Over the last few decades, the use of time out has become an increasingly popular method for dealing with inappropriate behavior in kids.
Here’s the good news about time-outs: they are supported by science as an effective technique to correct a toddler’s misbehavior. The bad news? Most people are doing it wrong.
Find out how to use time-out effectively and correctly.
Table of Contents
To Time-Out, or Not to Time-Out?
Five decades of research shows that using time out to discipline is a proven disciplinary technique. However, it gets a bad rep in the media in recent years. Yet, time-out is still one of the few discipline strategies officially recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
Why is there a disagreement?
That’s because 85% of parents use time-out incorrectly, and that can hurt children1.
What is Time Out… Really?
While most people associate time out with reality shows such as the Supernanny, it was actually invented, tested, and modified by psychologists long before TV personalities popularized it.
The origins of time-outs date back to the late 1950s where it was first coined by psychologist Arthur Staats2.
Staats wanted to teach his young children appropriate behaviors without the harmful effects of spanking. He believed that parents should be helpers and trainers rather than authoritarian rulers of the household. He found that teaching toddlers about positive and negative behavior required developing an environment of effective parent-child interaction.
Time-out’s full name is time-out from positive reinforcement.
Time-out from positive reinforcement is a procedure that briefly removes a child from an environment that is reinforcing bad behavior, and places them in a non-reinforcing setting.
Throughout the 1960s to 1980s, there was a large body of research dedicated to time-outs. The data was so consistent that even journals saw no purpose in continuing to publish similar works3. Time-outs work, and there has been plenty of data to prove it.
In an ideal world, all caregivers would receive proper training on how to use time-outs. Unfortunately, nowadays, most people use time-outs without adequate training or correct information. They derive the method from their own upbringings, the Internet, or guessing.
Over time, the term “time-out” has been stretched to include improper elements that only loosely resemble the original tried and true method.
Using Time-Out The Wrong Way
For time outs to work, parents need to clearly structure the rules of time-out to teach good decision making, and implement positive reinforcement when the child is engaging in good behavior in daily life.
While this seems simple in theory, there are many ways timeouts can be misused and harmful to toddlers.
When young children misbehave or throw a tantrum, frustrated, overwhelmed caregivers often find it difficult to control their own feelings. They use timeouts out of anger to punish.
One of the most common misuses of time-out is the focus on using it as a punishment – an unnatural negative consequence imposed on the child for misbehaving.
Time-out is a behavior modification strategy that trains a child to make good decisions. It is not a punishment and should NOT be used to punish.
Time-out becomes a punishment when it’s given with hostility, yelling, long duration, or humiliation, such as using a time-out chair or standing in a corner in front of the whole class. None of these practices teach your child how to behave.
Toddlers learn self-regulating and self-control skills through parent-child interactions. Parents who exhibit harsh or hostile emotions when giving time-outs model dysregulated behavior for children to imitate4. So when time-outs are used as punishment, the only things a child learns are feelings of isolation and rejection, and emotional dysregulation.
Also, the areas of the brain that are activated when a child experiences relational pain, such as rejection and isolation, appear to be the same areas activated by physical pain5. When time-outs become more about discipline than teaching the child about their behavior, the experience of isolation can be harmful to the developing brain.
Internet Guidance is Full of Inaccuracies
In a 2015 study, Amy Drayton and colleagues surveyed over 100 respected Internet websites. They found that no website included complete and accurate information on using time-out6.
This finding is alarming because many parents use the Internet for parenting information. Since the publication of that study, several websites have updated their guides, but many still retain inconsistent or inaccurate information, confirmed by another study in 20187.
When frustrated parents follow incorrect information and do not obtain the desired effect, they may resort to harsh methods, such as yelling or spanking. Unfortunately, these methods are strongly associated with externalizing problems, such as aggression or conduct disorder, and internalizing symptoms, such as anxiety or depression8–10.
Using Time-Out The Right Way – According to Science
Researchers have identified eight key ingredients to make time-out effective and free of drawbacks6.
1. Time in when it’s not time-out
Positive reinforcement is a key ingredient for time-outs to work. Time-out from positive reinforcement is moving a child from a highly reinforced situation to one with minimal stimuli.
For that to be effective, a child’s regular environment (time in) needs to be full of positive reinforcers, such as positive interactions, physical affection, and interesting activities, to contrast with the timeout area. Also, paying attention to good behavior right after the time-out encourages a learning environment that reinforces those positive changes.
If a child lives in an environment filled with negative interactions, or lack of affection and fun activities, it won’t make much difference whether a child is put into a time-out or not, and therefore will not be effective in discouraging misbehavior.
2. Give one (and only one) warning & follow-through immediately
Time-out is a behavior modification tool that teaches a child to make good behavioral decisions. Specify the rule, give one warning and set the expectations. Giving a warning every time provides the child with the chance to make that choice.
Once a warning is given, if the misbehavior continues, timeout needs to happen immediately. Otherwise, it would become an empty threat.
3. Be consistent & do not delay
Consistency is critical. Once a time-out is initiated, the child cannot negotiate their way out or suddenly agree to behave to avoid it. Otherwise, an escape will serve to reinforce the inappropriate behavior.
4. Use a boring time-out spot
Time-out space should have very little social, sensory, material, or activity reinforcements. Studies show that the more stimulating the time-out area, the less effective it is11.
5. Brief time-out duration (2-5 minutes)
A widespread belief is that time-out duration should increase with the child’s age (1 minute per year of age). However, there’s a lack of consistent evidence supporting that claim. In fact, studies show that 2-5 minute time-outs are as effective as longer ones for older children6,12–14.
6. A short period of quiet and calm behavior before release
More important than the duration is the condition for release. Merely sitting out for the length of time is not enough for time-out to be effective. Make sure the child shows a short period of quiet and calm behavior before releasing them.
7. Enforcement & backup consequences
If the child tries to escape the time-out area, the parent must enforce a backup plan, such as returning the child to the area or taking away privileges.
8. Original command reissued and complied
Time-out should not be a method for the child to escape a command. Once the child is released from time-out, the initial command must be reissued, and the child must meet to end the time-out procedure.
Although, when used appropriately, timeout is an effective behavior modification strategy, it is not an end-all-be-all discipline. Parents need a variety of disciplinary tools for different situations. For example, using distractions to redirect a budding tantrum, modeling appropriate behavior for toddlers to emulate, using inductive discipline, and predicting and explaining natural consequences, are all good methods to add to the big bag of parenting tricks.
- 1.Riley AR, Wagner DV, Tudor ME, Zuckerman KE, Freeman KA. A Survey of Parents’ Perceptions and Use of Time-out Compared to Empirical Evidence. Academic Pediatrics. March 2017:168-175. doi:10.1016/j.acap.2016.08.004
- 2.Staats AW. Child Learning, Intelligence, and Personality: Principles of a Behavioral Interaction Approach. Harper & Row; 1971.
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- 8.Bayer JK, Ukoumunne OC, Lucas N, Wake M, Scalzo K, Nicholson JM. Risk Factors for Childhood Mental Health Symptoms: National Longitudinal Study of Australian Children. PEDIATRICS. September 2011:e865-e879. doi:10.1542/peds.2011-0491
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- 11.BRANTNER JP, DOHERTY MA. A review of timeout: A conceptual and methodological analysis. In: Effects of Punishment on Human Behavior. Academic Press; 1983:87-132.
- 12.Hobbs SA, Forehand R, Murray RG. Effects of various durations of timeout on the noncompliant behavior of children. Behavior Therapy. September 1978:652-656. doi:10.1016/s0005-7894(78)80142-7
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