Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Time-Outs for Toddlers

The trickiest part of childhood discipline is trying to strike the perfect balance between teaching a child his limits, and maintaining his positive self-concept. It's what every parent and child care provider strives for. The message we want to give to the child is: The behaviour is not okay, but you are. Time-outs, while not appropriate for all misbehaviour, work well in many situations.

What is a time-out? Simply put, it is the removal of the child from social interaction (caregivers and peers) and intellectual stimulation (like toys or books). It is meant to be a time for reflection, which can only occur once the child is removed from the situation.

There is much consensus on the general framework for time-outs, yet very differing opinions on the details. Here are my general recommendations for, and opinions on, time-outs for toddlers. These opinions have obviously been shaped by my experience with the children in my care. Thus, they may not be the best approach to use with every child. Also, although there are many, the focus of this post is not on preventative measures to undesirable behaviour (through teaching communication skills, for example), or ongoing aspects of group and individual behaviour management (such as helping to build the cohesiveness of the group). Yet, these practices should be integral to child care. (I will save that for another post!)

Duration and Location of Time-outs Vary Depending on Age:
  • Time outs can be used for children as young as 18 months. Between roughly 18-24 months, it is enough to partially separate the child from the group or situation (e.g. by using a barrier), yet allow the child to see the caregiver, peers and area she has been removed from. Most children at this age will desperately want to return, and so 30 seconds is more than sufficient to get the message across.
  • At about 24 months of age, the child may need more discreet separation. This will vary depending on the circumstance. In my situation, the other children in the daycare were all close in age. Some of them would jump up on the "barrier" (i.e. couch) and interact with the 'offender', rendering the time-out ineffective, and possibly even rewarding. Alternatively, the child (being more confident and independent at this age) would wander down the hall, looking for toys to play with that were located in the closet. Again, having free range of other toys seemed more like a reward. (Still, as will be discussed shortly, this may be the only alternative in some cases. And, in my opinion, it doesn't make the time out completely ineffective.) So, what works best in my daycare, (for children roughly between 2-3 years old)  is to place the child in a playpen in the room immediately beside the play area, with the door closed. This is one of the debated issues regarding time-outs. Some feel that the child should not be completely separated, and that they may be frightened. If you are concerned about this, make sure there is enough daylight in the room (or that the light is turned on), and that the child has his or her favourite blanket or stuffed animal. A time out should NOT be a frightening experience for a child. Go with your gut. If you think the child is frightened, a different type of separation, or a different disciplinary technique would be a better option. By the same token, it is not abnormal for a child to be placed in a time-out, kicking and screaming. Anger and frustration are normal responses to being placed in time-outs.
  • One of the children in my care, simply climbed out of the playpen during a couple of his time-outs. At this point I changed the venue to Noah's room for him. It was no wonder he kept saying he did not want to come out of time-out during my 2-minute check-ins. He had those toys all to himself! I had to throw up my hands. I figured he was at least getting some time to himself, away from the group. 
  • Around 24-months of age, a 2 minute time-out period becomes more appropriate. (It is generally agreed that the duration of a time-out should be 1 minute per year of age.) Don't trust your own judgment of time. Check a digital clock immediately after you put the child into time out, and bring the child back after the set time. 

      Behaviours Appropriate for a Time-Out
      • For behaviours such as trying to grab a toy from another child, I often use 3 warnings followed by a time-out. This gives them a chance to change their own behaviour, and provides them with an opportunity to learn to control their actions rather than having them controlled. I might say "No grabbing - that's one". (I generally use the "1-2-3-Magic" approach, developed by Thomas W. Phelan (, as mentioned in the Discipline Policy page of this website). If I reach 3, I say "That's 3 - time-out - no grabbing". I would also use this warning method for other behaviours such as touching the T.V., pestering another child, throwing toys, and breaking other rules that the child is familiar with at the daycare. 
      • More profound behaviours such as hitting, biting or pushing should receive an immediate time-out. Make sure you still state the behaviour that was unacceptable (i.e. "No hitting - time-out"). 
      • Time-outs, in my opinion, are not useful for most behaviours you may be trying to encourage (such as cleaning up, being friendly to peers, eating vegetables, etc.). Not only are they not useful, but it simply isn't fair to the child. It is too controlling. I limit time-outs to behaviours I want the child to stop

        Respond Immediately:

        • Whether you are using the warning approach first or not, you must respond as soon as you see the behaviour happen. If 5 seconds have passed since the the behaviour occurred, it is too late to give a warning or a time-out. This is because the child will not associate your response with his behaviour (even if you state the behaviour). Thus, the time-out is useless. Let it go, and try to respond right away the next time you see it. Sometimes, as often happens at the daycare, you simply can't respond in time (e.g. while changing another child's diaper). It is best not to start the warning system at a time like this either, since you may not be able to follow through.

          Keep It Simple and Consistent:
          • Again, let's use the sample behaviour of a child grabbing a toy from his peer. It is far more effective to say, "That's 3 - no grabbing - time out". It is less effective to say, "That's 3. I'm going to put you in time out. You can't take a toy from your friend. What if someone grabbed a toy away from you? You're going to time-out just for a few minutes so you can think about that." While a more elaborate discussion may be helpful in teaching a child about a particular issue, this is not the time. 
          • Also, make sure you are using the same phrase for the same behaviour; this means for all time-outs, for all children. Using the same example behaviour, don't say "No grabbing" at one time, "Don't take toys from your friend" at another time, and "You cannot rip a toy out of Bobby's hand" at yet another. (For a child under 3 years old, communication must be kept as clear as possible.)
          • Use a phrase that accurately and specifically describes the behaviour you do not want to see. For example, "Keep your hands to yourself" doesn't quite hit the nail on the head for this particular behaviour, and would be better to use as an alternative behaviour, when removing the child from time-out. (See below.) 
          • So...Choose your terminology. Make it simple. And keep it consistent.
          • Apart from keeping the terminology consistent, it is important to be consistent in the behaviours you do not allow. If you put the child in a time-out for pushing one day, don't turn a blind eye to it the next. (The exception is when you don't or can't respond to the behaviour within 5 seconds, as outlined above.) The child cannot learn what you are trying to teach him if you are disciplining him for it some days, and encouraging it (by ignoring it) the on others.

          Don't Become Too Emotional
          • While I do believe children should be able to see our emotions, reacting too strongly can actually reinforce the negative behaviour. This is because many children like the attention and reaction they can create by doing something, and even negative attention is still attention. So, while you shouldn't pretend you are happy about a behaviour you are clearly frustrated with, minimize your reaction and attention as much as possible. Avoiding eye contact while placing the child in time-out, and returning to the group to give them attention, is most effective. (You can communicate your emotions, in an appropriate way, when you communicate with the child at the end of time-out.)

          Removal from Time-Out should be a Positive Reconnection with both Caregiver and Group:
          • When you go to get the child out of the time-out location, be upbeat and positive. Tell her that time-out is over, and ask her if she is ready to come out. 
          • A child should be given the right to more solitude if she chooses. If she does not wish to come out, respect that choice. Tell her you'll be back in a minute, and restart the time-out, but remove her before the allotted time if she wishes to come out. 
          • When the child is ready, communicate with her before she returns to the group. Tell her the behaviour she should not do, and follow up with the counterpart behaviour she should do. This is important - to state an alternative behaviour at this point. Make sure your voice does not sound punitive or patronizing. She has served her time out. It's done. You just want to confirm the unwanted behaviour, and show her that you believe she is capable of displaying the more desirable behaviour. It may be brief. For instance, you might say, "Remember, no grabbing, okay?" Then follow up with "Keep your hands to yourself", or "Ask, 'Can I play with this?", or "Play with something else." You get the idea.
          • If the situation warrants a longer 'debriefing', this is also the time to communicate to the child in a positive way. I have used this time with Noah before, to not only to explain to him the behaviour I did not like, but also how it made me feel. Adults shouldn't be afraid to express their emotions to children, but we should be modelling positive ways to do it. It may sound something like, "I was very angry when you cried and kicked and screamed when we had to come inside. It wasn't safe. We can play outside for a little while, but when I say it's time to come inside, you need to listen to me and come in nicely."
          • Once you have reestablished a positive connection with the child, welcome him back to the group. Often, I'll do this by saying something to the group like, "Yey! Bobby is back!"
          • This is officially the end of the time-out.

          Things to Consider:

          • A child may request a time-out herself, for which she should be obliged. This may be due to curiosity if the child has not yet been placed in time-out, or it may be a way for the child to give herself some quiet time if she is overwhelmed, frustrated, or just plain tired.
          • Some advocates of time-out deny that it is punishment. Let's not kid ourselves. "Punishment is the authoritative imposition of something negative or unpleasant on a person or animal in response to behaviordeemed wrong by an individual or group."  ( The child who is placed in time-out usually does not want to be there. He wants to be playing freely. This would deem the situation 'unpleasant'. I think we are just squeamish with the word "punishment", since it brings up such negative connotations. 
          • As stated above, time-out is not an answer to curing all unwanted behaviour. It certainly will not turn a child into a responsible, caring adult. It is simply one tool for child discipline that is considered by many to be fair and effective. When time-outs are given with the child's best interest in mind, they can help the child learn how to act in socially appropriate ways and how to express their emotions in acceptable ways, while maintaining a positive view of themselves.
          • One child at the daycare used to run up to his peers and push them down. It wasn't due to aggression. It was more of a natural curiosity of cause and effect. Time-outs did not seem to lessen this behaviour (at least not fast enough), although this could have been due to a language barrier. It was far more effective to teach him a different way to interact with his friends in the first place. That meant trying to pinpoint the moment when he was going to push another child, and intervening by showing him another behaviour (i.e. putting his hand up for a high five). He also learned to say "gentle" and touch them gently on the arm, instead. Still, it took quite some time for the behaviour to be eliminated, and I felt that time-outs were the only option when the behaviour did occur. The bottom line is: sometimes there is no answer to helping a child stop a negative behaviour. We can only try our best, using a gentle approach.
          • Positive reinforcement (rewarding good behaviour) is far more effective in creating good behaviour than time-outs are. This means it is absolutely crucial to praise the child when he is behaving appropriately. For example, if I have just given a child a time-out for "grabbing", I need to catch that child when he is covetously eyeing his friend's toy, and congratulate him for not grabbing (even if he was planning to do so). I can then say something like, "Do you want a turn with that? It will be your turn after Bobby's. Two more minutes with that toy, Bobby. Then it will be Michael's turn." 
          • Praising good behaviour, in general, is paramount to helping a child feel good about himself. Watch out though. It is human nature to notice the behaviours you don't like over the ones you do. Make a point to notice the good, and to share this with the child.

          Why I like Time-Outs:
          • I believe they are fair. They keep the child's self-esteem intact, while helping them learn desirable and undesirable behaviours.
          • They can be very effective.
          • Even when they don't work to stop an unwanted behaviour (or haven't worked yet), at least you can feel that you are trying something. (And that the something is not going to - or is highly unlikely - to cause psychological harm.)
          • It gives the caregiver a chance to reflect too, if needed.
          • Because time-outs are so short (in my daycare they currently run only 2 minutes), they are relatively easy on the child, the caregiver and the group. 
          • As a caregiver, if you feel that you have made a mistake in giving the child a time-out, guilt is minimal. By its very nature, a time-out is not extreme. And it is short.
          I am always interested in hearing the opinions and advice of others with interest or experience in the same area. Please feel welcome to comment or discuss.

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