Why I Believe in Time Outs and How to Use Them

Updated on September 21, 2017
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Jamie is a former kindergarten/pre-k teacher and is currently a preschool teacher.

DIY Timeout Chair

One of my coworkers painted this stool to be my timeout chair and I absolutely loved it.
One of my coworkers painted this stool to be my timeout chair and I absolutely loved it.

Effective and Kind Discipline

Do you need a new discipline system—one that your children will listen to and that will work, but you don't want to be too harsh? Believe it or not, time outs work very well and will keep your child's dignity in tact. I'm going to tell you why it works and how to implement it. I was a kindergarten / pre-k teacher. Now, I am a daycare teacher and a mom, so I have experience and expertise to back up what I'm about to claim. I have also done a good amount of research on the subject and highly recommend the book 1-2-3 Magic by Dr. Thomas W. Phelan.

The Case for Time Outs

Kids need consequences for bad behavior and they need boundaries. At the same time, you should not (in my opinion) strip a child of his or her dignity, or use humiliation as a punishment. Also, no one should ever use violence toward a child. There is absolutely no excuse for that.

As parents, one of our jobs is to form our children into responsible and kind adult citizens. We can do this in a kind and loving way. Some people think time outs are too harsh, but why? It's just three minutes. I think screaming at your kid and expecting them to explain back to you what they did wrong or humiliating them in front of the class is harsh. We can avoid all that. Plus, once the children get the hang of time outs (and see that you're serious and consistent about the procedure, they will ideally stop doing what gets them in trouble).

The daycare I work at now allows time outs (thank God!), but the daycare I used to work at didn't. My former boss doesn't think kids understand time outs. I'm here to tell you they really really do. Kids (especially young kids) understand quick consequences to bad behavior. This will get them to alter their actions. What they don't understand is long, drawn out lectures on what they did wrong. Something unpleasant (time out, being away from their toys / friends / siblings) needs to happen to make them want to stop. If the child is able to go back to playing right away, what stops them from doing the behavior again? I can tell you after being in that kind of environment for about a year: Nothing. Nothing stops them. I had no authority in that classroom. I wouldn't even want my kid going to a daycare center that didn't allow time outs because I want her teacher to have authority and I want kids with bad behaviors to have consequences.

One of my favorite things about this time out system is the opportunity for forgiveness. Once the three minutes are over, the child gets out of time out and gets a fresh start, a clean slate. You don't have to be angry any more and neither does he or she. The child has served the time (so to speak) and now gets to go back to playing. In other discipline systems, like putting a kids name on the board or moving them to "red", there is little or no room for redemption and that is a consequence the child has to live with for the rest of the day.

This system works and it doesn't create hostility between parent and child or teacher and student.

Before Giving Any Timeouts . . .

Is There Something Else that Fits Better?

In many cases, giving a time out doesn't make sense with the situation. For example, if two of your kids keep getting into little arguments or battles over toys, you might try separating them for a little bit instead of giving time outs. Or you could take away the toy that is causing the problem. In this case and similar ones, you should use what's referred to as natural consequences. Just do what seems natural to mediate.

You could also use redirection. Have the child(ren) simply go play somewhere else. I use time outs for more serious matters or in situations that don't have an easy natural consequence / redirecting won't help.

You Must Teach the Procedure!

As Harry Wong emphasizes in The First Days of School, teaching the procedure is key. "Procedure. Procedure. Procedure." (Wong.)

Have a family meeting (or if in a classroom environment, use circle time or a similar event) and explain time outs. Tell your children what time outs are: the child will sit in a designated spot / chair for 3 minutes without talking or playing. I do 3 minutes, some other people correspond the amount of minutes to the amount of years old (a five year old would sit for 5 minutes, for example). Have a discussion about what actions would lead to a time out. Ask the kids what behaviors would lead to a time out. They might surprise you, knowing exactly what lands them in trouble! Some examples I use in my classroom include: saying something inappropriate or mean, not following directions, running in the room. Displaying these rules is a great idea so the children can have a reminder if needed.

BUT before they end up in time out, they have an opportunity to right their ways and get out of it. Teach the kids that they will get 2 warnings to STOP what they are doing wrong. I tell my students, "If I say 'That's 1', you need to stop what you're doing wrong. If I say 'That's 2', you really need to stop because if I get to 'That's 3', you have to sit in time out." I then have the children repeat the procedure back to me and I go over it every day for a couple of weeks to make sure they understand. We even do some role-playing. Kids love volunteering to role-play! We practice the procedure to really drive it home.

There are some actions that land a child straight in time out and you need to go over these so the kids know there will be no warnings. Hitting, pushing or throwing toys are straight-to-time out offenses. (And more serious bouts of violence may require more serious consequences like a call home or visit to the principal's office at school, or a much longer time out at home.)

How to Implement Time Outs

Count the child 1, 2, 3. If he or she stops doing the action before you get to 3, great! If not, tell them in a concise phrase why they're going to time out and send them to the designated spot. If you want, set an egg timer to three minutes, otherwise, keep an eye on the clock. Be stern, but don't yell. You don't have to get all angry and emotional. In fact, reacting that way could unravel the whole system.

When the time is up, tell the child to go back and play, and don't sound or act angry. Remember, the child is now forgiven. Also, don't lecture the student on what he or she did wrong; just let the kid go.

Also, and I can't stress this enough, BE CONSISTENT! I know I said teaching the procedure is key, but so is consistency. If you hesitate, if you don't follow through, the system can crumble. I see a lot of teachers say "That's 1, That's 2. You better stop or you're going to get a time out! Come here! Stop that!..." etc etc. DO NOT DO THAT! Count to 3 and put them in time out. Be consistent. It won't work if you aren't.

Good luck!

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