How to Reduce Behavior Problems With Time-Outs

Time-out can be an effective way to teach kids to behave better.

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Time-out can be an effective discipline strategy. But research shows that 85% of parents aren't using time-out correctly. For instance, they are talking to kids during time-out, allowing them to play with toys, or giving them too many warnings. And those mistakes are making their time-outs ineffective for changing their children's behavior. 

Researchers at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland suggest that for time-outs to be effective, they should consist of "two kinds of nothing." In other words, there should be nothing going on during the time-out, and there should be nothing the child can do about it.

Why Time-Outs Work

When implemented correctly, time-out removes positive reinforcement. The strategy gives a child a few minutes away from a stimulating environment and is one of the most effective disciplinary techniques for children beginning at age 2 and going through the primary school years.

The ultimate goal is for children to learn to voluntarily put themselves in time-out before they make a bad choice that lands them in trouble. Taking a time-out is a skill that children can use throughout their lives. Even as an adult, knowing how to step away when you are feeling overwhelmed can be helpful.

Identify Behaviors

Determine which behaviors will lead to time-out. Time-out can be especially effective for defiance, aggression, or angry outbursts

Some behaviors may require a warning before being given a time-out. Try an if…then statement such as, “If you keep banging those together, then you will have to go to time out.” 

Be willing to follow through with time-out after a single warning. Giving multiple warnings makes time-out much less effective.

Other behaviors, such as hitting, should lead to an immediate time-out without a warning. Tell your child in advance which behaviors will lead to an automatic time-out.

Establish a Time-Out Area

Establish a time-out area that will be free of distractions and that can provide your child with an opportunity to calm down. For small children who are not likely to be able to sit still, a time-out room may be the best option.

Just make sure there isn't anything in that room that will be rewarding. Sending a child to their room where they can play with toys, for example, won't be an effective consequence. Consider using a spare room if it's safe to do so, a hallway, or even your bedroom. 

For older children, time-out may be served in a smaller area. Use a time-out chair, the bottom step of your staircase, or a corner of the hallway. 

The time-out area should be quiet and free from distractions. Don't talk to a child who is in time-out and don't allow your child to have access to toys, games, or electronics. 

Determine Time-Out Length

The length of time-out should depend on your child’s age. A good rule is to place your child in time-out for one minute for each year of age. For example, a 4-year-old requires a four-minute time-out while a 7-year-old requires a seven-minute time-out.

Also, don’t start the clock on the time-out until your child is quiet. If your child yells, screams, or cries loudly, ignore these behaviors. Once your child is quiet, the time starts.

Plan for Resistance

It's normal for children to resist time-out. Sometimes they refuse to go to the time-out area and other times they refuse to stay in time-out. 

Plan in advance for how to handle resistance. If your child is unwilling to complete time-out, give a warning about an additional consequence.

Say, "If you don't stay in time-out, you'll lose your electronics for 24 hours." Then, if your child doesn't comply, forget about time-out and follow through with the larger consequence. With consistency, children usually learn it's better to serve a brief time-out than lose privileges for an extended period of time. 

Practice Your Skills

Although time-out is an effective consequence, it requires practice. You may need to try it a few times to determine which time out area will work best or how to respond to resistance.

It is also important to remember that time-out is one of many tools that can be offered as a negative consequence, but there are other important parenting tools that can help with behavior management.

A Word From Verywell

When used properly, time-outs can be extremely effective. The key is to refrain from talking to your child during time-out and to make the experience as boring as possible. If you find that time-outs are not reducing the frequency of a particular behavior, you may want to discuss the situation with your pediatrician or try a different disciplinary strategy.

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3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Riley AR, Wagner DV, Tudor ME, Zuckerman KE, Freeman KA. A survey of parents' perceptions and use of time-out compared to empirical evidenceAcademic Pediatrics. 2017;17(2):168-175.​ doi:10.1016/j.acap.2016.08.004

  2. Oregon Health and Science University. Discipline through time-out: Are parents doing it correctly?

  3. NiemanP, Shea S, Canadian Paediatric Society, Community Paediatrics Committee. Effective discipline for childrenPaediatr Child Health. 2004;9(1):37-50. doi:10.1093/pch/9.1.37