Time-out is a term for a form of punishment that involves temporarily separating a child from an environment where inappropriate behavior has occurred, and is intended to decrease positive reinforcement of the behavior. It is an educational and parenting technique recommended by some pediatricians and developmental psychologists as an effective form of child discipline. Often a corner (hence the common term corner time) or a similar space where the child is to stand or sit during time-outs is designated.
The concept of time-out was invented, named, and used by Arthur Staats in his extended work with his daughter (and later son), and was part of a long-term program of behavioral analysis beginning in 1958 that treated various aspects of child development. He introduced various elements that later composed foundations for applied behavior analysis and behavior therapy (the token reward system was another invention). Montrose Wolf, a graduate student assistant of Staats on several studies dealing with reading learning in preschoolers (see, for example, Staats, A.W.; Staats, C.K.; Schultz, R.E.; Wolf, M.M. "The conditioning of textual responses using 'extrinsic' reinforcers."), used that background when he went to the University of Washington where he began his creative program of research. Wolf first used Staats' time-out procedure in a 1964 published study dealing with the behavioral treatment of a child.
Staats described the discipline of his 2-year old daughter in 1962: "I would put her in her crib and indicate that she had to stay there until she stopped crying. If we were in a public place [where her behavior was inappropriate], I would pick her up and go outside." This has the effect of weakening the offending behavior so that it occurs less frequently, quickly disappearing unless the behavior has been well learned.
The use of time-out as an acceptable therapeutic procedure has gained wide acceptance in schools, clinics, and hospitals. The purpose is to isolate or separate the child for a short period of time (usually 5 to 15 minutes) in order to allow the child to calm down, as well as to discourage inappropriate behavior.
Time-outs may be on a chair, step, corner, bedroom, or any other location where there are no distractions. The child should be old enough to sit still and is required to remain there for a fixed period. The procedure has been recommended[who?] as a time for parents to separate feelings of anger toward the child for their misbehavior, replacing yelling with a calmer and more predictable approach.
To be most effective, parents should evaluate each situation to determine what may be causing the misbehavior, such as a toy, frustration, hunger, or lack of sleep. Parents should also explain why the child was put there, in order to make it an opportunity for learning, and how long he needs to stay there (but too much explanation can reinforce the unwanted behavior ).
In some views, the only requirement for release is for the child to be sitting peacefully, while others advocate a set period of time. When the child has calmed down, they may then express their needs in a more polite manner or return to their activity.
Time-out is one of a class of behavior control methods based on removing positive reinforcement. Less elaborate methods from the same class like ignoring or turning away also can be effective in cases where parental/care-giver attention is the positive reinforcer.
This class of methods are more effective if the child gets a significant amount positive reinforcement (praise, attention) for good behavior.
While some proponents of time-outs insist on silence and stillness from the child during the time-out, it is easier to use a "release-contingency," such that the requirement is only that the child is sitting peacefully at the end of the time-out period. Those who use time-out for children to get anger and frustration "out of their system" or for children to think about their behavior, are using time-out in a way that is different than those basing it on operant behavioral principles (that time-out from positive reinforcement may reduce recurrences of the unwanted target behavior).
In a study by Donaldson and Vollmer, the efficacy of a fixed duration time-out and a release contingency time-out were compared. In the fixed duration condition, children were sent to time-out for a total of 4 minutes and were released from time-out whether or not they performed problem behavior during the time-out session. In the release contingency condition, children were not released from time-out if they were performing problem behavior during the last 30 seconds of their time-out. The time-out was extended until there were no occurrences of problem behavior for a total of 30 seconds or until the time-out reached the ten minute mark. Results showed that both time-out procedures were successful in reducing the problem behavior for the subjects. The subjects in the release contingency did not benefit from staying in time-out for an extended period of time either. Moreover, the results show that only 4 minutes is necessary for a successful time-out procedure.
Critics of time-out include Thomas Gordon, Alfie Kohn, and Aletha Solter, who claim that the approach may lead to short-term compliance but has the same disadvantages as other forms of punishment. According to these authors, the use of time-out does not enhance moral behavior or teach children useful conflict-resolution skills, and it fails to address the underlying cause of the behavior. Furthermore, they claim that the parent/child bond can be damaged by forced isolation and withdrawal of love in an effort to control a child’s behavior, and this can lead to feelings of insecurity or anxiety in children. Another argument is that time-out, like all other methods of coercive control, eventually stops working as children grow older and begin to rebel against their parents’ authoritarian approach to discipline.
The Australian Association for Infant Mental Health has published a position statement in which the use of time-out is considered inappropriate, especially for children under three years of age. In addition to a list of disadvantages of time-out, the position statement asserts that “separation may increase a child’s insecurity and distress.” 
The use of time-out appears to be especially ineffective in families dealing with special challenges. In a review of parenting intervention programs for drug-abusing mothers, researchers found that programs emphasizing behavioral approaches to discipline (such as the use of time-out and rewards) “were not successful in fostering measurable improvement in mother-child interactions or promoting child development.” An attachment-based approach focusing on strengthening the parent/child relationship was found to be more successful than behavioral approaches in changing children’s behavior in these families.
Other studies have found that the traditional behavioral approach to discipline (such as the use of time-out and rewards) was not very effective in changing the behavior of children in foster care with attachment disorders resulting from early abuse or neglect. Foster parents benefit more from training that addresses these children’s attachment and emotional issues, which lie at the root of their challenging behavior.
Time-out has been misused to the point of becoming abusive in some schools. There are reported cases of children being locked in closets for extended periods of solitary confinement for behaviors such as crying or failing to finish an assignment.
- Montrose M. Wolf (1935–2004)
- Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 1962;5:33–40.
- Robert Strauss, "Twenty People Who Changed Childhood," Child magazine, October 2006, pp107-110.
- Wolf, Tera L., T. F. McLaughlin, and Randy Lee Williams. "Time-out interventions and strategies: A brief review and recommendations." International Journal of Special Education 21.3 (2006): 22-28.
- http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200109/why-our-kids-are-out-control Psychology Today September 2001
- Donaldson, J. M., & Vollmer, T. R. (2011). An evaluation and comparison of time-out procedures with and without release contingencies. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 44, 693-705.
- Gordon, T. (2000). Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
- Kohn, A. (2005). Unconditional Parenting: Moving From Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason. New York, NY: Atria Books.
- Solter, A. (1989). Helping Young Children Flourish. Goleta, CA: Shining Star Press.
- Solter, A. (2013). Attachment Play. Goleta, CA: Shining Star Press.
- Solter, A. (2002). The disadvantages of time-out. http://www.awareparenting.com/timeout.htm
- Australian Association for Infant Mental Health (July 2009): Position Pager 3: Time Out. http://www.aaimhi.org/inewsfiles/Position%20Paper%203.pdf
- Suchman, N.e., Pajulo, M., DeCoste, C. & Mayes, L.C. (2006). Parenting Interventions for Drug-Dependent Mothers and Their Young Children: The Case for an Attachment-Based Approach. Family Relations, 55, 211-226. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1847954/
- Wotherspoon, E., O’Neill-Laberge, M. & Pirie, J. (2008). Meeting the emotional needs of infants and toddlers in foster care: the collaborative mental health care experience. Infant Mental Health Journal, Vol. 29(4), 377-397. DOI: 10.1002.imhj.20186
- Hyman, I. (1990). Child abusers' destructive use of 'time-out'. From Reading, Writing and the Hickory Stick, pp. 139-140, 12-13. http://www.nospank.net/timeout.htm
- Some experts call school time-out rooms 'abuse.' http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/education/2008-10-20-time-out-discipline_N.htm