Should you give your child a time-out? It depends

July 27, 2017

One of the hardest parts of being a parent or teacher is dealing with behavior problems. Tantrums, aggression, and oppositional behaviors are painful for everyone involved, and when they are persistent, they increase a child’s risk of long-term consequences like mental health disorders, special education placements, and problems with peer relationships.

Part of the problem is that “unfortunately, parents and teachers are often woefully unprepared for effectively analyzing and positively intervening on problem behavior,” write psychologists Jeanne Donaldson and Jennifer Austin in an article for Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Too often, they say, adults “turn to punishment as their primary intervention strategy, which can undermine relationships and produce new problem behaviors.” More effective strategies can be found in an approach they review called behavior analysis. That approach focuses on the underlying causes for behavior, and identifies which strategies will work best in a given situation. It illuminates, for example, why time-out is sometimes effective and sometimes makes the problem worse.

Most children act out at some point, but when a child engages in the same problem behavior on a regular basis, it’s usually because she is getting some kind of reinforcement from it, according to the psychologists. The reinforcement could be attention from an adult or peer, a tangible thing like a begged-for treat, the removal of something a child doesn’t like (such as a disliked vegetable or a rule about cleaning up), or even a pleasant sensation like the thrill of risk-taking or feeling in control. To figure out what the reinforcement is, behavior analysts do something a bit like an allergy test, in which a doctor exposes the patient to small doses of several different allergens in a controlled setting to identify which ones create a reaction. But instead of allergens, behavior analysts test out different ways of provoking and then reacting to a child’s oppositional behavior. (Teachers and parents also frequently take a more natural approach, observing and recording when they see the behavior, what may have caused it, and what happened afterward.)

Once they know what reward is motivating the child, parents and teachers can then stop providing it after the problem behavior and find a way to provide the same reward for more appropriate behavior. “For example, if tantrums…are maintained by parent attention, [we can help by] teaching the child to appropriately ask for attention, teaching the parent to provide attention when the child asks appropriately, and teaching the parent to minimize attention during and immediately following tantrums,” Donaldson and Austin explain.

Many parents and teachers apply the same consequence no matter the situation, but behavior analysts suggest that is likely to have limited success. In fact, failing to understand the reason for the behavior can actually make matters worse. This brings us to the popular “time-out” strategy for addressing behavior problems.

According to Donaldson and Austin, time-out can work when the child’s behavior is seeking attention or getting a tangible reward, because it removes the child from the thing she is trying to get and teaches her that her behavior won’t achieve her goals. On the other hand, time-out can be unproductive if the child’s behavior is an effort to escape from something; for example, if he is acting up in class so he doesn’t have to do the work or throwing food during dinner so that he will be released from the table. In those cases, time-out actually provides the desired reward. The researchers also caution that time-out should be used in combination with efforts to teach and encourage more positive behavior, and they offer some research-based guidelines for what an effective time-out looks like: it should be brief (3-5 minutes) and doesn’t need to isolate the child from other people or require her to calm down before returning to the original situation.

Just as importantly as addressing challenging behavior, adults can use the behavior analysis approach to prevent problems from occurring in the first place. The studies Donaldson and Austin reviewed suggest that children are less likely to act out when:

  • Teachers give children some kind of positive or neutral attention approximately every 4 minutes
  • Adults give children more positive attention (e.g. compliments) than negative attention (e.g. reprimands)
  • Attention for negative behavior is “quick, clear, and direct” and the interaction moves on
  • Children have some choice in their tasks (e.g. classwork, chores). Studies show that it’s not just about how much the child likes the task, but also the opportunity to choose it.
  • Expectations for behavior are clear
  • The environment is set up to encourage appropriate behavior and to minimize temptations to engage in problematic behaviors


The bottom line is that the “why” and “how” matter as much as the “what” and “when,” both for the child and the adults trying to help him.

Drawn from “Environmental and Social Factors in Preventing, Assessing, and Treating Problem Behavior in Young Children” by Jeanne M. Donaldson, Jennifer L. Austin in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.