Time-out (also known as social exclusion) is a form of behavioural modification that involves temporarily separating a child from an environment where unacceptable behavior occurred. The goal is to remove the child from an enriched, enjoyable environment, and therefore lead to functional punishment or extinction of the offending behavior. It is an educational and parenting technique recommended by most 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 western cultures.
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 preceding behavior so that it occurs less frequently in the future.
Time out is a type two punishment procedure, and is used commonly in schools, clinics, and homes. To implement time out, a caregiver removes the child from a reinforcing activity for a short period of time, usually 5 to 15 minutes, in order to discourage inappropriate behavior and teach the child that engaging in problem behavior will result in decreased access to reinforcing items and events in the child's environment.
Time-outs may be on a chair, step, corner, bedroom, or any other location where there are no distractions, and reduced access to fun items, activities and people. This procedure is preferable to other punishments such as reprimanding, yelling at or spanking the child for their misbehavior, which are type one punishments (positive punishment).
Research has established that 15 minutes is the maximum time that a child should be kept in time out from reinforcers. However, shorter durations may be just as effective for behavior change. Often parents use the "one minute per year of age" rule of thumb for setting the length of time out.
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 address any underlying needs before a punishment contingency should be used. Any time they are trying to reduce a problem behavior, parents should be sure that they are also teaching and reinforcing the desired replacement behavior. Parents should also clearly explain why the child is being put in time out, and what the child needs to do to return to the reinforcing environment/be let out of time-out.). 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 behavior control method based on removing positive reinforcement for a brief time. Less elaborate methods from the same class like tactical ignoring, or planned ignoring, also can be effective in cases where parental/care-giver attention is the positive reinforcement for negative behavior. This class of methods are more effective if the child gets a significant amount positive reinforcement (praise, attention) for good behavior. All punishment procedures can evoke other problem behaviors, damage rapport, or evoke escape or avoidant behaviors. For this, and other ethical reasons, behavior analysts exhaust all options for using differential reinforcement and/or extinction procedures to reduce problem behavior, before considering the use of punishment procedures.
Several studies show that time-out is an especially effective disciplinary strategy, reducing aggressive and non-compliant behavior, when other positive parenting methods are also used. Time out must be linked with "time in" in order to be effective because children need to be able to find reinforcement through positive experiences.
There are differences between strategies for ending time out. 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 age, temperament and emotional wellness.
Critics of time-out include Thomas Gordon, Gabor Mate, 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, though there is no evidence that this occurs. 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.
In addition to the potential psychological drawbacks resulting from the use of time-out, there also appears to be a risk to the child’s developing brain, according to research in neuroscience by Daniel J. Siegel. “In a brain scan, relational pain (that caused by isolation during punishment) can look the same as physical abuse,” and “Repeated experiences actually change the physical structure of the brain.” However, Dr. Siegel backed away from this statement and claimed that Time Magazine distorted his message. He later clarified, "The “appropriate” use of time-outs calls for brief, infrequent, previously explained breaks from an interaction used as part of a thought-out parenting strategy that is followed by positive feedback and connection with a parent. This seems not only reasonable, but it is an overall approach supported by the research as helpful for many children."
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, which matches with most professional advice.
The use of time-out needs to be carefully considered 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. Once relationships are better developed, behavioral approaches can be effective.
Other studies have found that the traditional behavioral approach to discipline (such as the use of time-out and rewards) can be challenging with children in foster care with attachment disorders resulting from early abuse or neglect. Foster parents benefit from training that addresses these children’s attachment and emotional issues, as wells as traditional parenting techniques.
Time-out has been misused to the point of becoming abusive in some schools and so proper training for educational professionals is important. 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. These are not examples of appropriate use of time out.
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