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A time-out is an educational (mainly parenting) technique recommended by many pediatrists and developmental psychologists as an alternative to spanking and other traditional forms of discipline. The concept was conceived by Montrose Wolf, PhD.[1] However, other sources attribute the idea to Wolf's co-author, child psychologist Arthur Statts of the University of Arizona. Both collaborated on a 1961 study (Staats A.W, Staats C.K, Schultz R.E, Wolf M.M. The conditioning of textual responses using “extrinsic” reinforcers. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 1961;5:33–40.). Staats used the the term in his 1968 book, Learning, Language and Cognition[2] Staats described the discipline of his 2-year old daughter in 1962: "I would put her in her crib and indicate that she had to stay there until she stopped crying. If we were in a public place, I would pick her up and go outside." In brief, the idea is to keep the child isolated for a limited period of time, intended to allow the child to calm down, learn coping skills and discourage inappropriate behavior. It is also a time for parents to separate feelings of anger toward the child for their behavior and develop a plan for discipline.

Applying the technique

The technique is recommended mostly for toddlers and upwards. For an older child, the parent is advised to explain what kind of misbehavior will result in a time-out and also write down those rules. When implementing the time-out, it is suggested that no arguing should be allowed as this is contrary to the goal of allowing the child to calm down. Time-outs are not recommended for frequent use (if it works, improved behavior should make it less necessary), but since they are considered a mild form of discipline they are not always used as a last resort.

The following is a set of guidelines often given for time-outs:

  1. Decide what type of behavior warrants a time-out (such as fighting, arguing or throwing tantrums), and try to enforce this fairly and consistently. All adults involved with the child should follow similar guidelines when using a time-out.
  2. Designate a corner (hence the common term corner time) or similar space where the child is to stand during time-outs. Never use their bed.
  3. Use an age appropriate time length for the time-out. For a short time-out, approximately one minute per year of age is reasonable; that time may be doubled if necessary if the child pushes their limits during the time-out.
  4. Have an incentive for completing the time-out without arguing. This may for instance be a loss of a privilege until the time-out has been completed.
  5. The time-out should always have verbal warnings before the discipline to allow the child to make appropriate choices. If their bad behavior continues, they should have an explanation for the time-out as they are being escorted to that area. Even one-year olds understand when they have reached their parental limit, but the explanations should be age appropriate.
  6. Afterwards both the parent and the child should try to leave the incident behind.

Here is an alternate set of guidelines which are said to be more suitable to the classroom:

  1. Announce the guidelines to the children periodically. Explain what a timeout is, and demonstrate how it begins and ends.
  2. When a child misbehaves, approach it saying, "Time out for X" (where X is the forbidden act, e.g., teasing).
  3. Send or bring the child to the time-out place. (Within earshot of the teacher is best.)
  4. When time's up, go over to the child and say, "Why did you have time-out?" The ideal answer is, "For X" (e.g., "Because I teased Sally.") If they don't seem to know why they got time out, remind them (briefly).
  5. After they are let out of the area, they are to apologize to the victim if there is one.

While some proponents of time-outs insist on silence and stillness from the child during the time-out, others insist that the time-out should allow the child to get anger and frustration out of their system.

Some of those in favor of spanking have argued that time-outs are ineffective. Others argue that it should be seen as a complement rather than as an alternative to spanking; a spanking may be preceded and/or followed by a time-out 'to think about what you did'; some individuals suggest using a time-out following spanking, exposing the reddened bare bottom afterwards, with the hope of making the punishment more humiliating.

In parent training

Time out is often taught as a disciplinary practice in behavioral parent training programs such as Parent-Child Interaction Therapy or Parent Management Training Programs. The programs usually take a social learning or applied behavior analysis focus. In general they teach the use of rewards alternative behavior prior to the use of punishment procedures and sometmes time out with older children is replaced with response cost[3][4][5][6]

Counting to Three

A technique referred to as prompting is counting to three as a way to get children to listen the first time. When a child is doing something wrong, one should say, "That's One", then wait five seconds. If the child is still behaving unacceptably, one should say, "That's Two", wait five more seconds and say "That's Three, Time Out", then proceed to put the child in time out.

Research does not support the use of prompting when using time out [7]

See also


  2. Robert Strauss, "Twenty People Who Changed Childhood", Child magazine, October 2006, pp107-110.
  3. Ware, Fortson & McNeil: (2003) Parent-Child Interaction Therapy: A Promising Intervention for Abusive Families. The Behavior Analyst Today, 3 (4), 375-382[1]
  4. Van Camp, Borrero & Vollmer: (2003) The Family Safety/Applied Behavior Analysis Initiative: An Introduction and Overview. The Behavior Analyst Today, 3 (4), 389-404 [2]
  5. Shaffer, A Kotchick, B. A. Dorsey, St & Forehand R. (2001) The Past Present. and Future of Behavioral Parent Training: Interventions for Child and Adolescent Problem Behavior. The Behavior Analyst Today, 2 (2), 91-105[3]
  6. McNeil, C. B., Filcheck, H. A., Greco, L. A., Ware, L. M. & Bernard, R. S. (2001) Parent-Child Interaction Therapy: Can a Manualized Treatment Be Functional? The Behavior Analyst Today, 2 (2), 106-114[4]
  7. Jones, R.N., Sloane, H.N. & Roberts, M.W. (1992). Limitations of the don't instructional command.Behavior Therapy, 23(1) 131-140

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