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Time-out or time-in? How to encourage good behaviour

Highlights
  • By 2 years of age, you can start to use time-outs as a tool to discipline your child.
  • Don’t shout or show emotion, and make sure your voice and your face send the same message in a calm and kind way.
  • Never suggest or make your child feel as if time-out means that you love or care for her less.

What is a time-out?

Time-outs are a way to take your child out of a situation where he is doing something unacceptable. By sending your child away from the trouble spot to sit quietly by himself you can help stop negative behaviour like hitting a playmate or grabbing a toy out of another child’s hand, and change the situation. 

How can I explain time-out to my young child?

By 2 years of age, you can start to use time-outs as a tool to discipline your child. Explain what will happen if your child misbehaves by telling him simply, “If you do something you shouldn’t and don’t stop doing it when mommy and daddy ask you to, you’ll have to go sit in time-out.” Show him by pretending with a stuffed animal or doll to help him understand.

How should I use time out?

  • When your child misbehaves, give a warning before sending her for a time-out. Don’t shout or show emotion, and make sure your voice and your face send the same message in a calm and kind way.
  • If she continues the behaviour, send her to a designated safe area such as a chair, hallway, playpen or quiet corner.
  • Briefly say what she has done so she can connect the behaviour with the time-out. A simple phrase is enough, such as, “Mommy said no hitting.”
  • If she doesn’t go by herself, lead her by the hand or carry her as you would an object, not in a “hugging” manner.
  • Be consistent, but flexible too. If your 2-year-old won’t sit still for 2 minutes, it’s okay to sit with her or to limit the time-out to 1 minute instead of 2.
  • When she is in time-out, make sure she can’t watch television or interact with other people—including you. Don’t negotiate when your child is in time-out. Ignore her, even if she shouts or apologizes.
  • Never suggest or make your child feel as if time-out means that you love or care for her less.

How long should time-out last?

Time-out should last 1 minute for each year of your child's age. So if your child is 2, time-out should be 2 minutes, 3 minutes for a 3-year-old,  and so on. Time-out should last no longer than 5 minutes.

Use a kitchen timer. Put it where your child can see and hear it.

If your child keeps getting up from the designated spot, gently pick him up and put him back without speaking or making eye contact. When you put him back, reset the timer. This teaches him that you mean what you say. Be consistent.

But remember, the point of a time-out is to calm your child down and redirect his attention, not frustrate him to the point that he forgets why he’s there.

How should time-out end?

Make it clear that you decide when the time-out ends. When it’s over, you can say, "Time-out is over. You can get up now." After the time-out, it’s okay to repeat the rule (“no hitting”), but don’t discuss it any more than that. If she hurt another person, ask her to apologize, and then create a fresh start by offering a new activity.

If your child repeats the behaviour, start the process again.

What is a time-in?

A time-in, or “catching the child being good”, is used to encourage good behaviour through positive interaction and by talking with your child when he is misbehaving.

Here are some examples of how to use them:

  • Giving your child lots of hugs and praise when she does something you like, especially if it’s the opposite of what sometimes gets her into time-out. For example, if she gets time-outs for hitting her sister, praise her for being a good sister when you see them getting along.
  • Change the activity or encourage your child to have quiet time by herself when you see a situation starting to get out of control.
  • Help your child learn how to manage her emotions by offering a quiet cuddle and helping her talk about feelings. Teach her the words she needs. For example: “Are you mad/sad/afraid?”)
  • Teach your child new words or behaviours to help her move out of a situation that could be negative.
  • Talk about different ways to deal with the same kind of problem next time.

Reviewed by the following CPS committees:
Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Committee
Public Education Advisory Committee

Last Updated: November 2011