). Now that is over. Next time you'll try and remember not to ____."
  11. Give him or her some encouraging words such as "I love you, I know you're trying to do a good job, etc..."
  12. Send your child back to their regular schedule.

Repeat all twelve steps every time your child does one of the behaviors you have chosen to work on. If you only do them sometimes, it will not be effective.

What should you do if your child "refuses" to sit in the time-out area?

If your child will not sit on his/her own you must "help" your child sit. Use as little intervention as possible. Try sitting opposite your child with a serious look on your face and remind him/her to sit. If that is not enough, you may hold down your child's arms as gently as possible.

It is not a good idea to sit the child on your lap and embrace them, that is an activity that many children like. If necessary, it is all right to hold your child forcibly in the chair during the time-out period.

If this is necessary, then set the timer for a short period of time (1 minute) until the child's behavior during sitting is more appropriate. If your child is upset by being held, say to him/her, "I do not like to hold you. I am only holding you because you are having a hard time sitting without my help." Try and let go of your child after saying this and see if he/she is ready to sit without help. If not, hold your child again and try the same procedure next time.

If you use this method consistently, most (but not all) children will learn to sit without being held after a short period of time. You may still need to be watching your child in the time-out for a while, but will probably not need to actively hold him/her regularly once they adjust to the concept of sitting.

It does happen, that when a child is particularly upset about an incident, he/she might need to be held during a particular time-out even if usually the child is fine in the time-out corner. My four year old has been having "time-out's " for two years now. He knows the procedure and is usually fine, but every now and then, I sometimes still have to hold him.

I find holding my child in the chair very upsetting. Should I still continue?

I do not recommend that you do anything with your child that makes you uncomfortable. If you find this method disturbing, then maybe this method is not for you. I would recommend, however, that you not give up after only one or two tries. It might be that your child will learn quite quickly to sit by him/herself and then the method will work well for you.

If you try it for several days and are still bothered by it - stop. Time out is not for you and your child at this time. Keep in mind that you can always try again in a few months time and see if your child is now ready to sit on his/her own.

My child spends all day in the time out chair. What am I doing wrong?

If your child is constantly being sent to the time-out area, then you may have chosen too many things to work on at once. Try narrowing the number of behaviors you are working on. It is sometimes enough to choose only one behavior to begin with.

What is the biggest pitfall of the time out program?

The most important thing for you to watch out for is that the time out period can not be fun for your child. During time out, do not read, play, sing, or joke with your child. If possible, do not talk to him/her except when absolutely necessary.( To remind your child of time out rules. ) If you make the time out period fun, then your child will want to go to the time out corner and you will be reinforcing the negative behaviors, instead of eliminating them.

How long will it take until my child's behavior begins to improve?

Every child is different. There are some children whose behavior improves after only a week or so. Other children can take up to a month to show real improvement. If you have tried this method for a month and see no improvement then you should re-examine the program. Read over this article again and make sure you are following the suggestions as accurately as possible.

Think again about the behavioral goals you have set for your child. Are they realistic for a child at his/her age and developmental level? If the answer to these questions is yes, then perhaps time-out is not the right method for your child at this time.

Do not expect your child's behavior to become perfect. No pre-school child's behavior is perfect. You should feel, however, that the behaviors you are working on are "improving."

When should I stop using time - out?

Usually, you don't. A time-out program is a flexible tool to help your child improve his/her behaviors. As your child improves in his/her ability to handle the first behaviors that you choose, you can then go on to choose new behaviors to work on. Do not wait until a child never behaves in a certain way. No pre-school child is perfect. As long as your child only exhibits the behavior occasionally, you can move on to another step.

If at any point you feel that your child does not have any pressing difficulties that he/she needs to work on, then by all means retire the time-out chair. It can always be pulled out again, should the need arise.

Does a time-out program work for every child?

No. No one method of behavior modification works for every child. There are parents who swear that their time-program is the best thing that ever happened to them. There are also parents who have tried time-out and feel that it did not work at all. If you are interested in reading about other methods of disciplining young children, you can check out Make the Punishment Fit the Crime and Parenting With Love.

In my experience, most pre-school children can benefit from a time-out program when it is used consistently and appropriately. As I mentioned before, some children are ready for time-out programs only when they are older. If you try with your two year old, and it does not work, try again at two and a half or at three.

Some final words.

In the above article, I have tried to give you a step by step method to use a time out program to improve your child's behavior. I have also tried to answer what I think are the most commonly asked questions about the time out process. No one article, of course, can answer all questions.

Esther Boylan Wolfson

Last modified on Tuesday, 09 April 2013 15:22
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Esther Boylan Wolfson

Esther Boylan Wolfson

Esther Wolfson , director of our Early Childhood Development Center is an Early Childhood Specialist, who received her BA in English Communications from Stern College for Women, Yeshiva University and an MA in Early Childhood Special Education from Teachers College, Columbia University, both in New York City. Esther worked as a pre-school special education teacher for seven years. Three of those years were spent working in a school for language delayed pre-schoolers, which is her area of specialty. Another special love of hers is cooking with young children. One of her most enjoyable projects was developing a program for cooking with pre-school children for three special education programs. Esther and her husband Myles have three boys aged eight, five and two-years-old. While her three lively boys and her work at WholeFamily, keep her quite busy, in her spare time (if she ever has any!) she is an avid reader who also enjoys creative writing, exercising and swimming.

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