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How to Make Time-Out Effective

​​​Luis F. Morales Knight, Ph.D.

Core concept: Time-out has to ​function as removal of access to the fun things that would normally be available in your child’s environment. If that’s not happening, it’s not time-out!

How to do it: Point to any location and say, “You sit (or stand) right there until I tell you to come out.” When you decide it’s time for your child to come out, say, “You may come out now.” If the reason your child is in time-out is because s/he did not follow a direction, repeat the direction.

Traps to avoid:

  • Don’t make it “time in”. As long as your child is staying in time-out, ignore anything s/he says or does. If you are responding to your child’s behavior, then you’re making it time in, not time-out.
  • Don’t let “time-out” be an escape from something else. Time-out won’t work well if the child is taken away from doing something s/he doesn’t want to do. In particular, any command that’s not obeyed should lead to time-out — and then the command should be repeated after time-out.

Pro tips:

  • Time-out works best when “time in” is really good. Be sure to pay attention to your child’s good, or even minimally acceptable, behavior (using PRIDE skills, discussed in another handout). Be sure to talk with, play with, touch, and generally “be present” for your child when s/he is behaving appropriately. If there’s a big difference between “time in” and “time out,” then time-out will be more effective in changing your child’s behavior.
  • If your child won’t stay in time-out: You’ll need to train them to stay in time-out. You can start by using very short time outs (5–30 seconds) and working up from there. You can also try the following two methods for training time-out:
    • The room back-up. If your child won’t stay in time-out, send her to her room. Close the door and do not let her come out for about sixty seconds. Open the door and say, “You may come out now.” When the child comes out, point to the time-out location and say, “You sit/stand right there until I tell you to come out.” If she does not go to time-out, place her in her room again. Repeat as many times as necessary.
    • “You owe me a time-out.” If your child won’t stay in time-out, tell him that he will not have access to anything fun or desirable (friends, snacks, screen time, etc.) until he sits in time-out. You can follow him around the house, turning off TVs, putting away toys, etc., as necessary.
  • There’s no need for a “special place” for time-out. Time-out should be portable. It should happen anywhere you decide it should happen. There is nothing wrong with using a “naughty step” (or chair, stool, rug, corner, etc.), but these are not necessary. Portable time-out can be used in public or in any part of your house. It is the simplest and easiest method.
  • There’s no need for a specific length of time in time-out. The “one minute per year of age” rule of thumb emerged from a casual conversation between two prominent psychologists. It’s a good rule, but it’s not necessary. Shorter time-outs of just 30–60 seconds allow for more chances to learn and can be useful when you think you may need several trials to get the point across.
  • You should control exit from time-out. Some experts and therapists recommend using release contingencies such as “you can come out after one quiet minute.” These can be useful, but also hand over control to the child. This can give the child the chance to torpedo your whole afternoon. Use your judgment.

Children may have to be trained into obeying time-out before it will really work to change their behavior. For children who will not stay in time out, a patient, non-confrontational 'you owe me a time-out, and nothing fun will happen for you until you serve your time' approach can be very helpful. Alternately, a Plan B such as a longer time-out in the bedroom (always in addition to, never instead of, regular time-out) can teach the child that simply obeying time-out is their best option for getting back to having fun.