Leading and Caring for Children

Consequence Alternative

Time Out

Time Out is the removal from a rewarding environment — where the mistake occurred — for a short period of time.

I have used Time Out around about 800 times on hundreds of unique children for an equal number of awful offenses. I was taught that Time Out was a good thing, because it didn’t hurt like spanking or child abuse. I did my duty trying to figure out how to make it work when it obviously didn’t, so I kept trying different things in my 20 years as a classroom teacher. I like my brand of research: I watch carefully, videotape, and keep records. Gradually I find what works without the need to convince anybody or any committee. I offer what I have learned, and you can try it out. If it works, you have another tool. If you are like me, I have to try something out for almost a year before I get skilled enough in leading it to be able to evaluate its worth.

Common Assumptions

The intent of Time Out is to remove rewards for a short period of time. Time Out is not supposed to be the administration of anything unpleasant. The previously discussed consequence, Deny Activities, removed opportunity for an activity. Time Out removes possible rewards in the environment. Both Deny Activities and Time Out are subtractions of something pleasant, not additions of something unpleasant.

Not everyone thinks of it this way. For example, I had a student who worked in juvenile corrections who said to the  class, “We use Time Out at our facility; we move the person to an isolation cell for 24 hours.” I know people who call holding a child in their arms Time Out. I have seen people implement Time Out by putting a child in a place of restraint, standing guard, until the child is quiet, then setting a timer for a period of alone time, sometimes as long as 30 minutes. I have watched teachers remove a child from his class, guide him into a padded room, and lock the door; they also called that Time Out. Sadly, I have done that kind of thing, too. I strapped Dennis to a chair with a seatbelt. I also pinned him in a corner with my body. We called both Time Out. I think it is a basic fact that people have different conceptions of the method of Time Out.

What I Have Learned About Time Out

smashbwGenerally, children who are sent to Time Out are up; they are wild; they are aggressive; they may be angry or crying. We can see they are energized; they are emotional; they are active; they are not passively slumped in a corner. There is also the possibility of the adult being worked up, too.

An adult now removes this child to somewhere else. Let us say it is a chair nearby, because that is the least removal I can imagine. Now this energized child is required to move from the scene of the crime to someplace nearby for a Time Out. When you are directed to do anything, you have only two choices: obedience or disobedience. Obedience would be to sit there; disobedience would be to refuse to be bullied.

If I were the hyped up child who chose obedience, I would sit there fuming for a while with all sorts of self-justification and nasty thoughts in my head. After a short time I would begin to be a bit bored. If I had to stay there longer, I would be really bored. At that point the creative bug might arrive to make life more interesting. I could entertain myself or push back with something devilish. Maybe tip my chair back? Or tip it over? I could pull down anything within reach. I could pee. I could spit. The longer I had to stay there, the worse it would get.

The first lesson I learned was that the best time to remove a child from Time Out is at the point of beginning boredom and no longer. If you accept this as a tentative premise, then a guide would be to keep the time as short as possible to avoid the dangers of creativity. We simply want a consistent way to offer a bit of calming time. A reasonable time is 1 to 3 minutes.

Keep the time short.

Then there’s the other option where the hyped up child chose disobedience. “You can’t make me!” Now the adult is in a power war with no choice but to apply additional power. Unless the adult physically holds the child there — or straps the child down as I did to Dennis — the adult can only keep trying to increase control —possibly removal to the hall. If that’s still a struggle, what could be next? Removal to another room with a door? If now we have a struggle to keep the door shut, then what? A locked door? In most schools such a practice is prohibited, and I agree that it is unethical. Just like that staff person at juvenile detention, we face a problem in which the alternatives get narrower and narrower into applying coercive force and isolation. No longer is Time Out subtracting pleasantness, it is adding unpleasantness. The disobedient child pushes back even more. This can be a serious problem for those children with push-back experience or who have been in Time Out often. Anyone can easily recognize the child who enters school with lots of experience of being timed out.

It’s a trap I want to avoid, so I began to look at it this way. The child entering my classroom has not made any mistakes yet, so all is calm and pleasant. I take advantage of that time to I greet the child warmly and explain why we are applying Time Out as a consequence. Let’s say the problem was hurting other children:

“We have been talking about the problem of your hurting others in this classroom. We have discussed this with the other teachers and with your family. We thought the best way to help you and keep the other children safe would be to have you take a Time Out for a short time. Let me show you how this would work. If you hurt someone, we would invite you to sit on this chair right here for a short time until you calm down. We don’t want it to be for too long, a minute or so. When you have relaxed, you can rejoin the group. That is all there is to it. However, if you refuse to sit there, we will move you out here (outside the immediate space). This might be better if you need a different place to be to calm down. If you don’t accept being out here, then we have a different problem. The problem becomes that you are pushing against us as if we are the problem instead of people who care about you. It’s also true that you would not be using that minute or so as an opportunity for you get yourself calm. If pushing against us becomes the problem, we will do something else or send you home.”

Use a sequence of stations
Specify the entire arrangement in advance as an opportunity for calmness — not punishment

Most importantly, its what happens after the Time Out that matters more than anything. No matter how the child looks, or what the child says, I treat the child as calmer. After all that was what I was saying we were doing. I greet the child warmly with love and affection, and I’m kinda silly. I like giving the child a hug if that is appropriate. The joy you can offer at the end of incarceration makes Time Out effective. Craziness moves to calmness. Calmness leads to love, care, trust, and humor. The release from Time Out is not the time for lectures, coerced promises, apologies, or any further management of the mistake. Dues are paid.
Make it fun afterward.

One more thing. I really don’t want to share the story of this child and I. Suffice it to say that I got really, really mad at four-year-old boy. When it happened I was not in a good space. I was anxious about the safety of what the other children were doing, and this boy bit me on my bottom. I lifted him up by the arms and actually threw him into another room and closed the door. I was not cool. I was ashamed of myself. I continue to regret that mistake. We all have to stay calm. We may not be calm inside, but we have to look like we are.
Keep calm.

Strict Time Out

  • keep the time short
  • use a sequence of stations
  • specify the entire arrangement in advance
  • make it fun afterwards
  • keep calm

I call this “strict” because I am applying power in an intentional framework to maximize the calming time and minimize the push-back. I remain the responsible one. This took me years of regular time-outing of violent children to learn these guides. After I figured out these five guides and had it work, I finally understood. From that day forward I never used a Strict Time Out again, for it had become clear that I would never have the need again. I released myself from the box of applying power, which was my own kind of mental confinement. That recognition enabled me to be more confident in myself and more honest with the children.

“When you are ready.” Time Out

The most effective Time Out I have ever employed follows these simple rules.

  • In a neutral time, such as entering school for the day or in between activities, the adult explains the procedure for a “when you’re ready” time out and why this consequence was decided upon by the management team.
  • After the mistake, the adult signals to the child to move to a pre-specified place where this individual child may most likely calm down, like near the coat racks, for example.
  • “When you are ready, you can come back.”
  • A variable amount of time passes, since the length is chosen by the child physically returning.
  • When the child returns, the adult greets the child as if the child is indeed ready. The adult trusts that the physical act of returning means readiness even if the child doesn’t really look ready. Despite lingering tears or resentment, the act of returning means it is over. No negativity awaits. Invitations are offered. The birds sing; happiness abounds.

Of course, sometimes the child is not really ready, indicated by the fact that he or she does the same mistake again. That’s the way it goes. The only way to know if the child is ready or not is by the child’s actions, not his or her appearance. If the child calms and centers, then all is good. If the child continues the same problem, “Oops, your body is telling me you are not ready. I invite you to go back. When you are really ready you can come back.”  I remain willing to repeat the process very calmly as many times as it takes. I get paid this same low salary no matter what. I try to be gentle, trusting, and composed.

The child’s recovery is not my responsibility; it is the child’s. Leadership and care are my responsibility, and I take both roles very seriously.

Run Away Together

I learned about this variant of Time Out from Bev Bos, lovely soul, several years after I stopped being in the early childhood classroom. I have had reports from many students that it was successful when they tried it. Children usually don’t get enough exercise anyway.

It works this way. One adult leaves the building with the out-of-control child and runs with him or her until the child becomes tired of running. On the walk back to the classroom the adult listens to the child’s point of view and the child hears the adult’s point of view. It’s a time for closeness.

Sit and Watch

This is a version of Time Out for the little ones. When the very young child makes a mistake, like biting another child, the adult lifts the child out of the activity, places him or her a very short distance away, and gets really happy and playful with the other children. After about 15-30 seconds the adult invites the child to return. When the child indicates agreement in any way — even simply by making eye contact — the adult brings the child back and gives the child lots of attention and playfulness, too. In my experience, I most care about that little communication indicator, a nod, a change in facial expression, etc. If I don’t get it, I model a nod. “You can tell me  yes.”

  • “I am moving you.”
  • “You can sit here and watch.”
  • Talk up the other children with warmth.
  • After 15-30 seconds invite the child back.
  • “You ready to come back?” Get some indication of yes. (If nothing, turn back to the other children for 15 seconds and then try again.)
  • Talk up the child as he or she begins to play.

elephantThere you have my thoughts on Time Out: there’s several ways to do it that might work. I would hate to return to the days when I thought Time Out was my only option.

Before we get to my favorite consequence types, it’s essential that we address the elephant in the room, the often tried, the habitual, the unfortunate administration of unpleasantness in the hope the mistake never happens again. Aversives.

Protocol for Managing Difficult Behavior

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  1. Specify the behavior exactly
  2. Take a before measure
  3. Identify the A-B-C pattern


  1. Change the consequences
  2. Pick a new behavior to reward
  3. Change the antecedents
  4. Continue to measure

Examples of SandyJeremy, and Charlie

Deny Activities
Time Out
Personal Record
Positive Practice

Next Aversives