Time Out

Time out is a very useful tool for managing children's behavior especially in the pre-school years. Older children, preschool and above, will often respond to removal of privledges as well as time-out, but for younger children, time-out used with positive reinforcement is very useful.


What is time out?

It is a form of child behavior management that works very well for toddler discipline. It can be used from about the age of 18 months upwards. Time-out is just one way of managing toddler behavior issues - to read about more options, including positive reinforcement, click here.

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When should I use time-out?

You can use this to let your toddler know his behavior needs a change and to prevent a situation escalating. It is not a punishment as such, but it is "time-out" from positive reinforcement or from attention. So, if your toddler is fighting with his sister, time-out would be appropriate. If he is not doing as he's told, again time-out would be appropriate.

You can have immediate time out for behavior that is not acceptable at all, such as biting, hitting, cursing (swearing), and you can use the 321 approach for other things that are less serious such as not doing as he's told, eg. coming to the table for dinner.

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What are the principles of time-out?

I like to use the following "rules" when using time-out.

  • your child doesn't need more than 1 minute/year of age in time-out and you can give even less than this, so for a 3 year old 3 minutes or less
  • ideally the place for time out should be uninteresting but the bedroom will do or sitting on a stair (whereever you decide, make sure it's a safe place). If you are in the park, just take your child by the hand and stand by a tree giving him no eye contact or other interaction
  • you do not need to wait until your child calms down before you let him out of time out, but if he continues the behavior that put him there in the first place, he will be put back in time-out again
  • your child doesn't have to apologize when he comes back but he needs to behave reasonably - further transgressions may require a repeat time out
  • as soon as possible after the time out, find something to praise your child for. Look out for things that are good - by definition, that is anything that is not unacceptable - and give positive reinforcement. "Good boy for picking up the toy", "Good boy for being gentle with your sister", "Good boy for talking quietly" etc
  • I prefer to give a 3-2-1 warning for trangressions that are not serious - once your child knows that you mean business, often the 3-2-1 warning will be enough (which can be helpful when you are out!). For serious transgressions like hitting and biting, then the time out should be immediate.

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How does the 3-2-1 warning work?

When your child is behaving in an unacceptable way, say "Stop doing that (be specific).

If he doesn't stop, give a second warning, "Stop doing that (be specific) and then give a count down, 3-2-1 with about 1 second between each.

If your child has not responded by 1, then take him immediately to time-out. Do not give a further chance.

Once your child knows that you always follow up on what you say, the 3-2-1 warning may be enough to stop the behavior you don't want.

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What should I do if my toddler plays happily in his room while in time-out?

Nothing. This is not a punishment but a form of child behavior management and it will still work even if your child is happy in time-out.

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What should I do if my toddler leaves the time-out room?

Put him back. Don't make a big fuss because you don't want this to turn into a game. Close the door behind you and then return to your activity (act as if you are completely uninterested in the whole thing - remember, you want to ignore behavior you don't want).

Keeping the time out period shorter usually means that you don't get into the situation where your child leaves time out, so you could try shortening the time-out period. It doesn't have to be a full minute per year and should not be more than that.

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What should I do if my child is screaming when time is up?

Let your child out at the specified time (less than 1 minute/year of age) and look for the first moment that you can give positive reinforcement. So as soon as he takes a breath, say "good boy for being quiet and calm". As long as he doesn't do whatever it was that put in him time out in the first place again, you don't need to do anything. To read more on temper tantrums, click here.

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  • Toddler Taming. Dr Christopher Green. Doubleday. 2001. ISBN:1 86471 053 5

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Last reviewed on 31 August 2011

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Dr Maud MD

Dr Maud MD (MBChB, FRACP, FRCPCH), a specialist pediatrician, provides health information and medical advice for parents of babies and toddlers. Read more about Dr Maud.

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