Time-out, also called social exclusion, is a discipline strategy that involves isolating children as punishment for inappropriate behavior.
In time-out, a child is left alone to “think about what they did.” The child is not given any attention. Although this strategy may sound effective in that it removes a child from a challenging situation, it does nothing to prepare the child for navigating such 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. 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 doing so 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.”
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 children’s behavior or 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 children’s needs, you can help them 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 that consists of working with a child individually to find a solution to the problem that spurred their inappropriate behavior.
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.
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. They need guidance to help them learn to manage their big feelings. They need your help to pause and reflect on their behavior.
Trading time-out for time-in will help a child develop self-regulation. Self-regulation is the ability to recognize the emotions that they feel when something frustrates them and to calm themselves. 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 them learn to regulate their emotions and seek help the next time they feel overwhelmed. 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 children you can provide them with the tools to solve issues on their own in the future. Time-out may seem like a quick solution, but it does not produce long-term results.
Giving children the opportunity to express their point of view and explain how they feel makes 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.
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