It is important to know general guidelines for effectively using time-out as a discipline strategy. Before offering time-out as a discipline strategy, consider the why, where and how. First, think about the types of behaviors that your child engages in that would earn a time-out. You must be consistent with providing the consequences to reduce the behaviors. Behaviors like hitting, kicking, spitting, throwing, are timeout worthy behaviors.
Then, you have to determine where to put your child for time-out. The location must not have any distractions, toys or offer an opportunity to receive attention from others. Now, how long should you leave your child in time-out? The length of the amount of time a child spends in time-out is about a minute per year they have lived. Thus, for a 3-year-old, no more than three minutes.
Let’s say your 5-year-old child hit the neighbor child. Calmly tell your child that hitting others is not allowed, and in a firm (but neutral tone) tell your child that he/she will spend five minutes in time-out. In other instances where the behavior is not imminently harmful to another, such as throwing things in the house, give your child a warning before sending them to time-out. Begin by telling your child what he/she did that is unacceptable. Give a warning when possible, using “If/Then” phrases. For example, in a calm voice say, “If you throw that object again, then you will go to time-out.” Remember, be sure you can follow through on the consequence. If your child throws the object again, calmly and firmly tell your child that he/she will spend five minutes in timeout.
Now, you guide your child to the timeout location, and guess what? They don’t want to stay there! What do you do? Some kids will test timeout and leave the room. If the child leaves time-out, simply state that the time in time-out is not over and you will add one more minute to the time. Guide the child back to the room. Do not engage in any other conversation. Be prepared for testing. It is common for behavior to get worse before it gets better. If time-out is used consistently kids eventually accept timeout. Some even freely go to it because it is their personal space to calm down. This is also an effective strategy to teach your child a coping skill. Walk away and cool down.
At times it may be helpful to provide your child with a timer. Time is an elusive concept for younger children, so provide a visual. If you used time-out because your child did not do something, then once timeout is over make the command again. When the child complies, praise him/her immediately.
When time-out is over, do not scold or lecture your child. Go back to having an enjoyable time with your child!
Learn more about child psychology at Ochsner.