“GO TO YOUR ROOM!”—Four words my mother has said to me more times than I care to remember. I probably deserved it. I mean, personally, I believe I was an angel, but personal bias may alter my perspective on the matter. In reality, I may have been a little gremlin, but I’ll spare you the details on that one. Alas, I am pretty cool now, so perhaps all those episodes of servitude were for the better. Or not. Truth is, without data, the world will never know. But what I do know (from personal experience, and professionally working with children as a behavior analyst) is that so-called “time-outs”, are not always used effectively. In fact, in many instances they are not really “time-outs” at all, annnnnd, maybe, you shouldn’t even be using the time-out to begin with (more on this later). But fear not, parents/teachers/nannies, I am here to help. Here are 5 reasons why your time-outs are about as effective as a doorknob on a revolving door.
1) Time-out only works if you are removing something the child wants
“Time-out” needs to actually be called “Time-out from reinforcement”. Cooper, Heron, and Heward (2007) define time-out as “the withdrawal of the opportunity to earn positive reinforcement or the loss of access to positive reinforcers for a specified time, contingent on the occurrence of a behavior” (p.357). In other words, there is a “time-in” (fun time) and a “time-out” (no more fun time). For example, little Diah is playing with his limited-edition Power Ranger action hero (time-in), and he makes it kick his brother in the face (behavior we do not want to happen). His mother then says “GO TO YOUR ROOM!” Little Diah then does hard time in the slammer away from his action hero (time-out). If this time-in/time-out discrepancy does not exist, you are wasting time.
2) You sent the little one to time-out when they actually wanted out
Ever play Monopoly where you are about 9 hours deep and the board is covered in hotels and luxury taxes? Yeah? Well when that happens, where do you want to go? You want to go directly to jail, not pass go, and say “You can keep that $200, Monopoly man! Thank you for this opportunity”. Monopoly jail is SANCTUARY! Well such is the same in real life. If the little one is engaging in an activity they want nothing to do with, getting sent elsewhere seems like a pretty sweet alternative. Time-out is intended to be a punishment procedure, but when this scenario occurs, you may actually be reinforcing a behavior you do not want to occur because that behavior serves the function of escape.
3) Thinking while sitting on a chair does not have a magical affect on behavior
“Sit here and think about what you did wrong, and once you have come to terms with your transgressions, you will be ready to join us back as a productive member of our society.” Does this approach and line-of-reasoning, in and of itself, influence behavior? Well, it is difficult to say as it would be difficult to parse out other observable variables that have a greater direct affect (e.g., time-in and the contingent removal of time-in leading to time-out… and such). I mean, it is possible that feelings of guilt will be associated with the event. Those feelings are something the child will want to avoid in the future, but this approach relies heavily on a mentalistic view that places interventionists in a position where they may become heavily reliant on creating guilt, and star to view the chair itself as a source of punishment. This may cause them to forget the basics mentioned in reason #1.
Another important thing to point out here is that not all time-outs need to be exclusionary (separating the children from others). Remember ‘time-in’ versus ‘time-out’? Yes? Great! Well, this can be as simple as removing the time-in activity. Let’s go back to the example of little Diah with his rad Power Ranger. What if when he made it kick his brother in the face, his mother simply took the action hero away? Time-in was still removed; therefore, Diah was left without a Power Ranger and a moment to self-reflect on his life. Little Diah was not sitting on a chair, yet in time-out he remained.
4) Your time-out becomes a wrestling match
What happens when you send the kiddo away to time-out (chair or room), and he is straight up not having it and takes this opportunity to practice WWE moves? This is not good for several reasons. The first being, you want to avoid situations that require physical restraint. Someone could get hurt, and I don’t know about you, but I am not a fan of being held down. It is not fun. Avoid this. The other reason, the physical battle could potentially be reinforcing the behavior if the kiddo is seeking attention. You would be surprised how many children I have seen seek this type of attention. Usually a quick give-away is if he starts smiling or laughing. If that happens, you messed up. Another way to tell is if this pattern persists, and the behavior begins to increase. This is an objective way to measure whether a behavior is being reinforced. (Disclaimer: Don’t wrestle your child for the sake of data collection.)
5) You are not using reinforcement procedures
While time-out can be very effective, and I understand it is something commonly used and home and in school (I am not judging), it is all too common to focus on behavior we do not want to occur and immediately jump to punish that behavior. This is an approach behavior analysts have been clamoring to change with the general public forever. We should always consider reinforcement before punishment. If a behavior can be reduced by simply reinforcing an alternate or incompatible behavior, and this change can be expected to occur at a comparable rate to the time-out procedure, why not go the reinforcement route? Let’s take one more look at the Power Ranger. What if Diah’s mom sat down with Diah and his brother the first few times he played with the toy, and demonstrated how to play with it appropriately (perhaps kicking other bad guy toys rather than his brother) and praise was provided as this behavior occurred. It is possible that zero real-person-face-kicks would have ever occurred. In this reality, little Diah never faces hard-time, and grows up believing he is not a gremlin.
Parenting is not easy. I get that. Heck, adulting is difficult enough as it is. Suddenly becoming responsible for the life of another little person should auto-qualify you for life’s participation trophy. My hope is that after you read this article, you learned a little something that may make things just a little bit easier, because time-outs are everywhere, and using them incorrectly makes life difficult. That’s what applied behavior analysis is here for. It’s the people’s science. So take this information and apply it, or, you know, don’t and just stick with the magical thinking chair routine.
Diah Askari, MS, BCBA (AKA Behavior Man)
Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.