Use of “time-outs” as a discipline strategy

Some of my ideas about learning and personal development may seem “old school”, but I really believe in culling the best of whatever traditions and cultures I encounter. I’m a product of a unique blend of intergenerational, cultural, academic, and professional influences, and I try to bring the best of all those perspectives to my teaching and way of life.

Recently I was inspired to think about the strategy of “time-outs” as a disciplinary tool used by parents to manage toddlers’ behavior. In the history of parenting, it seems to be a relatively recent term that was designed to help parents keep from losing their tempers and resorting to more “harmful” behavior modification strategies (in the extreme case either physical or verbal abuse). I have found that its effectiveness, like most tools, depends on applying it in the appropriate situations.

First, a disclaimer: I’m not a licensed “supernanny” or child pscyhologist, only an observer of people and the emotional responses of children. I know I’m inviting lots of discussion by posting this, and I welcome the opinions and comments of others!

My definition of a “time-out” is when parents decide they want to limit their child’s “acting out” or “temper tantrums” or other unacceptable behavior by taking the child out of the situation for a specified period of time, after they have tried unsuccessfully to console or reason with the child.  The rationale is twofold: it gives parents an alternative to escalating into more overtly negative tactics (like yelling or hitting in the worst case), but also presents the opportunity for the child to associate something negative with the behavior that generated the “time-out” – with the hope that over time the child will gradually learn not to repeat that behavior in order to not to get the “time-out”. This is a classic example of punishment as defined by B.F. Skinner in the field of operant conditioning/behavioral psychology. In other words, it is the use of a negative consequence in order to extinguish a behavior.

Now that’s the theory, which I acknowledge is logical and well-validated experimentally. The problem comes when a “time-out” – a punishment – is misapplied as a means to encourage (or induce) a particular behavior. If the consequence results in the desired outcome of the child instead of the desired outcome of the parent, then it is not effective in shaping the behavior desired by the parent.

Consider this example:

  1. The parents’ goal (the positive behavior we want to encourage) is a child listening to instructions and practicing the violin every day…
  2. Whenever the parent says it is time to practice, the child resists by throwing a temper tantrum (whining, crying, lying on the floor), making up excuses (I’m tired, My arm hurts, I have to go to the bathroom, I’m hungry, Look at the pretty trees outside!), or any number of strategies that are already well-honed in the child’s repertoire by the age of 3 based on what they know the parents will respond to. The child’s goal is to avoid a perceived negative situation (in this case, it could be the physical and mental effort required by practicing, or simply the act of listening to an authority figure).
  3. The key assumption is that the child does want to play the violin but, like most human beings, is trying to find the path of least effort and is expressing their desire to procrastinate.
  4. If the parent responds by giving the child a “time-out” each time they resist, the child is actually achieving their desired goal of not practicing. They are learning with each “time-out” that they can control when practicing happens simply by behaving in a negative way. The “time-out” is no longer a punishment but a negative reinforcement of the resistant behavior. The child begins to learn that in order to avoid practicing, all they need to do is act out (see above).
  5. The final key assumption here is that the parent believes in the value of their child’s learning to play the violin, and that practicing is a necessary part of that. In other words, it is impossible to believe in “wanting the child to play the violin” without also believing in the need for the child to learn how to practice.

The kernels to think about from this analysis are the following:

  • What is the learned response that you are trying to induce? A “time-out” is an effective strategy for extinguishing certain negative behaviors, but is not effective for inducing a certain desired set of positive actions. A “time-out” is most effective when used to take away a child’s privileges but not learning a new set of proactive behaviors.
  • Why do you believe the child should listen to you? I have found that if I speak to children with a level of respect that I would extend to any other adults, and speak from my heart in explaining to them why I am asking them to do the things I ask of them, they respond to this. I can see a change in their eyes that says they appreciate being taken seriously. However, it usually takes multiple attempts and repeated explanations with a consistent message (ie, patience) in order to see a visible change in their behavior. Having seen this change in people is why I believe in what I do.
  • What are some alternatives to using “time-outs”? I’ll save that for an upcoming post…

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