Discipline is…the next step after time-out

When a child misbehaves, the first (and perhaps only) thing adults may think of is to use time-out. Time-out has become the most used, and possibly the most misused, strategy to respond to a child's behavior.

Time-out was not meant to be a discipline technique. Its original purpose was to give the child a time to calm down (and often the adult as well) so that discipline could follow. It is well known that when a person is upset, he or she is not capable of rational thought. So the teaching and learning that is true discipline cannot happen until all parties are calm.

Over the years, the original purpose of time-out has been lost.

Time-out is now confused with isolation, a discipline technique that removes the child from what is going on. Time-out is now punishment. It is often too long of a time period to be effective, and is not followed by teaching of appropriate behavior. It is now an easy way for tired, busy adults to deal with misbehaving children without having to think too much.

Discipline takes thought and lots of time. Every time an adult interacts with a child, teaching takes place. The question in all situations is, what is the child learning? What does a child who misbehaves learn during the typical use of time-out? It could be, "I [the child] can do something to you [someone else] when you do something I don't like."

Rarely do children learn what they should have done instead of what they should not have done.

Time-out needs to be a gift of space and time to help a child calm down. Time-out is for upset children before they do the wrong thing, not for "bad" children after they have misbehaved. Children need to learn that when a person is really upset, it is OK to do nothing until she is able to think clearly and can choose to do the right thing. Learning to calm oneself before acting is truly a life skill that serves all children well throughout their lives.

Time-out can happen anywhere, in any place that helps a child calm himself.

Time-out needs to last as long as it takes to get emotions under control. There are all kinds and personalities of children and adults, so there are all sorts of ways to bring down the intensity of emotions to a point where the child and adult are able to think calmly. This is when learning and teaching appropriate behavior can happen. For example, a high energy, intense child may need to do something active like take a walk or throw a ball. If an adult requires this intense, active child to sit in a chair, inactivity may fuel the intensity of the emotions and make things worse.

Another child may need to concentrate on something else--read a book, build with blocks--until he is calm. A young child may need an adult's help to get emotions under control; help such as holding, rocking, or singing a quiet tune. Teaching a child to deal with the emotion in a positive way is the first step. As a child gets older, she will gradually be able to do more calming on her own. Some people, both children and adults, need more time to work through intense feelings than others.

When feelings are under control, the child is able to think again and positive behavior can be taught. For toddlers, this teaching needs to happen immediately after they are calm. Preschoolers can wait longer, perhaps several minutes or even hours, before they move on to a review of the rules or learning of a new and acceptable behavior.

Time-out is not about adults exerting power and control over a child. Time-out is "taking a break" and getting emotions under control so a child can learn to be successful at handling a difficult situation. Real discipline--teaching appropriate behavior--happens after time-out.