Timeouts are often used as a discipline strategy for young children by parents, teachers, and caregivers.
Not to be confused with removing a child from a situation to help them calm down and control their feelings. That's a valid technique and is beyond the scope of this article.
What I am discussing today is when timeouts are used as a discipline strategy to change behavior. It usually goes something like this:
the child is warned that if they don't stop their behavior they will get a timeout. If they continue with the unacceptable behavior, then they are asked to sit in a corner, on a carpet, or alone in a room for a set amount of time.
If the child is lucky, then when time is up the parent or caregiver would have a chat with the child to explain the problem and stress the solution.
However, most children don't get an explanation. They are expected to apologize and promise to not repeat the behavior.
Timeouts usually end with apologies, tears, and hugs. Then life moves on.
Timeouts look like a fairly simple and benign way to discipline a child. It is certainly a big improvement from spanking or yelling. However, in its subtlety, it is a broken system for discipline.
Disciplining a child has three main objectives:
To stop doing something that is considered unacceptable
To learn why it is not acceptable, both physically and emotionally (dangerous, rude, mean...etc)
To understand and subscribe to an acceptable alternative
yes, that lucky child who got an explanation after a timeout is close to hitting all three objectives.
But timeouts fail every time when it comes to timing, feelings, and learning problem-solving skills.
Timeouts interrupt the flow of learning
When we ask children to take a timeout, we are interrupting the natural flow of learning. Developmentally, a child's attention span doesn't lend itself well to delayed responses.
By the time we get to the problem-solving portion of this experience, children may have already moved on, even if their timeout was only a minute or two.
The more immediate the reaction is and the sooner the child starts working on a solution, the deeper the learning from the experience.
Timeouts disrupt social/emotional learning
Children are still learning what feelings are, how to express them, and how to manage them.
If we don't stop them in the middle of a "teaching/learning moment" to explain the social/emotional impact of this particular action or behavior, then we are depriving these children from connecting their action or behavior to the impact that it has on those around them.
It also stops them from connecting with and trying to make sense of their own feelings.
Timeouts do not get to the core of the problem
This is the biggest and most important issue that I see with timeouts.
What exactly does isolating a child and then asking them to apologize accomplish? How does it get to the bottom of the problem, offer a convincing and acceptable alternative, and support the learning process?
So, are timeouts completely useless then?
No. Like I mentioned in the beginning of the article, timeouts are a great way to calm down big feelings and get them under control. This works for both parents and children. When the feeling gets too big, we detach from the situation to calm down.
Instead, try "Freeze The Moment"
In some movies, when they really want you to focus on the moment, they freeze it, then play it in slow motion so that you can capture every detail or admire the movement.
learning is a slow process. In order to capture all the different lessons, we need to slow things down. and so a technique that is similar to the one in these movies would result in deeper, longer lasting learning.
there are several variations of this method to match different learning abilities and developmental stages. This one should work well with children between the ages of 2.5 and 5 years. Connect with me if you are interested in other variations.
First, you freeze the situation (by asking your child or children to freeze, literally!)
If bodies or feelings are too big to calm down on their own, offer a hug or hold hands to help calm down.
Then, walk through "the scene" and point out the main problem as well as 2-3 impacts of this problem whether on emotions or physical items. This step should only take about a minute.
It is important to avoid overwhelming children:
focus on only one problem.
use short impactful sentences. These are typically 3-5 words maximum.
Before you unfreeze your children, ask them to each if they can find one more detail or impact.
Together, slowly work through big emotions and brainstorm a solution that addresses "bodies, feelings, and things."
Finally, time to clean up. This includes apologies, cleaning up physical messes, and putting away items that are out of place.
This technique takes about 5 minutes the first time, but going through it will give you a much stronger discipline foundation that truly helps children learn and grow with every mistake. Your return on investment here is totally worth it.
You'll know you've succeeded when you see your children freeze automatically as soon as they sense that they made a mistake and follow this process on their own. If they are anything like my daughter, they might even start teaching it to their dolls and friends.