Time-out (also known as social exclusion) is a form of punishment that involves temporarily separating a child from an environment where offending behavior according to the cultural standards and values of the time and place has occurred and is intended as reinforcement of the correct 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. This form of discipline is especially popular in North America.
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 main purpose is to isolate or separate (hence social exclusion) 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 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.
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.
For this disciplinary technique to be most effective and to produce the desired results, the child should be old enough to sit still and is required to remain there for a fixed period. Also, according to developmental psychologists, parents should evaluate each situation to determine what may be causing the misbehavior, such as a toy, frustration, hunger, or lack of sleep, and then respond accordingly with the punishment consistent with the desired behavior. Parents should also clearly 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 ). Furthermore, experts suggest that time-out should remain brief, proposing a general guideline: the length of time that the child should remain in time-out should correlate with the child's age - each of year of the child's age constitutes one minute in time-out.
Time-out is one 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.
Researchers and developmental psychologists have compared time-out or social exclusion with other disciplinary techniques and have questioned its effectiveness.
Several studies show that time-out is an especially effective disciplinary strategy, reducing aggressive and non-complaint behavior, when other positive parenting methods are also used.
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.
The effectiveness of time-out also varies with each individual child, dependent on the child's temperament and emotional wellness.
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.
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- Australian Association for Infant Mental Health (July 2009): Position Pager 3: Time Out. http://www.aaimhi.org/inewsfiles/Position%20Paper%203.pdf
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- Some experts call school time-out rooms 'abuse.' http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/education/2008-10-20-time-out-discipline_N.htm