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A Better Time-Out

A Better Time-Out Time-Out is a great tool for parents to use with children. But, what if there is a better, more effective way to use Time-Out? To find out if this article will help you, answer yes or no to the following questions about how you use Time-Out.

Time-Out Quiz

  • A child should be in time out one minute for every year of age. (Example: A 4 year-old would get 4 minutes of Time-Out.)
  • Time-Out must be in a chair or mat away from the activity.
  • Time-Out is effective 100% of the time

If you answered “no” to any of the questions, you are a rock star. If you answered yes to any of the questions, read on about how you can make Time-Out more effective. It can save you time and aggravation, while improving your child’s behavior.


Time-Out is not a consequence if Time-In is something your kid hates. For instance, if your child is doing a chore, or more likely not doing a chore, Time-Out may seem like a great escape! They are already doing something they do not like, so Time-Out is not so bad. That is why Time-In has to be something they like. (For the chore issue, you might have to use another tactic, like a reward when they finish.)

Time-In is different for every kid. For our purposes, let’s use a situation where your kid is having fun, either with family or in a group of friends. Imagine children playing a game of tag. If your seven year-old is having fun, but not following the rules, sitting in a Time-Out for seven minutes may mean that the game is over before Time-Out ends. Seven minutes in the Time-Out chair may get your child even more agitated and lead to worse behaviors. Instead of one big, long, "minute per year" consequence, tweak your skills with using the Gradual Time-Out.

It begins with short interventions, which give your child opportunities and motivation to do what they are supposed to do. It also helps to minimize tantrums and crying. Think in levels of Time-Out that start small and get more strict. In this scenario, let’s imagine children sitting at a table playing Lego’s.


Level 1: The Warning Time-Out

  • This occurs right where the kid is.
  • Remove toys or other fun things they are doing while the child stays at the table.
  • Say, “The rule is: Keep your hands to yourself.” If your child is verbal, have them repeat it back to you if that is helpful.
  • Avoid a lecture, but make certain the child understands what is expected.
  • The wait time can be about 30 seconds.
  • The goal is for your child to behave appropriately.
  • Return the toys.

Level 2: Sit & Watch

  • Move the child’s chair one foot or so out away from the table, where the toys cannot be reached.
  • The idea is for them to watch the fun while they do not get to participate. Being further away from the group emphasizes that their inappropriate behavior has consequences and that they need to follow the rules to have Time-In.
  • Ask, “What’s the rule?” If they are unable to remember it, you can repeat it.
  • If your child gets upset, wait until they calm down. You may need to say, “You need to be calm before you can play.”
  • If this is necessary, wait about 30 – 60 seconds after the child has calmed down before allowing them back into the group.
  • If the child is older and you think it is necessary, it is okay to let them know their wait time does not begin until they calm down.
  • Move the chair back to the table.

Level 3: Time-Out

  • Here is where you use the Time-Out chair, mat, or a place to sit that well away from the group.
  • At this stage, you should stand between your child and the activity to block or obscure their view of what is going on. The trick is to stand in a way that you can appear to ignore the child, but keep an eye on them at the same time.
  • The amount of time in Time-Out is about the child calming down and agreeing to behave. The length of time at this stage should be longer than the previous levels, but not necessarily one minute per year of age.
  • The time in the Time-Out chair does not have to be long, but long enough to make Time-In attractive and for the child to agree that they are going to follow the rules.
  • Ask your child what behavior is expected from them.
  • Let them return to the activity.

Level 4: Relocation

  • Sit in another room, while accompanied by an adult.
  • Relocating requires that safety measures are in place.
    • You should never lock a child in a room alone.
    • Make certain that the child cannot hurt themselves.
  • If your child reaches this point, their behavior would have to be out of control, requiring them to calm down.
  • Relocation is a consequence for a child that is not capable of self-control or who is unable to self-soothe, like a child having a tantrum or meltdown.
  • Younger children can take a nap.
  • Older children can be sent to their rooms alone.

What is great about the Gradual Time-Out is that it is incremental. It provides several opportunities for your child to correct their behavior. Each consequence costs them a little bit more of time away from fun; but, it only gets intrusive when they refuse to follow the rules, or lose their ability to be calm.

Note: There is a big difference between not keeping your hands to yourself and something like biting. If a child inflicts pain or harm on another, it would be very appropriate to skip to Level 3 or 4, depending on the child’s previous behavior. If biting is occurring frequently, Sit and Watch might not be a good consequence. Try not to jump levels, except for intentional rule-breaking, harmful or painful behavior, or dangerous behaviors.

(Image by: Flickr User Imelda Whitfield)