10 Time-out Techniques


When behavioral psychologists introduced the time-out  concept, it was titled: “Time-out from positive reinforcement.” Positive  reinforcement means giving the child lots of positive “time-in” with a connected  style of parenting. Then if the child misbehaves, this positive parental input  is briefly withdrawn. As a result, the child gets used to feeling right when  acting right, and feeling wrong when acting wrong. By making the connection  between good behavior and good feelings the child becomes motivated to keep his  act together. For time-out to work, he first needs a large quantity of quality  time-in.


Help your child connect his behavior with the time-out. Introduce time-out  early, by eighteen months. Before that age, you will be using distraction and  diversion to stop behaviors. Baby crawls toward the lamp. You intercept the  curious explorer, carry him across the room and sit between baby and the lamp.  After much repetition baby gets the point: Certain behaviors will be immediately  interrupted, so there’s no point in attempting them. These baby diversions  progress to toddler time-outs. In addition to simply interrupting an undesirable  behavior, you now add a place to sit, such as a time-out chair. Time-out in your  arms or sitting next to you is preferable if the toddler finds the chair too  threatening; but you run the risk he’ll discover the way to get picked up and  held is to misbehave. You can avoid this by holding your child a lot when he is  behaving well—back to the concept of time-in. Our grandson Andrew, at seventeen  months, knew the difference between being held and time-out holding. He  protested his time-out holding loud and clear. (If your toddler kicks and  flails, you are only succeeding in making him angry.)


Language makes time-out easier. By two years of age most children  understand what time-out means—if they misbehave it’s off to the chair they go.  They perceive time-out as a break in their activity, a parent-imposed (logical)  consequence of their behavior. The older the child, the more detailed the  explanation can be. We started using official time-outs with Lauren when she was  eighteen-months-old. She had witnessed many time-outs for Stephen, so when it  was her turn she understood clearly what we were doing. We could tell by the  gleam in her eye and the alert body language that this little ritual was a  special experience and she got into the spirit of it willingly. She also knew  the ritual included an enforced (though brief) time of sitting alone. Stephen  needed frequent reminders, so she knew she was expected to stay seated. As soon  as the novelty wore off, she was no longer amused.


You can use time-out anywhere, as long as the place of retreat is  unrewarding. For a peaceful interlude during shopping struggles, try giving your  child time-out on a bench in the mall, in a boring corner in a supermarket, next  to a tree in a park, or consider making an exit to your car. Put your child in  the back seat while you doze for five minutes in the front. For safety’s sake,  be sure to keep your eye on the isolated child when using time-out in public.


Escort your toddler to the time-out place immediately after the misbehavior. A  prompt, cool, matter-of-fact approach aborts many protests. Since you set the  ground rules beforehand, you need not explain, apologize, or get wishy-washy  about your discipline. If your child senses uncertainty, a protest is likely to  follow. Avoid yelling “I’ve told you ‘no’ a thousand times. Now you go to your  room and don’t come out till I tell you to.” This abusive style pushes anger  buttons in the child, putting time-out into the revenge category and canceling  its behavior-changing purpose. Keep the time brief—around one minute per year  of age. For older children you can make the time fit the crime: “That’s a  five-minute time-out.” When our kids were into hockey they better understood  this mode of discipline: “Five minutes for pushing!”


This is not the time for your child to be screaming, or for you to be preaching  or moralizing. If there’s a lesson you want your child to hear, save it for  later when he’ll be open to it.


“Two minutes” is meaningless to a child under three. A stove timer or alarm  clock makes a more lasting impression and helps you keep track of the time. When  the signal sounds, it simply announces that time’s up. Let the child decide his  next course of action. He may still be contemplating his behavior when the  buzzer sounds. No need to break his thought by saying “You can come out of time-out.” He’ll get the point by himself.


You may have a designated time-out chair or stool for the toddler. A veteran mother  in our practice successfully uses the “naughty step,” an idea she gleaned from  the book THE POKEY LITTLE PUPPY’S NAUGHTY DAY (Golden Books). The naughty step  helps the puppy to feel a little less “frisky” that day. For the older child,  try using her room. If you are away from home, use any spot that removes the  child from the scene of the crime. Oftentimes it’s the actual removal of the  child from the place of misbehavior that makes the impression rather than where,  or how long, the child sits or stands. Be sure the time-out place doesn’t have  built-in rewards. To make the point, the retreat needs to be a boring place. The  TV is not on for time-out!


Sit with her, and if  necessary keep putting her back physically and give her the message “I’m the  adult here. We are taking time-out.” If the time is short enough and you are  calm, there would be no reason for her to protest. If she screams about it, she  stays until she’s calm. If children rebel at the negative sound of time-out, use  positive terms that fit the situation: “You need a little quiet time,” or  “thinking time” or use the child’s name, “Lauren time.”


For time-out to work for the older child, he may need an explanation of what  “time-out” means. Use a basketball game on television as a teachable moment:  “See what the coach does when the team is falling apart. He calls time-out. This  lets the players cool off and think about how they can play a better game.”

This all seems so sensible, but remember, children may not think logically  until around age six. If you can’t sell your child on time-out, invoke your  parental power. Give your child the message that he is going into time-out no  matter what, so he might as well do it, get it over with, and get on with the  day. For the child over five, add extra time for resistance: “Five extra minutes  for protesting,” announces the referee. If the child still refuses, pull out  your reserves: grounding and withdrawal of privileges (such as TV for the rest  of the day or week)—whatever has worked in the past. Give the child a choice:  “You can either stay in your room for ten minutes or be bored the rest of the  day.”


Time-out gives your older child a chance to reflect on her deed, and it also  gives you a chance to cool off and plan a strategy. While your child is in time-out, judge whether the misbehavior is a smallie that’s over and done with and  needs no further discipline or a biggie that needs more intensive care. If it’s  a biggie (she hurt another person), after giving her a few minutes to cool off,  say something like: “I want you to think about what you did. How would you feel  if your friend hurt you?” Some children know intuitively the mental exercises to  go through during time-out, but many do not. This is not a time for preaching or  haranguing, rather matter-of-factly tell your child how you expect her to spend  the time-out period. The most lasting impression is made when the child realizes  the consequences of his actions on his own. That’s self-discipline.


Time-out for parents. Time-out can be a retreat for mom.  When our children are not really misbehaving but simply showing the childish  behaviors of normal, noisy children, Martha says, “I need time-out.” She makes  sure the children are in a safe environment and no one is getting hurt, goes  into another room, ignores the noise, and regains her peace. A parent time-out  also helps when you are playing a game with your child and he is becoming  obnoxious. Announce that you had been having so much fun, but now you are not.  “I’m going to go over and sit and read my book until you’re ready to play nicely  again. Let me know. I’ll come back and we’ll enjoy the game together.”

Sometimes there are situations when your child is playing or yelling in a  disturbing way, or being incessantly clingy despite the fact that you have given  your maximum of “time-in.” Tell your child that you need some peace and quiet.  Martha announces this by authoritatively stating, “That’s disturbing my peace .” These messages help children respect the  rights of others in their environment. Even parents who have learned to tune out  noise can only take so much.


After the time-out is over, it’s over. The child has served his time and it’s  time to get on with the day. Convey to him that you now expect him to play  nicely and quietly. Possibly orchestrate a new activity.


Toddlers and young children often get very engrossed  in their play. If there are a lot of children and a lot of toys in a small  space, they get overstimulated and rev up into a play frenzy that gets out of  control. This is not only intolerable to human eyes and ears, but it is also  counterproductive to your child’s play. If you sense that the play is getting  out of hand, call a halt to the action before it gets out of hand or before you  feel annoyed by it. Remove a few of the toys, separate the children, or change  activities. It might be a time to sit the children down and read a five-minute  story—a sort of half-time interlude in a boisterous game.


When several children are in a room and the behavior is deteriorating, it is  often difficult to know who is the ringleader. Sometimes you simply have to  separate everyone. Direct them to separate chairs, spaced out around the room,  for five minutes before they can resume a calmer play activity. Sometimes it’s  necessary to put more space between them—one child in a time-out chair in the  kitchen and another child in the living room. Though they seldom express it,  children oftentimes appreciate caregivers rescuing them from themselves. They  may recognize when they need relief. Once during a play frenzy, one of our  children retreated from the battle and came into our room to announce “We need  time-out.”


Time-out is not a punishment; and it seldom works when it’s  used that way. Used as a punishment, it is called “benching,” like a hockey  player benched in the penalty box for misconduct. Time-out calls for a break in  the undesirable action. It stops misbehavior and gives the older child, and  parents, time to reflect. Instead of viewing it as a jail sentence, the older  child should be taught to view it as a way of getting herself under control: a  few minutes to reflect on what went wrong and how to make it right. Whether you  call your strategy “time-out” or “benching” is often psychological semantics.  The real issue is does it work? When our two-year-old is disruptive at the  dinner table, we plant him on the nearby piano bench for two minutes.  Oftentimes, just the warning “piano bench” is enough to stop his misbehavior. In  this case, we call our strategy a “reminder.” Between two and three years of  age, most children can understand the concept of “time-out.” One day our two-and-a-half-year-old, Lauren, after being pestered by her brother, said, “Stephen  pushed me – time-out.”


Not only does time-out help children behave, it also helps parents. Time-out  stops misbehavior and gives you time to plan your next move. It prevents parents  from impulsively spanking. “I need time-out,” revealed a mother who had been  spanked as a child. She recognized that she was prone to impulsive anger and was  in danger of striking her child impulsively when he “pushed her buttons.”  Realizing her vulnerability, she found time-out gave her a chance to cool off so  she could return calm and collected to handle the conflict.

Time-out works better if it’s used to shape behavior rather than punish.  Picture kindergarten teacher Miss Goodchild plunking impulsive Johnny on a stool  in a corner facing the wall. This doesn’t do anything for Johnny except set him  up as the center of attention and make him a prisoner, angry at the situation  and at the person imposing the sentence. I can still remember the “time-outs”  imposed on me at school. I was a problem child, especially in the early grades.  In second grade, the teacher used what she thought was time-out on me, but it  didn’t work. She would set me in the corner on the time-out stool. She was using  humiliation and it backfired. It only encouraged me to continue my attention- getting antics. This teacher couldn’t handle me, so I was prematurely promoted  to the third grade. There I came under the firm hand of the school’s best  disciplinarian, Sister Mary Boniface . She gave  me clear messages and made sure I knew what behavior was expected of me and what  the consequences would be if I disobeyed. She also gave me a lot of attention  eye-to-eye contact with her hand on my shoulder. She showed that she genuinely  cared for me as a person and was going to be sure that I learned how to control  myself. When I looked as if I was about to get out of line, she would place her  hand firmly on my shoulder and press hard enough that I would get the message.  Of all my early disciplinarians, Sister Mary Boniface was the one I respected  then and remember now.

Originally posted on askdrsears.com

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