Positive Guidance Tools of the Trade: Alternatives to the Traditional Time-Out

When the practice of time-out first made its appearance on the child guidance stage, it was introduced as an alternative to corporeal punishment, the preferred method of the day for helping children see the error of their ways.  In this context, the nuance was a huge step forward.  Unfortunately, many, parents and teachers alike, have fixated on time-out and the result is a method run amok.

The first problem with time-out is that it has become overused.  Too many parents and teachers turn to time out for each and every behavior misstep.  As I have mentioned before, this is like using one hammer to fix every household problem.  It’s certainly consistent, but not always effective.  Just as repairs require a full toolbox, responding to a child’s behavior requires careful selection from a variety of tools for guiding behavior.  Perhaps the child simply needs to be redirected.  In another situation, coaching her through problem-solving methods might be most appropriate.  Each behavior and each child is unique and needs to be dealt with in a responsive way, not just with the knee-jerk reflex that time-out has become.

The second problem with the way time-out has been implemented is that it is often not appropriate to the child’s age.  Too often, the behavior occurs and the adult responds with “Go to time out!”  The child goes (or is escorted) to time out and then sits until freed.  For a very young child, the mental process that is required to link the behavior to the consequence is too advanced.  The child doesn’t necessarily learn a better way to behave, but she does get the message, “This is where the bad kids sit” or “My parent/teacher is angry“.   A teachable moment is lost when an adult simply sends a child to time-out to sit alone and try to figure it out in the context of a two or three year old brain. 

The last problem with time-out is that it is often used punitively.  We as adults are angry and with that angry voice sternly say, “GO TO TIME-OUT!”  When we punish out of anger a learning moment is lost.  While we think that the unpleasant punishment will reduce the reoccurrence of the behavior, the child ends up leaving the time-out with the same skills and strategies she came with.  By merely going to time-out, she doesn’t know any better how to appropriately ask for a toy without hitting, or express frustration without a tantrum.  She only knows that she doesn’t like getting caught. 

A punishment approach can also affect a child’s self-esteem.  Past research has shown that children who are frequently punished begin to think of themselves as bad kids, and may actually seek negative attention.  Now I don’t mean to imply that we should never correct children for the sake of their egos, but it should be done from an attitude of guidance, not punishment.

We must remember that young children are learning how to behave appropriately, and as with learning any skill, they will make mistakes.  When they make mistakes, we must do our best to teach, not just reprimand.  Think of it in this analogy.  A child is gleefully singing the ABCs when he sings the famous letter, “Ellemenopee!”  You drop what you’re doing, and immediately shout, “That is not appropriate alphabet singing!  Go to time-out!”  He sulks on over to the designated spot  and sits for the alloted time,  all the while wondering exactly what was wrong with ellemenopee.  He may even make the vast mental leap between the specific behavior and the generic punishment, and decide never to sing that song again, but he still doesn’t know how he could sing it correctly.  Similarly, when we simply send a child to time-out for behavior they have not yet learned to master, we often leave them feeling punished, but not understanding what they did wrong, or more importantly, what to do right.

Now a caution here.  Some parents and teachers have grasped on to these problems with time-out and the relevant concerns for self-esteem and adopt a do-nothing approach instead.  This is just as harmful.  In either scenario appropriate behavior is not taught, nor is it learned.  Similarly, recognizing that behavior is within a normal developmental range or part of a phase, is not reason to ignore behavior.  We have additional patience when we realize that a behavior is normal, and that appropriate behavior is still being learned, but we still need to do the teaching.  Understanding, for example, that biting is normal for a teething youngster may make us worry less about our child’s future social deviance, but we still teach that biting people is wrong and redirect the behavior to an appropriate outlet (teething toy, crunchy food, etc.).

So what to do?  Well, first of all, some people do actually use time-out in an appropriate way.  It is not used to punish every behavioral mistake.  It is used when a child has lost control and needs to move to another area to regain control.  In these instances an adult may go with the child to a quiet area to scaffold the cooling off process.  Perhaps the child needs to be coached through deep breaths or responds calmly to being held.  In some cases the adult simply sits nearby as a steadying influence.  When the child regains calm, the adult talks briefly and directly about the behavior, what was unacceptable, and helps the child talk through what would be more appropriate in the future.  When the child is ready, she returns to where she was.  Some practitioners call this “Time-In” signifying that sometimes time in a closer proximity to a caring adult is more effective than time away when a child is trying to gain self-control.

Another variation of time-out is giving an area, by whatever name, where a child can choose to go to regain control.  One group of teachers created such a spot, coordinating with the book, Sometimes I’m Bombaloo.  They call it their Bombaloo room.  Another teacher called such a place the Power Chair.  Others have a Thinking Spot.  Whenever a child needs some time to cool down, he can choose to go to this safe place and have some calm and space.  This teaches a skill for future behavior, disengaging and regaining control, rather than penalizing for unlearned behavior.  We all need to learn to keep or regain our cool, and we shouldn’t teach children that it is a punishment to find the space to do that.

Offering a choice and holding children to reasonable consequences may also be better alternatives to time-out.  If a child is not behaving appropriately in one situation you may give her a choice of other activities.  For example, “Sarah, throwing sand can get it in people’s eyes and that hurts.  The sand needs to stay by your feet.”  (Sarah throws sand again.)  “Sarah, throwing sand can hurt people.  I can’t let you play here when you’re doing something that can hurt people.  Would you like to do an art project inside or ride trikes?  When you are ready to keep the sand by your feet you are welcome to play here.” 

Sarah may leave to play elsewhere and later return to play appropriately.  She has learned what the limits are in the sandbox and has gained a working understanding of what it will take to play there.  Rather than getting the generic, “I’m bad” or “I’m in trouble” message of time-out, she gained specific information that will help her in the future (“I can only play here when I keep the sand by my feet,”).  Some view this as a “Time Away” approach, giving children time away from a specific activity or person and explaining what behavior is required to return. 

So if you currently use time-out, take a look at how you implement it.  Are you using it when another tool might be more effective?  Are you simply sending children away to get them “out of your hair” and avoiding the teachable moment?  Are you viewing it as an unpleasant punishment that will lead to deterring future behaviors, expecting children to fill in the gaps for appropriate behavior themselves, or do you actively teach and guide them through their behavioral mishaps?

Just a few things to think about!  Maybe you should find a good “Thinking Spot” of your own and mull them over!

Positive guidance posts start here!

Positive Guidance Toolbox can be found here!

You may also be interested in Tools for Tantrums or Verbalizing Emotions.



Filed under Article, social skills

11 responses to “Positive Guidance Tools of the Trade: Alternatives to the Traditional Time-Out

  1. T.D.

    Thank you for this post. I have been struggling with how to explain my position on time out to others. Maybe I’ll just have them read this! Friends of mine discipline their child, for all things, using time out – one consequence to fit all situations. They have even suggested this method (the best method in their opinion) to me. My husband will let me decide on consequences for behaviour but has once raised the question if we should do time outs. I was not raised with time outs. My family believed in redirection and talking through a problem. With the onset of “The Nanny” and other like television shows, it seems everyone believes time out to be the cure to all types of unwanted behaviour. Thanks for explaining the alternatives in a clear and concise manner.

  2. I agree totally with your post. Guiding behavior is so much more than just sending kids to time out. In fact, I rarely use time out and I do not have a designated time-out spot. The goal should be self-control and self-monitoring – and kids need more from teachers to learn that. Thanks for a great post.

    • notjustcute

      Thanks, Scott! You nailed it! The goal of Positive Guidance is to build the child’s self-control, as opposed to relying on adult control of the child, which is too often used. Just like most everything else in preschool, we have to be focused more on the process (of developing and owning good behavior) than the product (well-behaved children).

  3. I am so on the same page with you. I have seen time out be used and abused time and time again! This is a wonderful article. I would love to share your article with my readers on teach preschool. Let me know if you are interested!

  4. David Allen

    Giving good parenting advice is challenging. Simple advice is easy to apply but can be misused. Detailed advice might be technically correct, but is often hard to implement in practice.

    Instead of following specific parenting rules, I’ve attempted to develop a natural and intuitive response to my children’s behavior. Over time I try different responses to my children based on the situation. Then I observe their response and also my response, and then I adjust my behavior. This process is shaped by my goals for the household, for myself and for the child, but it is very flexible and gives me room to deal with the reality of the current situation.

    I don’t require perfect parenting from myself, but at each opportunity I look for less-wrong parenting.

    For example if I become angry or frustrated with my children, if I raise my voice, or if I am reduced to physical coercion (out of anger or not), then I am probably doing something wrong. Sometimes I might respond to this by sitting and talking with or playing with my child, calming us both down. But sometimes, I might just need to get myself lunch, hunger can make me grouch.

    • notjustcute

      Good points! I do get nervous about giving parenting advice! I am certainly not a perfect parent! Nor am I a perfect teacher! I simply try to show some new tools to choose from, and hope that people can use them where they fit and feel right in their own situations, in a responsive way, much as you have mentioned. Sometimes when things aren’t working right, we just need a new script to work from!

  5. Thanks for this post. My daughter is almost a year old, so we’re not quite yet needing this level of discipline for her behavior, but I’ve known for a while that I don’t want to over-use time-out. My siblings use it for everything with their children (and each others’), and it doesn’t work. I’ve started practicing positive techniques similar to the above with my nieces and nephews, so hopefully they’ll be second-nature to me when I need it at home.

  6. Pingback: Time-Outs are for Coaching | Not Just Cute

  7. Pingback: Time-Out! Coaching Preschoolers to Social Success | Not Just Cute

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