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The Science of Timeouts
Research dating back to the 1960s has found that giving kids time-outs is an effective method of discipline, in both the short and long term. The key is to use the method correctly. What that means, researchers said, is to be consistent, set clear parameters and balance punishment with positive parenting techniques like praising kids for their good behavior.
Starting early is important, said California psychologist Ennio Cipani, who makes house calls to train parents on discipline in the home environment.
"You teach your kid how to behave early in life, and it pays off dividends later, Cipani said. That's "because the things you have to deal with and the things you have to do as consequences are a lot less drastic" than if behavioral problems had been allowed to fester, she said. [The Science of Timeouts: How to Make Them Work for Your Kids]
Time-outs are for 2- to 6-year-old kids who are showing aggression and noncompliance, said Mark Roberts, a psychologist at Idaho State University who has studied the discipline method extensively. Some 7- to 12-year-olds with severe behavioral problems might also benefit from time-outs, Roberts said, but the science is less firm with that population; for most older kids, taking away privileges is more effective than time-outs.
Here are the guidelines for a "good" time-out, Cipani and Roberts said:
Context is key.Slide 2 of 25
Context is key.
Time-out is only one tool in the parenting toolbox. When psychologists are called in to help parents cope with serious behavioral problems, the professionals spend as much, if not more time talking about positive parenting strategies than they do about punishments.
"We're teaching parents to be highly responsive to age-appropriate child signals," Roberts said. "That's a fundamental parent-child process that begins at delivery, practically."
In other words, negative reinforcement like time-out must take place against a backdrop full of parental warmth, love and life lessons. Time-out teaches kids not to do certain behaviors, Roberts said. It doesn't teach them about positive behaviors, like how to share, take turns or accept no for an answer when they can't have something that belongs to another child.
"Those are normal social skills that are taught effectively by parents early on, and the vast majority of children entering kindergarten or first grade are really quite skillful," Roberts said.Slide 3 of 25
Keep it simple.Slide 4 of 25
Keep it simple.
The most frequent mistake parents make with the time-out method is applying it inconsistently, Cipani said. He said he tells parents to pick one or two problem behaviors and to make it clear to kids that time-out will consistently result from those behaviors. Follow-through is important, he said.
He said he tells parents, "When we go after this, we're going to go after this with a gung-ho attitude."Slide 5 of 25
Give clear commands.Slide 6 of 25
Give clear commands.
When asking a child to do something, get close to them, Roberts said. Kneel and make eye contact if possible, and add a gesture to reinforce the verbal request. "With the older kids, giving them a reason why they should do it is also helpful," Roberts said. [8 Tried-and-True Tips for Talking to Preschoolers]Slide 7 of 25
Don't go up against a difficult child alone.Slide 8 of 25