The “thinking chair,” “reflection room,” or simply “taking a pause” – these all amount to the same thing: officially known as the “Time-Out” method. Time-outs have been proven to be a good disciplinary tool. But in order for it be effective, it must be implemented correctly.
The child won’t play with their toys nicely. After an initial warning the child has continued to misbehave. The child is then taken by the adult to a neutral or “boring” space, void of toys, games, and fun. But this is also a space to calm down, to self-reflect, and to emotionally regulate (Webster-Stratton & Reid, 2018). This adult returns after the allotted time to explain the reasoning behind the disciplinary action, followed by lots of hugs and kisses and they all move on from the incident. This method of discipline is called a time-out, short for “time-out from positive reinforcement” (Brantner & Doherty, 1983, p.87). The term “time-out” was originally coined by Arthur Staats in the late 1950s, using time-out as an effective procedure with his typically developing children to decrease their disruptive behaviors, such as crying (Staats, 1971). The recognition for this discipline technique has sky-rocketed in the 21st century (with the help of popular TV shows) and has become a preferred choice used by many parents, caregivers, and professionals. By removing the child from play, they will quickly learn that compliance equals fun and misbehaving equals boring.
Some children will naturally push boundaries. The key is how, as a parent, caregiver, or teacher, you respond. By two years old a child can display a wide range of emotions but may find it difficult regulating them – leading to acting out (healthychildren.org, 2022). When a child is placed in time-out, they are given the chance to calm down and re-regulate “in the midst of strong emotions” (Webster-Stratton, 2017, p. 2). While physical forms of punishment such as corporal punishment (e.g., smacking, and spanking) has been proven to have long-term mental health implications for the child affecting them throughout adulthood, such as “physical and mental ill-health, impaired cognitive and socio-emotional development, poor educational outcomes, increased aggression and perpetration of violence” (World Health Organization, 2021), a longitudinal study of nearly 1,400 families published in 2020 showed that children who were disciplined with the time-out method were not at increased risk for anxiety, depression, aggression, rule-breaking behaviors, or self-control problems (Knight et al, 2020).
In addition, not only is time-out a valid and useful form of discipline for children, but it also improves self-regulation in the adult as well (Lieneman, 2023). As the adult is not competing with the child for power, the adult also learns to self-regulate in the situation by using a swift and consistent action response, and thereby avoiding escalating the incident. As a result, the child is less likely to receive excessive punishment in an attempt by the adult to regain control and is less likely to become a victim of child abuse in this regard.
Time-out has been proven to be effective when implemented correctly, but should the same stance be taken for children with developmental or psychological disorders? The answer is simply that it depends. Authorities such as CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend behavioral parent training (BPT) as part of effective treatment for children with ADHD or displaying ADHD symptoms (CDC, 2022). Research has shown the best treatment plans for BPT include the time-out method and that brief time-outs significantly reduce acting out behavior, such as a study conducted on the matter including boys with ADHD (Kapalka and Bryk, 2007).
However, with conditions such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it depends on the severity as to whether a time-out is warranted. Solnick et al. (1977) found that time-out can be used as a “reinforcer” of certain behaviors when children are removed from an environment which may be overstimulating, to a quieter place where they can engage in self-stimulatory or harming behavior. Therefore, the child may learn that they would rather be in a time-out, and their behavior worsens. A good way to prevent this is to conduct a time-out in an environment which a child is familiar with, such as at home, and not in one where they are not, which may have undesirable consequences and detract from the purpose of the time-out. Time-outs have been shown, especially in more recent years, to be effective for children with milder presentation of ASD alongside help from experts (Lieneman, 2023).
Nonetheless, it is important to consider whether time-out is an appropriate method of behavior correction for a child with various psychological and physical challenges and also whether the step-by-step method would need to be revised with help from a pediatrician or psychologist.
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