Time-Out: Does it Work? How to Improve Children’s Behavior
Does it work? How to Improve Children’s Behavior
Alyssa asks her five year-old son Jayden to brush his teeth following breakfast. They have 15 minutes to get ready to leave the house in order to make it to school on time. Jayden wets the toothbrush and begins flicking water at the mirror. Alyssa tells him firmly to brush his teeth, hands him the toothpaste, and begins counting aloud – 1, 2, 3. Jayden does a little dance and flicks water in her direction. Alyssa says, “That’s it, you’re in time-out” and directs Jayden to a chair. Alyssa goes into the other room to collect their belongings for school. Jayden sneaks out of the chair and grabs some toys. When he loses interest in the toys, he runs out of the room. Alyssa chases him around for a minute and then realizes that, if she tries to finish the time-out, Jayden will be late for school.
Time-out is one of the most popular and highly recommended disciplinary strategies. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to use correctly, and when used inconsistently or in the wrong circumstances, can make problems even worse. This article provides guidelines for using time-out effectively and suggests other strategies for improving children’s behavior.
What is time out?
As the entire name, “time-out from positive reinforcement” illustrates, time-out is supposed to involve removing children from positive and rewarding experiences for a period of time. For example, a parent might take a child away from situations offering a great deal of attention or highly-enjoyable activities and placing them in a less rewarding setting without distractions. This ‘break from the action’ discourages continued problem behavior and may also be used to help a child calm down so he can participate more appropriately when he returns to the situation.
Problems with Time-Out
Although time-out can be used effectively in family homes, there are multiple reasons why using time-out can backfire.
First, time-out can be misused and overused, thereby losing its effectiveness. When time-out is used for a multitude of problem behaviors, including inconsequential behaviors (so called “junk behaviors”) such as Jayden flicking water, expectations and absolute limits regarding behavior become unclear to children.
Second, time-out can be made more punishing than necessary to correct behavior. Time-out often lasts much longer than necessary or is presented in a way that is exceedingly unpleasant for the child (e.g., having to stay in an uncomfortable position until released). When used in this way, time-out can produce emotional reactions and damage the parent-child relationship.
Third, time-out is often used under the wrong circumstances. Time-out is only effective if the child is taken away from positive activities, including situations involving adult or peer attention. If children use problem behavior in order to get away from requests such as cleaning their bedroom or eating food they do not like, time-out only reinforces the problem behavior because it allows children to avoid or delay unpleasant tasks.
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