Time-out, also called social exclu­sion, is a dis­ci­pline strat­e­gy that involves iso­lat­ing chil­dren as pun­ish­ment for inap­pro­pri­ate behavior.

In a time-out, a child is left alone to “think about what they did.” No one gives the child atten­tion. Although this strat­e­gy may sound effec­tive because it removes a child from a dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion, it does noth­ing to pre­pare the child for nav­i­gat­ing dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions in the future.

The trouble with time-out

In a brain scan, the pain caused by iso­la­tion dur­ing pun­ish­ment (called rela­tion­al pain) can look the same as phys­i­cal abuse. Stud­ies focus­ing on the brain’s adapt­abil­i­ty show that repeat expe­ri­ences of iso­la­tion can change the phys­i­cal struc­ture of the brain. Accord­ing­ly, strate­gies such as time-out can have a sig­nif­i­cant neg­a­tive impact on children’s rapid­ly devel­op­ing brains.

Time-out does not acknowl­edge a child’s needs or per­spec­tives. When a child acts out, the child is not try­ing to ruin your day. Often, chil­dren act in inap­pro­pri­ate ways in attempts to meet entire­ly appro­pri­ate needs. A child’s behav­ior may be a sign of emo­tion­al dis­tress. Iso­lat­ing a child who is expe­ri­enc­ing emo­tion­al dis­tress is the oppo­site of meet­ing the child’s needs.

When young chil­dren do not have the tools to com­mu­ni­cate their needs, they may resort to hit­ting, yelling, or over­pow­er­ing oth­er chil­dren. When chil­dren are sent to time-out for such actions, oth­er chil­dren may begin to view them as “bad.”

Am I bad?

A child who is repeat­ed­ly in time-out is also like­ly to view them­self this way. Being labeled “bad” low­ers a child’s self-esteem and will only per­pet­u­ate inap­pro­pri­ate behav­ior. Time-out fos­ters feel­ings of resent­ment, shame, and humiliation. 

If you have used time-out as a method of dis­ci­pline, con­sid­er how effec­tive this strat­e­gy has been. Are the same chil­dren often sent to time-out? Has time-out changed these children’s behav­ior? Has it made them more cooperative?

When a child is placed in time-out, it deprives the child of the oppor­tu­ni­ty to find effec­tive ways to meet their own needs. 

Look for the cause of a child’s behavior

Is the child over­stim­u­lat­ed? Did anoth­er child take their toy? Did the child miss their nap?

If you can iden­ti­fy a child’s needs, you can help the child learn appro­pri­ate meth­ods for meet­ing their needs themselves.

What is an effective alternative to time-out?

When a child acts out, con­sid­er inter­ven­ing with a time-in. Time-in is a pos­i­tive guid­ance tech­nique. Time-in means work­ing with a child indi­vid­u­al­ly to find a solu­tion to the prob­lem that spurred their inap­pro­pri­ate behavior. 

“I like the proac­tive nature of the “time-In” approach and love to see the crit­i­cal think­ing and lan­guage skills that are being devel­oped when teach­ers and chil­dren have those inten­tion­al conversations.”

- an ear­ly child­hood professional

Steps for a successful time-in

  • Guide the child who is strug­gling away from the prob­lem­at­ic situation.
  • Soothe the child.
  • Take time to sit and talk with the child.
    • Dis­cuss how the child is feeling.
    • Talk about what hap­pened to cause the inap­pro­pri­ate behavior.
    • Help the child brain­storm what they could do dif­fer­ent­ly next time.

“I like to focus on care­ful plan­ning to pre­vent unwant­ed behav­iors or inter­ac­tions. The class­room envi­ron­ment is some­thing that we as teach­ers can con­trol and it is a pow­er­ful tool for cre­at­ing a space where all stu­dents can succeed.”

- an ear­ly child­hood professional

Slow down and connect

Time-in pro­vides an oppor­tu­ni­ty for a child to slow down and con­nect with you. Time-in respects a child’s need to build their rela­tion­ship with you.

Young chil­dren often feel big, intense, even scary emo­tions that they can­not han­dle on their own. As a result, they need guid­ance to help them learn to man­age their big feel­ings. They need your help to pause and reflect on their behavior.

Trade time-out for time-in

Trad­ing time-out for time-in can help a child devel­op self-reg­u­la­tion. Self-reg­u­la­tion is the abil­i­ty to rec­og­nize emo­tions when some­thing is frus­trat­ing. Self-reg­u­la­tion is a per­son­’s abil­i­ty to calm them­self down. 

For a very young child who is not yet able to com­mu­ni­cate ver­bal­ly, sim­ply com­fort­ing and remov­ing the child from a dis­tress­ing sit­u­a­tion can help. This can help them learn to reg­u­late their emo­tions and seek help the next time they feel over­whelmed. On the oth­er hand, putting a child in time out does not help the child learn to reflect. Leav­ing a child alone with their big feel­ings does not help com­fort the child.

By brain­storm­ing solu­tions with a child you can pro­vide the child with the tools to solve issues on their own in the future. 

Although time-out may seem like a quick solu­tion, it will not pro­duce long-term pos­i­tive results.

Care Courses’ Challenging Behavior: Positive Guidance in Child Care Course

Giv­ing chil­dren the oppor­tu­ni­ty to express their point of view and explain how they feel can help them feel respect­ed. Learn more about respect­ful ways to han­dle children’s chal­leng­ing behav­iors by check­ing out our course, Chal­leng­ing Behav­ior: Pos­i­tive Guid­ance in Child Care.

Care Courses Support

Please con­tact us and let us know how we can be of addi­tion­al assis­tance! Call us: 1–800-685‑7610, Mon­day through Fri­day, 9–5 ET, or email us days, evenings and week­ends: info@CareCourses.com. We’re here to help!

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