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Time-Out as an Effective Discipline Technique

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When children misbehave, it is important to use a positive and safe strategy to teach them how to act appropriately. The three basic rules of discipline are as follows:

1. Reward good behavior.

2. Do not accidentally reward bad behavior.

3. Punish bad behavior.

Time-out is a frequently used and positive intervention that can help modify children's negative behaviors including the following:

  • having tantrums and outbursts
  • destroying objects/toys
  • not following directions
  • hurting others

It also allows parents to remain calm during discipline instead of becoming angry, threatening, yelling, or hurting/spanking children.

Time-Out Basics

  • During time-out, the child is placed in another room or designated spot alone.
  • The time-out room should be safe, well-lit, and of a comfortable temperature; however it should be boring. Remove all interesting toys and objects in advance.
  • Try to leave the door open, so that you can see the child in time-out.
  • Use brief periods of time-out using the following guidelines:

2 year olds: 1–2 minutes
3–5 year olds: 3–5 minutes
5–10 year olds: 5–10 minutes

  • Teach the child the time-out process so he/she knows what to expect; teach the rules and assess for understanding.
  • Discuss specific behaviors with your child that will lead to a time-out.

How to Implement Time-Out
  • Prevent misbehavior first by redirection and praise.
  • Remind children of the rule they are not following. Tell the child to stop and remind the child what he or she should instead be doing. Offer praise if the child listens.
  • Back up your instructions with time-out if the child does not choose the good behavior or fails to stop the bad behavior within 5-10 seconds. Do not delay time-out.
  • Be firm and calm when talking to your children. Do not yell or lecture. Try to say less than 10 words. Quietly take the child to time-out.
  • Ignore whining, screaming, and protests on the way to time-out.
  • Ignore misbehavior in time-out. Do not argue with your child. Do not give in.
  • After time-out, allow children the chance to behave appropriately. Ask them to explain why they were in time-out and if they are ready to behave appropriately. Watch them perform the good behavior. Praise them.
  • If the behavior occurs recurs, use time-out again.

Prevent misbehavior first by redirection and praise.

  • Remind children of the rule they are not following. Tell the child to stop and remind the child what he or she should instead be doing. Offer praise if the child listens.
  • Back up your instructions with time-out if the child does not choose the good behavior or fails to stop the bad behavior within 5–10 seconds. Do not delay time-out.
  • Be firm and calm when talking to your children. Do not yell or lecture. Try to say less than 10 words. Quietly take the child to time-out.
  • Ignore whining, screaming, and protests on the way to time-out.
  • Ignore misbehavior in time-out. Do not argue with your child. Do not give in.
  • After time-out, allow children the chance to behave appropriately. Ask them to explain why they were in time-out and if they are ready to behave appropriately. Watch them perform the good behavior. Praise them.
  • If the behavior occurs recurs, use time-out again.

Common Pitfalls with Time-Out

  • The child decides when to go/come out of time-out. Avoid saying "come out when you are ready to behave" or "come out when you are ready to apologize."
  • Time-out is not used regularly. It should be used EVERY time a problem occurs.
  • Time-out is used a threat but never a reality. It is important to implement time-out within 5–10 seconds of an undesired behavior.
  • The child comes out of time-out while still upset. Children should be quiet when the time-out is over and should not be taught that yelling/crying is a way to get out of it.


Adapted from USC School of Medicine Pediatric Behavioral Health Program (PBHP) 2007-2008. B.C. Grier, J.C. Williams.