Last week, we talked about how to effectively prepare for using time-out by working on hitting the “magic ratio” in your interactions with your child, setting clear rules, and explaining consequences to your child before they are used. Spending this time in the beginning establishing clear rules and consequences will help your child develop an understanding of the cause and effect nature of behavior. Once you have taken these steps, you’re setting the stage for successfully using this strategy. Additionally, it’s important to remember that ignoring and redirection are often the best response to minor misbehavior.
Steps for an Effective Time-Out
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC – a surprisingly great mental health resource) outlines 5 Steps for Time-Out that are backed by research and consistent with therapy models such as Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT).
Step 1: Evaluate the behavior and give a warning. If your child’s misbehavior is serious or breaks a rule, give a verbal warning using a calm voice. For example, if the child ignores a direct command, say, “You have two choices, either you give the toy to me, or you will have to go to time-out.” Wait for 5 seconds to give your child the opportunity to comply. If he follows directions after the warning, praise his behavior (the more specific, the better!). If he does not follow directions, proceed with time-out. The most important thing about this step is – if you give a warning and your child does not follow directions, you must give a time-out. Consistency is key! Parents may decide that some misbehavior (for example, hitting or cursing), will result in an immediate time-out, and this should be explained to your child in advance.
Step 2: Explain why. When your child must go to time-out, you should explain why he is receiving the consequence. Make sure that this explanation is short, clear, and delivered in a calm but firm voice. For example, you might state, “You did not hand me the toy when I told you to, so now you have to go to time out”, and then instruct the child to go to time-out, “Sit on the chair until I say you can get off.” You may need to gently escort your child to the time-out spot, and do not talk to your child while doing so (ignore excuses, shouting, protesting, and promises to comply).
Step 3: Child sits in time-out. A good rule of thumb is to have a child sit in time out for 1 minute per year of age. During that time, the child should not be allowed to talk to anyone or play with anything. You may have to make sure that other children or adults in the home do not speak to the child, even if your child in time-out is disruptive. If the child gets up, escort him/her back to the chair and say, “Stay on the chair until I tell you that your time-out is over.” This may not be easy! When you first use time-out, a child may get up several times. You should re-start the time each time your child gets up. If you remain consistent and return your child to the time-out spot each time he gets up, it will get easier over time. If necessary, stand next to the time-out spot to ensure that your child is sitting. At all times, do not talk to your child or give him any attention other than the command to stay on the chair. Even though it seems strange, try to act like a robot – limit eye contact, don’t react to anything, and deliver any necessary commands in a neutral voice.
Step 4: End time-out. Time-out should end after your child has successfully stayed in the chair for the allotted time (about 1 minute per year of age) and he has been quiet for 5 seconds. This quiet time is necessary so that your child doesn’t mistakenly think that yelling or bargaining has led to time-out ending.
Once your child has been seated in the chair for the necessary amount of time and remained quiet for at least 5 seconds, allow him to leave time-out. He is then expected to demonstrate the correct behavior:
- If your child broke a family rule, remind him of the appropriate behavior, “You are sitting quietly in the chair and you can get off now. Remember our rule, no hitting your brother.”
- If the child received time-out for not following a direction, say, “You are sitting quietly in the chair. Are you ready to come back and [state the original direction they did not follow]?” The child is then expected to comply with the original direction. If they comply, respond with a neutral, “All right,” rather than your usual praise. If the child does not comply with your original direction, they should return to time-out.
Step 5: Lots of praise for the next success! Carefully observe your child and enthusiastically praise his next positive behavior, even if it is very minor. Shortly after time-out, it can be helpful to give your child a simple command that you are confident he can follow, and then praise that specific behavior, “Thank you for giving your toy to your brother when I asked, I like it when you follow my directions!” After time-out, if a child does not follow another direction after a warning, or breaks a family rule, you should repeat the time-out process (even if it happens soon after the first time-out).
Two important things to remember about time-out are:
- When time-out is over, consider it to be a “blank slate” and don’t lecture, scold, or show leftover anger toward your child. Let your child return to his desired activity and look for opportunities to praise any positive behavior.
- Consistency is essential and your child may have to experience time-out several times to realize that you will stick with it. It may also take you a few repetitions to feel comfortable with the process – that is normal!
If you’re like me, it can help to see the strategy before trying it. Below are two great videos; the first shows the five steps in action and the second is a video of obstacles encountered by one mother.
And, here is another helpful link to a few common challenges and answers from experts.