Life's Tool Box – A Guide for Parents and Educators

March 25, 2011

Time Out – The Lock Box of Parenting

Filed under: Tools for Life Posts — by Life's Toolbox @ 2:08 am
Tags: , , , , ,

  Your toddler grabbed something from a  sibling, your adolescent cursed at the dinner table, the student in the third row threw paper at a classmate, what do you do?  If you are like many parents and educators you send the offender to “time out”, locking him or her away from the rest of the family or class.  Sending a child to the corner, to a room, into the hallway is an attempt to punish negative behavior and isolate the trouble maker from the rest of the family or class.  This punitive “lock box” technique is poorly understood, and often overused resulting in limited effectiveness.

                Time-out was developed by behavior specialists and is properly called “time out from reinforcement”.  It refers to a strategy used following a child engages in negative or inappropriate behavior by removing the possibility of reinforcement from the child for a brief period of time.  There are several components to true time out that are rarely satisfied in home and school situations.  First, the removal of reinforcement cannot be accomplished if the child does their time out in a bedroom filled with toys, or in the corner of the classroom where peers are providing attention and encouragement.  Time-out will have little or no impact if the intended isolation (i.e. sending a child to the office, or to another room) actually results in opportunity for socialization or engaging in cool, fun, alternatives.  Mostly, time-out, which is usually time-away, can only have an impact, if time-in is valuable, enjoyed, and sought after.

                Time-out can be a highly effective strategy for decreasing negative behaviors. Volumes have been written about all the specific parameters that can make it work best.   But none of this information trumps the most important factor in time out success.  Time out only works in the context of a highly positive relationship or highly rewarding environment.  Children won’t mind being placed in a isolated “lock-box” if it means being separated from boring activities or people they don’t feel that connected to in the first place.  Like so much of parenting and teaching, what we do, and how we build relationships matters. 

Upgrading your lock-box is one way to go.  Some schools invest in time out rooms, where disruptive students can safely do their time.   Some parents choose  to set up spots at home where time-out can be served.  The real pay-off of time-out will only come from putting at least as much energy into what time-in is like – creating the bonds and the environments that keep children wanting to engage with us.    As a wonderful bonus, in building relationships and making our time together rewarding,  we may be able to largely lock time-out away in our parenting tool box.

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