Wednesday, December 28, 2011

time outs: do they work? really?

I want to play with it! It’s mine! The first raised voices of the day between your children. You can see the two of them in the next room, so there will be no case of “he said, she said” when it comes to fixing the problem. You watch for a second to see if they might turn the ship around and return to calm waters. Nope.

A parental headache is unfolding & instantly becomes a migraine after you see your daughter hit your son in the face. They know that hitting is against the rules! Why do it?! You’re into the room in a flash, taking your daughter by the shoulders to tell her that hitting isn’t allowed and that she’ll have to go to time-out for her behavior. She cries as you carry her over to your time-out step, chair or spot. You place her back there a couple of times before her time is over all the while wondering if you’re doing the right thing. Are you simply being mean? Is she learning anything from this? Is it important that she does?

Time-outs are an ever-popular subject for parents to discuss and question. Do they work? Yes! No! Maybe, but not for my kids! The TV Supernanny, Jo Frost, is a major proponent of them. I have used them myself and instructed parents in time-out techniques. In other cases, time-outs are said to be counterproductive & ineffective. An article that I cited last month says that time-outs should be a thing of the past because they don’t result in long-term behavior change.

Sadly, I’m not going to put this question to rest with a definitive answer. Shucks. So as with any other middle of the road response, I’m going to say, use time-outs wisely. Don’t overuse them, having them be the only form of discipline or consequences that are used in your house. Time-outs are effectively manufactured consequences that are good for creating distance from a situation and an opportunity for a kid to cool off (not that they always avail themselves of this opportunity). So if a child doesn’t need to be removed from a situation or need time to cool off, then I’m not sure if a time-out is the best-chosen consequence.

Time-outs are useful when kids are not able to take part in an activity that they’ll miss. A time-out at the playground when fun is interrupted often hits home a bit more than simply being put on a step after refusing to get dressed. In many cases an alternative to a time-out is an even more potent consequence. For kids old enough to understand, having privileges taken away can have much more meaning than 5 minutes of sitting.

Ok, so maybe we agree on when to use time-outs now? Maybe? But the trick to making them an effective tool in your toolbox is to do them well.

Time Out Pop Quiz:
  1. How many times should you explain to a child why they are in time-out?
  2. Should you show them your anger when placing them in time-out?
  3. What should you do if they get up before their time is up?
  4. How long should they sit? And is it imperative to use a timer?
  5. What should you do if they cry, call your name and say they’re sorry while in time-out?
  6. What should you do if they cry, call you names and say they hate you while in time-out?
  7. How should a time-out end?
  8. What if they return to the same negative behavior immediately after being done with their time-out?
Thoughts? Post your answers or comments below. And stay tuned to the next installment of the Kid Whisperer on (cool) progeny January 11, 2012 for my answers to the pop quiz.

Katie Robinson began her foray into behavior management long before she knew what it was called. Growing up with a younger brother with special behavioral and emotional needs was her first taste of the hard work that it takes to be successful at managing behaviors. A career that spans teaching middle school special needs students and social work, Katie's diverse experiences have led her to her newest venture: BW Kids Consulting. BW Kids Consulting affords Katie a ‘Supernanny’ style adventure of working with parents to help them help their kids to be their best selves. Check out her blog, Kid Whisperer!

editor's note: The hourglass stool featured in our post image is available from


karmaemilysmom said...

I feel this all depends on your child's age. For my 4 yr old time outs are very effective. I explain why she is going into time out and I ask her at the end why she was in time out. We talk about the bad behavior at the end and other ways to express are feelings. It is important not to loose your temper because you are just modeling the behavior in which makes no form of punishment effective. Now my 6 year old could care less about time out so, I have improvised instead of time out she will have to write lines or practice spelling words for about 6 minutes. I do the 6 minutes sometimes longer because essentially she is in time out she is not aloud to play but instead of sitting there doing nothing she is doing something constructive whether writing , "I will not hit my sister" or the hard spelling words to her school list over and over again. Time outs should be as long as your child's age in minutes. So, my 4 year old gets 4 minutes in time out . I start the time out after I explain why I am putting her there and I stop it before we discuss after why she was in time out and how she feels, and what she could do differently. When is comes to siblings sometimes both go into time out but i feel it is important to be separated, talk to each child separately and then bring them back together to apologize, forgive and hug. One more quick tip i follow the 1,2,3 time out rule. That means i have given the child 3 times to stop the bad behavior before they go into time out. This way it's not over used or used unnecessarily.

Katie R. said...

Thanks so much for posting. You've got some good ideas here. I like that you tailor the "time out" to your kids' personalities. Plus all of the communication that you have with them about their behavior and consequences are super!