Time-out. No, really, TIME OUT. This is probably one of the most misused and least understood forms of behavior management (behind spanking - get the double entendre?). Please stop it, read this, and then decide whether you want to use it.
The original name of the procedure defines it much better than the shortened name: "Time-out from positive reinforcement." This literally means that a person who is in time-out must be deprived of anything that is rewarding. This is no joke, because using Time-Out (TO) in the wrong way can end up rewarding behavior that you want to reduce or stop. Pause and think about the kinds of TO that you use, and how they might be rewarding your child.
Varieties of TO
Baby, you send me.
Parents often use a child's room as a place for TO. This is absolutely the worst thing that you can do. A child's room contains multiple opportunities for reward. Most children can rapidly find ways to amuse thenselves in their room even when you make them sit on their bed. The problem here is the way that parents think. They think that when they leave, the child will remain on the bed. They go back to check on the child and find him/her on the bed, concluding that s/he must have stayed there in their absence. I often wonder if the parents can silently and invisibly transport themselves into the child's room, or install a camera/monitor to keep an eye (or two) on them during TO. Staying in child's room during the one or two hours of TO might be a solution. Why don't you try it? Don't talk or answer the telephone while you wait.
Smart parents might think that they can overcome the reward factors of the child's room by sending him/her to a bathroom, parent bedroom, or other location. Does anyone know how many things can be used for fun experiments in bathrooms? My personal favorite is finding out how much toilet paper it takes to make the commode flood. Bathrooms are great places for children to practice their interior designs skills. Parent bedrooms are great because of a supply of perfume, jewelry, and clothing. Those are wonderful opportunities for creative play.
How many folks want to put their child into TO when their behavior becomes inappropriate at the park, supermarket, or shopping mall? Try sending them to their room then. This is not a portable form of TO, is it? Most, but not all, forms of TO suffer from the problem of only being able to be applied in certain settings. There are parents who attempt to apply TO in Walmart by making the child sit on the floor in toy aisle. Nice Try. The selves are not empty at the bottom. A child can be rewarded by being allowed to fantasize about having the toy in front of him/her, or s/he can simply reach for the toy while mom/dad isn't looking. Never leave your child locked in your car as a form of TO, particularly if they know how to start it without a key, and can figure out how to drive.
Some people think that a corner is a great place for TO. It is great if you can temporarily glue the child's head to the corner (don't take me literally). Does anyone have a child who does not look away from the corner during this attempt at TO? Be honest now. Some folks simply put a child on the couch in the Living Room while they (the parent) watch television. There is no reward there, right? There was this one mom who put her child on the floor for TO and handed him a cup of his favorite juice (I'm serious here). By the way, how portable are corners? Some places don't have corners (for example, the park).
One problem with TO is the struggle to get a child to go. This is a "no struggle" variety of TO. The parent simply removes himself/herself to a room of their choice, locks the door, and reads a novel (hence the name). Children (especially fighting siblings) notice the absence, stop fighting, and hunt down the parent. They (or one) find the location and do one or more of the following:
1. Resume the bad behavior outside the door. This clearly demonstrates how rewarding your attention has been to them. Any attention is better than no attention.
2. Beg you to come out with a typical voice characterized as a whine.
3. Break down the door of the room you are in.
You can respond by repeatedly saying (as if you are a scratched CD), "I will come out when you have quiet for as long as I want." The child pauses for 5 seconds, and asks, "Was that long enough?" Don't answer. Wait at least ten seconds (preferably eleven seconds or until you have finished reading a chapter).
The problem, as previously noted, is that you cannot abandon your child at Walmart in order to go to their restroom and read a novel.
It comes with the territory
Carpet squares make handy dandy portable forms of TO. You can put them anywhere and tell a child to get on it and not move. You can takes those almost any place to use for your very own TO spot. The presence of one that has been used before is known to strike fear in the hearts of most kids. People love it because of that. Children love it because they still get the reward of seeing their parent being aggravated. That really is rewarding to many children - I promise. Keeping the child on the square can also be a problem unless you have a way to put up a fence around the carpet square (just joking here).
You won the blue (or any other color) ribbon.
A simple ribbon or button can be designed to signal that child is in TO. Heck, you can even have a t-shirt made that says, "I'm in Time-Out. Don't speak to me" on the front and back. Yeah, that'll work. Ever see a kid approach another and say, "What did you do?" Does anyone remember those signs that kids put on other's backs that say, "Kick me?"
Try the silence of the lambs.
I wish that I had a dollar for every school that has used silent lunch as a punishment. This form of TO is particularly bad for so many reasons that I might miss one. People who really know about changing behavior know that it is best to apply a consequence (like reward, TO, etc.) close (in time) to the behavior. Just saying that the child is going to get the consequence is not enough. Kids who are rambunctious at 8:30 AM get silent lunch. Big deal! Many kids forget the reason for silent lunch, so the teacher has to remind them. Can you hear it? "You were so bad at 8:30 this morning, you have to eat in silence now." What about little Suzy who was not doing anything wrong? Well, she is part of the class so she has to get punished as well. How many teachers actually consider the behavior that happens between 8:30 AM and lunch? What happens if a kid passes gas loudly during silent lunch? How many schools serve beans (more than once a month) at lunch? Everyone laughs and the class gets more punishment. The kids who have silent lunch get to throw their peas and stick straws up their noses in total silence. They get to see other kids enjoying conversation. They get to raise their hand to use the bathroom, where they talk and have fun.
Let's get grounded here.
Grounding is a form of semi-TO. "Semi" means "partial" in more ways than one. A kid gets to be deprived of certain privileges. For example, they can't go out on weekends, but they can still talk to, and see the same friends at school. That's effective, eh? Grounding is often done for so long that a child (even a teenager) forgets the reason for it. Have you every heard of a parent telling a child that he/she is grounded for life? Some kids become experts at begging, so that the grounding ends sooner than originally planned, enabling them to think (and believe) that they have "gotten over" on mom and/or dad. Indeterminate grounding is one way to stop the problem. Why is it so hard to say to a kid, "You are grounded until further notice." You define what grounding entails (all limitations) except for the time. "They'll keep on asking, "Is it done yet?" That sort of anxiety is a priceless form of punishment. Tell them not to worry about it, and that you'll make you mind up soon. By the way, if you ground a child from television, for example, be certain that they can't get to one.
The eyes have it.
One of the best forms of TO that I know is literally within your hands. The origin comes from having done therapy with a pre-school teacher. She complained that she was unable to quiet her pre-school class after lunch. She learned, from the therapist, about having them close their eyes for a matter of seconds. The teacher reported that it worked. The children remained still and quiet while their eyes were closed, and most miraculously, they were calm afterward. The psychologist periodically asked about the ongoing effectiveness of the technique. It worked for the entire school year. Whenever the class was rambunctious, the students eyes closed for seconds. This technique is easily applied individually. Place the small child (you can't do this with child much over seven or eight years old) on your lap with their back toward you. Cross your legs over theirs. Position one hand on the back of their head, and taking care not to poke their eyes, cover their eyes with the other hand. Hold for only ten seconds. You can apply this technique anywhere that you can take your hands. It works great while the child is seated in a shopping cart.
Understanding rules about TO and punishment
1. Never use negative consequences/punishment without rewarding the desirable behavior that you want to increase.
2. Never keep a child in TO for so long that he/she cannot remember the reason for TO.
3. Understand the "Punishment Burst." Punished behavior gets worse before it gets better, leading people to believe that the consequence is not working. Persist a while longer.
4. Apply any consequence (reward or punishment) immediately after the target behavior.
5. Avoid using group consequences unless you are certain that all members of the group engaged in the problem behavior.
Think about the special case of attachment disordered children.
Most children with attachment disorder have abandonment issues. Most forms of TO represent another type of abandonment and bring back very bad memories. The technique of covering the eyes with your hands allows for physical contact as well as a consequence. The holding reduces the abandonment issues, while the darkness provides a TO consequence (take care about the darkness as well - you may have to stop covering the eyes and just position the child with his her back to you).
Some forms of TO can be a reward.
Finding the recesses of the mind.
TO can actually be a break that gives children the energy to continue. There was a teacher who wanted to stop the loss of attention that his middle school students experienced about half way through class. Recess does not happen in American middle schools. We came up with a guided, in seat recess. The entire class, with eyes closed, was guided through imagining their activities at home after school. They were told to continue imagining. The TO lasted only a minute. His students were much more focused on their school work after the pause that refreshed them.
Playing non-musical chairs.
Half way through a class period, have your students put their books (all of them) on their desk. Move the front row to the back, and have the other rows move up one row. Vary this with moving the back row to the front, and the others move back one row, the left column of seats to the extreme right, the righ colmn of seats to the extreme left, etc. The movement is a positive form of TO.