1. Preschoolers
  2. Behaviour
  3. Behaviour Toolkit

Making time-out work for you

3-8 years

If your time-out strategy isn’t working, you’re not alone. Common problems include children refusing to go, challenging behaviour during time-out or leaving time-out. You can make time-out more effective using these tips and solutions.

How to make time-out more effective: seven tips

Time-out can be a good strategy to have in your child behaviour toolkit. Here are some tips for making it work well for you and your child.

1. Minimise attention during time-out or quiet time
Time-out or quiet time for your child is time without your attention. Avoid talking to or looking at your child during time-out or quiet time. Just act as if your child isn’t there.

2. Stay calm
If you lose your cool, you ‘reward’ your child with a dose of negative attention. This might make your child more likely to repeat the unacceptable behaviour. You might find that taking a few deep breaths helps you to relax.

3. Try to have ‘time-in’
‘Time-in’ is the happy, enjoyable time you and your child spend together. You can have time-in when your child is behaving well, and it can include the times when you praise your child’s good behaviour.

Creating time-in might sometimes be a challenge if your child has developed a pattern of negative behaviour, but without time-in, your time-out strategy loses its power.

4. Keep your time-out or quiet time short
Time-out or quiet time can help your child learn that certain kinds of behaviour are unacceptable. But if time-out is too long, your child might forget what it’s about and just feel angry and resentful.

Short time-outs or quiet times that happen straight after unacceptable behaviour are effective learning tools. Keeping it short also means your child has to wait less time to show what she has learned and how she can behave well.

5. When it’s over, start fresh
When time-out is over, try to focus on something pleasant – for example, ‘What do you want to play with now?’. Avoid reminding your child of what he did wrong – for example, ‘Now, no more hitting your sister’. As soon as possible after the time-out, catch your child being good and praise your child.

6. Follow through
Time-out strategies work best when your child knows what to expect. Your child needs to know that if she behaves in an unacceptable way, she’ll always get time-out or quiet time. If your child knows she might be able to get out of it, time-out or quiet time becomes much less powerful.

7. Be consistent
If you have a partner it’s important that you both use time-out in the same way for the same behaviour. Time-out strategies work best when your child knows what to expect from both of you. This also applies if your child is behaving in the same unacceptable way in different places – for example, he’s yelling at home and at child care. You could speak to your child’s carers and plan to use time-out in both places.

If you give a warning and your child doesn’t stop her behaviour or she stops at the last minute, give the time-out or quiet time straight away. If you give lots of warnings but never follow through, your child will learn not to take you seriously.

Four common time-out problems and how to solve them

1. Refusing to go to time-out
If your child is young, you can give him a choice – he can walk to time-out on his own, or you can carry him. By the time he’s too big to carry, he’ll be used to time-out or quiet time.

2. Challenging behaviour in time-out and quiet time
If your child’s behaviour is challenging when you give a time-out or quiet time, remind her that time-out begins when she’s quiet. If your child’s behaviour becomes challenging – for example, she starts screaming before the time-out or quiet time is finished – you might choose to start the time-out again.

You can calmly repeat your reason for putting your child in time-out or quiet time – for example, ‘We don’t hit each other. If you hit, I’ll stop you and you’ll sit on my lap until you calm down’.

3. Repeatedly leaving quiet time
If your child refuses to stay still and quiet in quiet time, you can try time-out in another room. Time-out gives you the option to shut the door and gives your child a clear message that you won’t give him any attention.

4. ‘It’s just not working’
If you have a very strong-willed child, you might be having a hard time enforcing time-out. These ideas might help:

  • Look for a reason behind the behaviour. Challenging behaviour might be about strong feelings like anger or jealousy. Helping your child work through these emotions can make it easier to change your child’s behaviour.
  • Catch your child being good. If your child is behaving well, you might be tempted to avoid commenting so that you don’t interrupt the behaviour. This means your child gets more attention for bad behaviour than for good behaviour. Praising good behaviour when it happens is a powerful way of getting the good behaviour to happen again.
  • Try changing the environment to improve your child’s behaviour. For example, if your child misbehaves when he’s tired, plan to do the grocery shopping after he has had an afternoon nap.
  • Use consequences. For example, if your child won’t go into time-out or quiet time, you can say something like, ‘Zoe, go into time-out now or you’ll miss out on watching television this afternoon’.
  • Spend time with your child. You could draw together, paint, tell stories or go to the park. Sometimes challenging behaviour is a cry for attention.
  • Ask for help. A professional like a counsellor or psychologist can help you if you’re having trouble managing really challenging behaviour. Ask your GP or child and family health nurse for advice and a referral.

Time-out strategies for children with special needs

Time-out strategies can be useful tools for some children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or developmental delay who get agitated or overwhelmed. By putting your child in a time-out area, you give him a safe space to work on calming himself. After a short time, like 2-3 minutes, you can start a relaxing, pleasant activity together.

Things to note about using time-out for children with autism spectrum disorder
If your child with ASD tends to use aggressive or self-injuring behaviour when she’s agitated, like head-banging or hand-biting, time-out strategies aren’t recommended, because they can reinforce the behaviour.

Some children with ASD who avoid interaction with others might misbehave as a way of being sent to time-out. In these cases, it’s best not to use time-out. Talk with your child’s GP or therapist about other ways to manage your child’s behaviour.

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Last updated or reviewed
28-11-2016

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