Are we using time out in the most effective way?

By Dominique Groenveld, Oh Beehave

'Time out' has been considered an appropriate behaviour strategy for many years. It has many different applications, popular among parents in the home environment and even day cares and schools use it to manage disruptive or inappropriate behaviour.

Some parents choose to use time out as a punishment strategy dependent on age (e.g. if you are 2 years old and you misbehave you go to 'time out' for 2 minutes, when you are 3, it increases to 3 minutes and so on).

In this case, time out might sound something like:
“That’s it- you’re going to time out!” you say sternly as you march your little one over the corner, plonk them down and tell them not to move for 3 minutes “or else” there’ll be trouble…

While others use time out more as a means for siblings to take a break from each other when the squabbling gets a bit too much (e.g. “You two - cut that out before I bang your heads together! Sally, you go to your room and Susie, you go to yours. I don’t want to see either of you for the next 5 minutes!”).

Giggle all you like at the “bang your heads together” expression, but I still hear a lot of parents using it. Although I’m pretty sure (at the very least, I hope!) it’s an empty threat.

Since there are so many different ways to use time out (and not a lot of agreement as to the best way), how effective time out is, really depends on what time out means to you.

At Oh Beehave, we consider time out as a strategy best used when an inappropriate behaviour is displayed and either the child, parent (or both) are becoming frustrated, upset or angry. In this case, time out is an opportunity for both the child and the parent/s to take some time to cool down and reflect.

The most important point to note about using time out in this way, is that it is not intended to be a punishment or consequence. Time out in this context (from the child’s point of view) is simply an opportunity to cool down and reflect on your actions prior to having a calm discussion about your behaviour and the appropriate consequences for that behaviour.

When used in this way, time out might sound something like:
“I can see you are angry about x, y z. Move away for some quiet time, and once you are calm we can talk about it” as you gently navigate your child (or even better, they take themselves) towards a comfortable cool down spot where they can collect themselves.

Once you are both calm, then it’s an appropriate time to:

  • Discuss the situation
  • Reflect on behaviours displayed
  • Agree on appropriate behaviours for the future
  • Discuss any consequences that are relevant to their behaviour

So, what is the most effective way to use time out?

Unfortunately, when time out is used as a 'punishment' the child learns (as with any form of punishment), that certain behaviours result in 'time out' but they don’t get an opportunity to understand why their behaviour was unacceptable. Some children may not even understand why they are in time out in the first place! It may also lead to the child continuing to display the inappropriate behaviour, especially when they know they aren’t being watched and can get away with it.

When time out is used as an opportunity to cool down and reflect (followed by a discussion with the parent), it gives the child an opportunity to reflect on their behaviour and consider alternative behaviours for the future. It may even prompt them to work out what they need to do in order to make amends for the behaviour displayed (i.e. the child starts to learn about logical consequences to their behaviour, and is more likely to start monitoring and reflecting on their own behaviours without prompting). This strategy is likely to be most effective at changing behaviour over time.

Wolfe, T., McLaughlin, T.F. & Williams, R. L. (2006). Time-Out Interventions and Strategies: A Brief Review and Recommendations. International Journal of Special Education. 21(3)

Note: The views and advice expressed on this blog post are those of the author and are not representative of the Pregnancy Babies & Children's Expo.

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