Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Positive Use of Time Out

The term “time out” is a behavior management procedure that is often considered a punishment for misbehavior. Time out is frequently utilized by parents trying to address a behavioral challenge of their child. When misbehavior is noted, the parent sends the child to a designated place for a specific length of time. The child is then let out after appropriate behavior is achieved or after a predetermined amount of time has lapsed. Some parenting experts do not recommend the use of time out while others recommend its frequent use. Most parents at one time or another are forced to use time out in order to try and develop a peaceful household.

What I have seen over the course of my career is that parents do not use time out in an appropriate or effective way. What frequently happens is a parent-child battle and much drama occurs during the transition from direction to go to time out and the act of the child going to time out. Both the child and the parent frequently end up arguing and much heightened negative emotion occurs. This is not how time out should be used. This use of time out in this manner frequently creates more anger and animosity. Positive results are sometimes obtained, but many times the child keeps misbehaving. There must be a better way and there is.

The better way is to conceptualize time out as a “break in the action” similar to time out used by coaches in a basketball game. This is in direct contrast of viewing time out as a punishment. When a coach needs to give players feedback the coach calls a “time out” to talk with the group of players. Positive and negative feedback is given based upon what is being observed in the players’ game. If a coach only gave negative feedback during the time-outs, players would stop wanting to huddle up. A good coach gives both negative and positive feedback in order to help players learn from their mistakes, to help them recognize when they are doing things right, and to help maintain their inspiration to do well. The “break in the action” approach is very effective in spots and is also very effective intervention at home.

In your household, I recommend that you try this positive use of time out to help your child step back from the situation and reflect upon what he or she is doing. The steps to the appropriate use of this time out are as follows:

  • Sit down together (child and parent) and concisely describe what is expected in the household. Make sure questions are addressed. When children are young, expectations can be entirely set by the parent. As children mature, household expectations should be set in a more collaborative fashion.


  • Point out that when things go well, you will do your best to point that out and encourage more of the same. When things to not go well, you will have to intervene. With both the positive and negative, explain that you will be using a method of positive time out.


  • Explain the concept of positive time out. Positive time out is when a child is asked to take a break in the action in order to get feedback and reflect on behavior. This is where lots of learning will take place.


  • Explain what procedures will take place. Essentially, when you say to go to time out, the child must stop what he or she is doing and go to the designated space. If the child does not go to time out as requested, you will begin counting, “1, 2, 3.” On the 3, the child will be escorted to the designated space. If necessary, the child will be carried to the place in a safe and respectful fashion. If the child does not stay, you will hold him or her until they are willing to comply.


  • Begin training the procedures to time out by sending your child to time out for positive things. Do this multiple times in a row over several days. When the child complies, really lay on the positive reinforcement. Whenever you see something good happening, send the child to time out briefly and just lay on the praise for a job well done. You can also just pull the child aside as an alternative in order to give immediate positive feedback.


  • When your child has the drill down, begin a few directions to time out for things that your child could improve upon. Since you have already gained compliance, your child will probably go without much fuss. After the child is in time out, give feedback and discuss what he or she could have done differently. Brainstorm alternative behaviors as needed. After a short period of time, have the child leave time out to practice what you have just discussed to do.


  • Early in my career in the 1980s, I learned to use this positive use of time out while working with out-of-control teenagers at Capistrano By The Sea Hospital in Dana Point, CA. Our time out was called “the bench.” When directed to the bench, the residents were taught to stop what they were doing, walk silently to the bench, and sit down. Staff then came over to them in order to give them feedback on their behavior. We learned that it was very effective to send the youth to the bench for both positive and negative behaviors. In fact, we tried to send youth to the bench or many more positive behaviors than negative. When a resident was doing something well, we would tell them to go the bench. We would then compliment them on their behavior and send them on their way. When we needed to give them more negative feedback, they were much more receptive to our instructions since we created such a positive environment. With this use of frequent positive feedback, we greatly increased compliance to instructions and appropriate behavior overall. We were able to effectively work with residents that previously had not responded to any teacher or parent intervention to date.

    When you are implementing this process, make sure that you send your child to time out for many more positive behaviors than negative. This will greatly enhance your child’s willingness to be positive. Of course, sometimes you do have to take control and send your child to time out for negative behavior. You are doing this because your child needs to learn proper behavior. When you do have to send the child to time out for misbehavior, do not get caught up in the drama of it all. What is meant by this is, if your child begins to argue, stick to your procedures. Verbal battles will not help. Calmly restate your expectations and begin your counting. If you have to carry your child to time out, minimize any talking and remain calm. If you have to scream, go behind closed doors and scream to yourself. Be aware that changing behavior takes time. Be very gentle with any holding you may have to do. If your child is too big to carry, you may need to withdraw any of your attention until your child is willing to comply. Always, treat your child with dignity.

    When you follow this process as directed, your household will become much more positive. I have seen these procedures work time and time again in inpatient, outpatient, school, and home settings. In my own home, the procedures have worked amazingly well. As I have found, you will also find that you will not have to do hardly any time outs for negative behavior as time passes. I rarely have to use time out for any misbehavior in my own household. I still try to constantly tell my own children that I am proud of them, that I like what they are doing, and that I love them.

    Some people may say that all this praise and positive attention will hurt the child’s intrinsic motivation to do well. I personally think that way of thinking is nonsense. We all like to be recognized for what we do and children are no different. Most children want to please those around them. Giving you children genuine praise and positive feedback for what they do will not damage their intrinsic motivation. Instead, they will become more motivated. I encourage you to do your best to recognize positive efforts no matter how small they may be. By taking this positive, but firm, approach to parenting, you will find that your children will respond in a very satisfying way.