Time out is a highly effective evidence-based discipline procedure that can significantly reduce behavioral problems in children. Decades of research has shown that when used appropriately, time-out is a safe and very useful tool for managing misbehavior in young or school-aged children. In order for time-out to work, it is important that specific steps are followed and that parents remain consistent in their use of time-out.
Unfortunately, all too often parents and caregivers attempt to use time-out without understanding clearly all the steps required for effective time-out or without consistency, which leads to poor discipline at home and frustration for parents. Below is a “how-to” primer for implementing time-out in your home.
When to use Time Out: Prior to using time-out, it is important to decide when and how you will implement time-out in your home and explain this to your child. Time out should be used for aggressive behaviors (hitting, screaming, kicking) or non-compliance with specific commands (for example, when a child refuses to brush her teeth).
Steps for Using Time Out:
- If you child does something aggressive, tell your child why they are being put in time out (“You hit Johnny, so now you need to sit in the time out chair”). Make sure to say this calmly and to not say anything else. You do not want to give your child a lot of attention when they misbehave because that can lead them to misbehave more in the future.
- If your child is not complying with something you have asked them to do wait 5 seconds and then give your child a warning “If you don’t ____________, you will have to sit in the time out chair.” Wait another 5 seconds (without saying anything else) and if your child continues to not comply say “You did not do what I told you to do so now you have to sit in the time-out chair.”
- Immediately take your child to the time out chair and walk away (again we want to give the child as little attention as possible when they are in time out).
- It’s best to use an adult sized chair for time out. Make sure the chair is safe and sturdy. Do not use a chair that can spin or has wheels. The chair should be placed facing a wall (but far enough away from the wall that the child cannot damage the wall with her shoes) and away from any activity in the house (e.g., away from the TV). The child should not be able to bring any items with her to time out.
- If your child stays in the chair, she should remain there for 3 minutes. This is enough time for time-out to be effective. During this time your child should not receive any attention (facial expressions and eye contact count!).
- If your child gets up from the chair, immediately place her back in the chair and tell her she needs to stay in time out until you say she can get up. For many children this warning will work. Other times, it may be helpful to use a back up to time-out to help teach the child to stay in the chair. You can either use a back-up time out room (a safe room in the house with no toys to put the child in alone for 1 minute if she leaves the chair) or the removal of a privilege for getting out of the chair (e.g., “If you do not stay on the time out chair, you will lose screen time for the remainder of the day”). If you are using a back-up room take the child back to the time out chair after 1 minute in the time out room.
- If you child is in time out for aggression, then after 3 minutes of sitting in the chair quietly, say “You are sitting quietly in the time-out chair, are you ready to get up?” If your child gestures or says “yes” allow her to get up from the chair. If your child indicates “No” then restart time out for another 3 minutes.
- If your child is in time out for noncompliance then after 3 minutes say “Are you ready to insert previous command [e.g., brush your teeth?].” If your child indicates “yes” allow them the opportunity to complete the instruction; however, if they indicate “no” then restart time-out.
- Following time-out it is important to provide your child with praise for positive behavior. If your child was in time out for aggression, try to catch your child as soon as possible engaging in a positive behavior and give your child attention for this behavior. If your child is in time out for noncompliance, praise your child as soon as they complete your instruction (e.g., “Thank you so much for brushing your teeth”). This is one of the most important steps in time out and helps your child learn that they do not get attention if they misbehave, but that they get a lot of positive attention when they listen and behave appropriately.
- Learning how to use time out appropriately can be difficult for many caregivers. It is often very helpful to learn time out from a mental health professional who is trained in teaching time out and who can help you practice the steps with your child in session prior to trying time out at home.
The following sources were used in preparation of this article: Eyberg, S., & Funderburk, B. (2011). Parent – Child Interaction Therapy Protocol. Gainesville, FL: PCIT International Publishing.
Written by Joshua Rosenthal, PsyD