Saturday, May 30, 2009


For someone who has been teaching parenting all year, I have been fairly poor at passing along tips. All apologies! Now that my internship is ending, I suddenly feel in a frenzy to write down all of the skills I learned so that I have them immortalized and available for future reference. Although each kiddo is different and I can't promise that this will work with all children, the following time-out system has undergone intense academic research and its efficacy is statistically significant (for those of you who care about things like that)!

This entry is going to be a play-by-play of a somewhat condensed version of the time-out sequence I teach to parents in the Durham community. It is important to note that prior to teaching parents how to execute a successful time-out sequence, I spend weeks and weeks teaching them how to play with their children, in order for them to create a super positive relationship that will be the foundation for successful discipline.

TIME-OUT! ...and how to do it.

First of all, it's important to note that according to Parent Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT), which is where this system came from, all good time-outs begin with a solid command and end with specific praise.

A solid command means that you take out the "can you" or "will you please" and simply state what you need your kiddo to do, for example, "Joe, please put your cars in the bin". A good command provides no options (which are introduced when you say "can you..."), and it should be direct and polite. I also encourage parents to state the command in a very neutral tone, because we want kids to know that they are expected to follow through immediately even when they are not yelled at. At school and other settings, children will not be yelled at (hopefully), so socializing them to success in society means that kiddos need to know how to respond to commands - even when they are delivered calmly.

Let's use the example, "Megan, please turn off the T.V.". The time-out sequence I teach looks like the following:

The parent gives a direct command: "Megan, please turn off the T.V."

If she complies? "Thank you for listening! I love it when you follow directions!" (Specific praise). And back to whatever else was going on. Sequence over.
Non-compliance? Start counting to five: "One, two, three, four, five".

Compliance before you finish counting? "Thank you for listening! I love it when you follow directions!" Sequence over.
Still no compliance when you finish counting: Give a time-out warning: "Megan, you have two choices (hold up two fingers for visual learners). You can either turn off the T.V., or you need to go to time-out".
Start counting to five one more time: "One, two, three, four, five".

Compliance before you reach five: "Thank you for listening! I love it when you follow directions!" Sequence over.
Still no compliance after you reach five: "Megan, you have chosen not to listen. You need to go to time-out". Take arm gently (or pick up if child is small and kicking and screaming), and put in a time-out chair. Say, "Megan, you need to stay here until I tell you it's time to come out". Walk away and calmly do something else, keeping an eye on the child to make sure that he or she stays in the chair. Breath deeply if you feel yourself getting upset. Ignore attempts from your kids to negotiate or argue the time-out, and make sure that your child stays in the time-out chair. There is no faster way to lose your power than to let your child be in charge of when he or she gets off the chair.

After THREE minutes of ignoring your child in time-out (younger children may need to start with a shorter time and work towards three minutes, which is called "shaping" behavior), wait until there is a quiet pause if the child is fussing, go back to the chair and ask, "Megan, are you ready to turn off the T.V.?".

If the answer is "no", respond, "Then you need to stay in time-out until I tell you it's time to come out". Walk away and ignore for another three minutes. Then loop back to previous question...
If the answer is "yes", or if the child gets up and makes her way back to the T.V. with the intention of following through with the command, wait until she turns off the T.V. and then give her a specific praise, "Thank you Megan for doing what I asked. Now we can read a book together". Sequence over.

WHEW! That was a lot. In summary, the sequence is:
  1. Give a direct and polite command.
  2. Count to five, "one, two, three, four, five".
  3. Time-out warning: "You have two choices, you can either *original command* or you need to go to time-out.
  4. Count to five again, "one, two, three, four, five".
  5. "You have chosen not to listen. You need to go to time-out". Take child to the chair and say, "You need to stay here until I tell you it's time to come out".
  6. Walk away, and actively ignore child for three minutes. Return to child and ask, "Are you ready to *do original command*?". If yes, follow the child's compliance with a specific praise; if no, leave child for another three minutes and loop back to the beginning of this step.
Whenever your child chooses to follow directions at ANY point in this sequence, give an enthusiastic labeled praise and end the sequence. The fewer the lectures during the sequence, the more potent it will be. Although I have given some fairly detailed instructions on how to implement a time-out sequence in your home, frankly, kiddos learn pretty quickly and after a few times of sitting in the time-out chair, simply giving the direct command and then starting to count out loud to five will be enough to get things moving.

And that is the simplified version of the time-out sequence I teach to parents. Just to revisit and recap, key aspects of successful time-outs include the following:
  • Make sure that your command (what you tell your child to do) is developmentally appropriate. Time-out is for disobedience, not for misunderstanding, so if your child does not understand what you are asking her to do, she should not be punished for it. This sequence works best when kiddos are fairly verbal - maybe 2.5 or 3 years old, until about 8 or so.
  • Time-out is beautiful because it is a firm way to be the boss without yelling or hitting. Time-out is based on the principle that the very worst punishment for kids is pure boredom (which... in 99.9% of cases is pretty accurate).
  • Because boredom is the key to time-out, the time-out chair should not be close to anything that your child can touch or play with while they are sitting out their three minutes. If time-out is fun, it loses its power.
  • Most kiddos do best with an explanation of why they are being asked to do something. If you decide to give a reason, give it before the command (for example, "Megan, it's time for dinner. Please turn off the T.V."). If you give a solid command, and then humor your child's digression into negotiations and explanations, you lose the original purpose of your command. If you need to give an explanation, do it right before the command, or after time-out is complete. Once the clear and direct command is given, the best way to assure compliance is to follow through and calmly and actively ignore crying, whining, or protests.
  • After I explain the time-out sequence to parents, I always tell their kiddos what the new system will be, and I have kiddos practice going to the time-out chair "quick as a rabbit, and quiet as a mouse" when they are NOT in trouble, just to practice. Then, when they are given a direct command in context and mom or dad gives them the time-out warning ("you have two choices; you can either _____ or you need to go to time-out"), they know what will be coming up next. Under the circumstances, kiddos are not always in the state of mind to go to time-out quick as a rabbit and quiet as a mouse, but the power of preparation and teaching can't be underestimated!
  • Last but not least, the positive opposite of time-out is to identify and quickly give labeled yet simple praises for good behavior that occurs sporadically throughout the day. One of the best ways to channel kiddo energy in good directions is to help them make the magical connection of "good behavior=positive attention" and "bad behavior=no positive attention". Although time-out is a great way of pulling away attention for bad behavior, linking good behavior with positive reinforcement will pay off big time in the long run.
Whew! You've made it to the end. If you have any questions, make a note in the comment box, and I can follow up with things I might have missed. It seems complicated, but if you are interested in trying it out, let me know and I can coach you through the rough spots!


Kristi said...

That sounds inspired. Byron and I will read over this together when he gets home from the Stake Dance tonight and we'll put it into action tomorrow. Thanks for sharing!

Damaris @Kitchen Corners said...

I'm totally going to try this with Enzo.

Right now when he does something naughty we sit him in time out at the stairs but it's for a short period of time, basically until he stops crying. One thing I HAVE to do is when he comes out not bring up his bad behavior. I do this all the time because I'm still upset. So I say "You had a time out because you didn't do____. You need to listen to me" He's usually not listening at this point.

Sometimes when I'm REALLY mad I give him a time out in his room with the door shut. Probably also not a good idea but I just need to distance myself from his screaming before I get even more upset.

I'm going to try this with Enzo and see how it works.

Me said...

what happens when the kid won't stay in time out? i don't have kids, but i've seen it happen quite a few times, so just wondering.

Mariko said...

Yeah-- Time out is good in theory, and I use it all the time, but there are several problems in reality. And these are not uncommon situations.
1) a kicking and screaming child will hurt themselves in time out (happens all the time with me), even if she goes into a soft place

2) if they get out of time out they go back to time out, and the punishment has changed-- they don't remember why they were there in the first place, even if you explain it to them

3) if your daughter repeatedly says she is ready to come out and do the task, and then has another tantrum when she comes out, she goes back to time out, and then we have 7-10 time outs back to back, and you forsee that the next 2 hours are probably going to be bad ones.

4) when you ask her to do something she just runs away and she doesn't even hear you counting, so she is already screaming and not listening by the time you bring her back and try to start the sequence over.


Lauren said...

Wow thank you. You should be the next super nanny. I'm glad I don't have to do timeouts yet.

Unknown said...

Hey Metta!

Guess what...

Well I don't think you know this, but I check your blog just about every day to see if you updated it, and read every single post you write.

anywho, the other day I told Má about your Time Out post and we talked about it. I explained to her step by step.
Then just yesterday Má came to me and said that she aplied it. (Má is substituing a teacher of a special class of students from around 4-6 for the next couple of weeks) and she said it works!

It was awesome I thought I just let you know how that information traveled all the way to Brazil.

Thanks for sharing!


Metta said...

Ju! Nao acredito! That is so great that you are reading my blog, and I am happy that it worked for Ma at her school. I didn't write every single detail of the sequence, but I wrote enough to share the basics. If you have any more specific questions, or if she is running into a problem, let me know and I can help her brainstorm! I love it! I love you!

Heather said...

Finally now reading this, Metta!

What do you do if your child is so NOT a verbal learner that we have to repeat commands three and four times, and by then we're so impatient that we're not using a "neutral tone" anymore. I'm sure that if I could just touch his arm as I speak commands that would help, but generally I'm on the other side of the room or have a baby in my arms. You may be thinking that he's simply learned not to listen until we raise our voices, which may partly be true, but much of the time I can tell he didn't hear me (and the doctor says his ears are fine). Oy. Maybe I'm just not patient enough.