Time-Out: Avoiding the Punishment Trap


I have a dilemma about time-out. I tell my students that time-out is not a punishment, but I know it can feel like punishment when I send them to time-out for acting out. It probably doesn’t help that their previous teachers may have used time-out as a punishment—and I’ve used it myself as punishment in previous years. What can I do to shift us all into the new mentality?

Answer (from NEFC co-founder Ruth Sidney Charney):

Our actions often reflect our true intentions or ingrained habits of thinking. It is important, as you suggest in your question, to start by examining our own motivations and tone as we use this procedure. What do we believe is the purpose of our classroom time-out system?

I find it helpful to remind myself that learning impulse control is a fundamental task of child development. Children are learning how to balance their own desires with the desires of the community. As they learn, they make mistakes. Indeed, we all have our moments when we start to lose control, head down a hill, and need to apply our figurative brakes. The intention of timeout is not to make children feel bad or to make them “pay” for their actions, but to help them apply their internal brakes and learn to steer themselves out of trouble.

Once we are clear that this is the purpose of time-out, it’s important to help children reach the same understanding. When they realize that what we most want them to learn is self-control, they will be less likely to see time-out as punishment. Here are some ways to help students reach this understanding:

1. Present time-out as a way to learn to make good choices.

Talk with students about the purpose of time-out. I explain that time-out is one way of helping them learn to make good choices. I define “good choices” as ones that show independence, responsibility, and maturity.

I also look for concrete, visual ways to help children understand the dilemma of wanting to have their own way on the one hand, and having compelling reasons for acting with restraint and consideration on the other.

With primary grade children, I’ve often described this dilemma as the “battle between the wanna’s and the gotta’s.” We wanna keep talking, but we gotta remember that others are working. We wanna say something mean, but we gotta think about how others would be hurt by our mean words. Children can brainstorm lots of other good examples. I talk with the children about how sometimes when you give in to the wanna’s, it’s okay. But sometimes there are negative consequences—people get hurt, the classroom gets too noisy, there aren’t enough materials to go around, etc.

We then talk about “using our brakes” to stop ourselves from doing the wanna’s that can bring bad consequences. I tell the children that when we use our brakes, we are better able to take care of the classroom rules and act with respect and responsibility. Finally, we return to the idea of time-out as a way to learn to use brakes, to shift gears, to gain control over our impulses.

2. Ask students what would make time-out feel less like punishment.

Invite students to help set up procedures that would help them use time-out as a positive way to learn. Certainly, some time-out procedures are not negotiable. For example, when the teacher tells a student to go to time-out, the student must go. And while in time-out, a student may not interact with classmates or make distracting noises.

However, there are some procedures that students can help shape. Here are some ideas children might have (or you might suggest) for making time-out feel less punitive:

  • A different name for time-out. Students can decide whether they’d like to call timeout “thinking time,” “taking a break,” “taking a vacation,” or some other name of their own invention.
  • A comfortable time-out place. Options may include a comfortable chair, a pillow, or a table.
  • A behavior reminder. Students might want the teacher to give them a reminder of the rules and a chance to correct their behavior before sending them to time-out.
  • A time-out signal. Students might prefer that the teacher use a subtle hand signal that means “go to time-out,” which might draw less attention than the spoken word “timeout.”
  • A way to keep time while in time-out. Students may suggest that they be allowed to use an egg timer, an hourglass, or other physical time-keeping object so they feel less like they’re in time-out “forever.”
  • A way to tell their side of the story. When told to go to time-out, students must go immediately. I tell students there’s to be no arguing or explaining of what happened. But students should be reassured that they will have a chance later to explain if they want to. Children might help devise a system for indicating that they’d like to have a conference with the teacher later for this purpose. Older students may like filling out a worksheet during time-out that lets them describe what happened as well as what rule they think was forgotten.
3. Use time-out in a calm, matter-of-fact way.

Children are less apt to feel punished when time-out is done in a matter-of-fact way. This includes:

  • The teacher using a quiet tone of voice to send children to time-out.
  • Using time-out democratically—for any student who needs to apply brakes, not just the same few students over and over.
  • Making sure students have practiced and are familiar with the time-out routine, from how they will be signaled to go to timeout, to how they will be released from time-out.
  • Sticking to the agreed-upon time-out routine consistently.
4. Welcome children back into the fold after time-out.

Children need to know that we all feel bad at times when we lose control or make a bad choice. They need clear signals from teachers that it’s okay to make mistakes, that mistakes are part of learning. They need assurance that they are still liked. I’ve come to realize that how children are welcomed back after time-out is a critical part of using timeout well. Some children just need a friendly nod or a quick validation such as “Good, I’m glad to see you’re ready to join us now.” Some may need a short check-in conference in which the teacher asks, “Do you know why I sent you to time-out? What do you think was going on? Do you need some help to make sure it doesn’t happen again tomorrow?”

All this said, my experience has been that there are always some children who find time-out punitive no matter what the teacher says or does. For those few, time-out may not be the most suitable strategy. I don’t think it’s possible for any approach to work for every student all the time. However, I can keep checking my own intentions and my practices. I can keep reminding myself that time-out is one strategy to help children learn that when they go off course, they can help themselves regain control and get back on track. For more on time-out, see the books Teaching Children to Care and The First Six Weeks of School.

Ruth Sidney Charney has taught children and teachers for almost 30 years.

Tags: Time-Out