Take a Time Out from Time Out

Time-out is a procedure often used by parents (and some teachers) in an attempt to decrease a child’s interfering behavior (i.e., behavior that may impede learning or interfere with functioning in their daily environments).  These behaviors can take many forms, such as hitting, temper tantrums, yelling, etc. Time-out often involves having a child sit in the corner or a chair and excluding them from a desired activity contingent on the occurrence of this interfering behavior.  Time-out is sometimes an effective procedure, which is why parents and teachers may use it so often.  But you have to be very careful when applying this procedure, because you can also run the risk of increasing that interfering behavior. 

Here is why:  Let’s say you give your child an instruction to do something that he/she does not want to do (e.g., take a bath) and then he/she repeatedly starts to hit you.  Many parents in this situation would then put the child in time-out in an attempt to teach him/her that hitting is bad!  But what parents are actually doing in this situation is reinforcing (i.e., increasing the future frequency of) the behavior.  The child hit you because he/she did not want to follow your instruction.  By putting the child in time-out, you are allowing them to avoid the task that they did not want to engage in.  So what did your child learn in this scenario?  “When I hit, I don’t have to do what Mommy/Daddy says.”

So please be careful when using time-out to decrease interfering behavior.  You may actually be accidentally increasing the behavior.  If you know that your child is engaging in an interfering behavior to avoid doing a task or following your instruction, the best way to respond is to follow through with your instruction.  You will then teach him/her that when they engage in interfering behavior, they still have to listen to their parents!  If you remain consistent, this interfering behavior will decrease because it will no longer get them what they want.

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