Time Out/Ignoring Discipline

What is Time Out?

Time Out is a form of discipline that can be used when your child needs to calm down or when your child does something wrong on purpose. The term “time out” comes from the phrase “time out from reinforcement” It is supposed to be a “time out” from “time in” rewarding, enjoyable activities and from all reinforcement, including your attention. So, if you keep talking and interacting with a child who is supposed to be in time out, he/she has your undivided attention, and in this situation, time out will not work.

Time Out works best when...

  1. You are calm but firm.
  2. Your child is taught about time out before it is needed. You may want to practice with dolls or puppets and your child should understand the purpose of time out and which behaviors result in a time out.
  3. It is used in combination with Therapeutic Play (sometimes called Special Time) and social praise and rewards for good behavior.
  4. You selectively ignore your child and withdraw your attention during time out.
  5. Keys to effective use of time out are IMMEDIACY and CONSISTENCY. The child should be placed in time out each time the challenging behavior occurs and should not be allowed to re-enter time in until he/she self-calms and complies with the caregiver request.

When to use a Time Out...

  1. If your child does something dangerous or breaks a known rule (for example, playing with the stove), he/she gets an immediate time out.
  2. If your child does not follow a direction to do something, you give a time out after you give one warning and allow him/her 15 seconds to respond. (“If you don’t... then you will go to time out.”)
  3. Time outs are used for dangerous and defiant behavior. When you first start to use time out, it is helpful to identify several target behaviors that you will use for time out. At this age, time out is an effective way to deal with behaviors such as hitting, biting, and hair pulling that although are developmentally expected, needs to be addressed.

How to use a Time Out...

  1. Warn your child once before initiating a time out, or if he/she has dearly broken a house rule, he/she goes straight to time out.
  2. Place your child in a boring, but safe spot, such as a nearby chair or step where you can watch him/her. He/She should be away from toys, people, windows, TV, or anything he/she likes. Toddlers may be placed on the floor or in a playpen. With young toddlers, you will have to carry the child to time out. Carry the toddler facing away from you (or at least look away from the toddler) so that there is no confusion between a hug and a trip to time out.
  3. Simply and calmly state the rule that was broken or the reason for the time out (For example, “Because you did... you have to take a time out.”) Do not reason or give lengthy explanations to the child.
  4. Do not interact with your child either positively or negatively when the child is in time out. Do not talk, lecture, or scold your child.
  5. Ignore protests, shouting, and promises to be good. Do not look at your child.
  6. If he/she refuses to go, lead by the hand, or carry him/her if needed.
  7. Tell him/her to sit down on the chair. He/She is not to talk to anyone or to play with anything while in time out.
  8. The first few times you use time out, your child may scream, cry, kick, or look for something to throw. As long as the child remains seated, ignore the tantrum by turning away, engaging in a task, or playing with other children.
  9. Do not let your child leave time out before you have told him/her to do so. If your child gets up or leaves time out before it is over, immediately return him/her to the chair without talking. You may have to repeat this procedure several times. The child will soon learn that you will always put him/her back in the chair and therefore, he/she will eventually stay seated.
  10. After he/she has calmed down, tell him/her he/she can get up. If he/she is crying in time out, he/she needs to be quiet for the last 20 seconds before he/she can come out. Rather than implement time out for a specified amount of time, the end of time out depends on the time it takes your child to self-calm. For toddlers, very brief time outs (for example, 20 seconds) are highly effectively.
  11. After time out, your child should immediately be redirected to an acceptable activity. If he/she refused a direction, give the direction again. (For example, “You’re calm. Time in. Please put the blocks in the box.”) Immediately after time out, make sure the child engages in high quality time in activities. A stark contrast between time out and time in increases the effectiveness of time outs.

When Time Out is not working....

  1. Be sure you are not warning your child one (or more) times before sending him/her to time out. Warnings only teach the child that he/she can be non-compliant at least once (or more) before you will use time out.
  2. All adults who are responsible for disciplining the child should be using time out. You should agree when and for what behaviors to send the child to time out.
  3. Remember to use Therapeutic Play (Special Time) and to let your child know when he/she is following the rules. Catch him/her being good rather than taking good behavior for granted. Most children would prefer to have you put them in time out than ignore them completely. Gentle touching (for example, a pat on the shoulder) is an additional way to show positive regard.
  4. Some children will try to convince their caregiver that time out is fun and therefore not working. Do not fall for this trick. Over time, the difficult behaviors for which you use time out should occur less often. Remember to expect an initial increase in the targeted behaviors and/or an escalation in noncompliance with time out strategy.
  5. You may feel the need to “punish” your child for doing something inappropriate in the time out chair (such as cursing or spitting). However, it is very important to ignore the child when he/she behaves poorly in time out in order to teach the child that such “attention-getting strategies” do not work.

Keep track of Time Outs

  1. Use a chart or log book.
  2. Monitor for effectiveness. Seek additional consultation if no improvements occur.


Ignoring is the opposite of paying attention. Ignoring, praising and paying attention should all be used together to shape or change your child’s behavior. You can practice ignoring the “special time” sessions. When he is being loud or obnoxious, you can ignore him by looking the other way. But, if he is good, even for a moment, you need to pay attention again. Remember, accidental rewards happen when you pay attention to bad behavior and make it worse.

To ignore, do not look at the child or talk to him. You should act as if he was not there. You might have to leave the room. It also helps sometimes if you pick something up (like a magazine) and start looking at it.

Once you start ignoring a behavior you have to keep ignoring. What usually happens when you start ignoring a bad behavior is that it gets worse for a short time, perhaps as long as a day. This happens because children sometimes think that they are not acting badly enough to get your attention, so they escalate. But, if you continue to ignore them through this escalation, the behavior will quickly decrease. Once the behavior goes away for a few days, you have mastered that problem. However, behaviors that have been ignored away do come back once in a while, but for a short time. Be prepared to ignore it again.

Ignoring is the simplest strategy to deal with behavior problems, but in practice, it is one of the most difficult to carry out To ignore means that you have to have good control, patience and know that things will get better.

Article by W. Douglas Tynan, PhD
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