I am ashamed and disgusted at yet another news story today about the use of time out used inappropriately in a Queensland school to “manage” the behaviours of a Year 3 boy with Autism. Many of these stories are starting to be picked up by the media, and rightly so, such as the “cage” used In a Canberra school this year to restrain a young boy with Autism as well as the wooden box used to “calm” children at an ASPECT school at Heatherton in Victoria.
I am well aware that many children, both with and without Autism, can at times be challenging and as a parent it can be extremely frustrating and difficult to manage these behaviours. However, I find it difficult to comprehend that the use of cages and boxes are still even a consideration especially by professionals in the field.
As a Psychologist I am an advocate for ensuring children have boundaries and are given role models and encouragement to recognize right from wrong, but how can the use of these barbaric forms of behaviour management ever teach a child right from wrong? So I want to talk in this week’s blog about time out strategies, when they are appropriate and how to use them.
What is Time out?
Time out can help teach children right from wrong. It means redirecting your child calmly to a designated area you have for time out when they have displayed a behaviour that is inappropriate. Outlining EXACTLY what the behavior you will use time out for is vital.
When looking for an area to use for time out avoid using bathrooms and bedrooms in most cases. I prefer what is often referred to as time in, – such as a corner of the room. This allows you to monitor your child without excluding them fully, just not where they can watch television or video games!! My children have been subjected to time out standing next to a tree in the park, or a bench seat at the supermarket or a corner of our dining room. If you do use a room, you may be able to leave the door open to help you monitor your child.
The rule for time out is that you use no more than 1 minute for each year of age e.g a 3 year old maximum time out would be for 3 minutes. It is not usual to use time out on a child under 2 years of age as they do not tend to understand the concept and hence learn very little from it.
Vital components to using time out
The vital things to know if using time out strategies (apart from refraining from using cages and boxes!!!) is that it must be used consistently, without anger and used with praise and lots of love. What do we mean by these:
1.Consistency: There is something I have called the “poker machine” response strategy. Basically when a reward (or in this case consequence of time out) is used inconsistently like a poker machine pay out it strengthens the behaviour response. In psychology terms this is known as intermittent reinforcement. If you reward a behaviour sporadically you will reinforce that behavior more. A poker machine response looks like this:
1. Child says please – REWARD
2. Child says please – NO REWARD
3. Child says please – NO REWARD
4. Child says please – REWARD
5. Child says please – NO REWARD
6. Child says please – NO REWARD
7. Child says please – NO REWARD
8. Child says please – NO REWARD
9. Child says please – NO REWARD
10. Child says please – REWARD
The child does not know when the reward is coming. They must say please to get the reward but they don’t get it everytime – this is actually the strongest type of reward system. That’s why poker machines are set up this way.
Now imagine if it was not a reward but a consequence such as time out being used in this inconsistent manner – what you actually do reinforce the inappropriate behaviour through the poker machine response. You are using the strongest type of reward model to reinforce the behaviour you actually want to reduce or eliminate!!
This is why consistency is so important with all behaviour management strategies.
2. WITHOUT ANGER: It is always important to remain calm when providing time out or any behaviour support strategies. This is not always easy to do but important because we know that when frustrated or angry we don’t communicate as well to our child and we can tend to step over the line in what we say and do. So practice taking a deep breathe and avoid shouting or showing emotion. Try to stay matter of fact and give a clear simple instruction. Do not get involved in any discussion or argument about the behaviour or time out.
3. LOVING AND CARING ENVIRONMENT:, it’s important that time out is used alongside lots of praise for acceptable behaviour and in a loving and supportive environment overall. Catch your child doing the right thing and praise them, tell them how great they are doing. Never give your child the message that you don’t love them even when using time out.
Alternatives to time out
Take a break together, sit down away from activities at the first sign your child is getting upset. Find a quiet space to take a break together. Just five minutes of connection, listening to what your child is feeling and talking about more appropriate choice really helps. This is similar to a time in. Use pictures or visuals if you need to.
Give them a second chance – ever made a mistake or done something you quickly learnt you shouldn’t do again. Often letting children try again let’s them address the problem or change their behavior.
Another great way to help children understand how to make better choices is by reading stories with characters that are making mistakes, having big feelings or needing help to make better choices. Also, reading together can be a really positive way to re-connect and direct our attention to our child. We love the Red Beast book
For some child time out will not work or is detrimental, for example we are very cautious about using time out for children who have been traumatized, its is also not always the best option for children with Autism or children with a Disability. There are many options to try as alternatives to time out. Always make sure you are teaching and modelling appropraite and praising your child for appropriate behaviour
Of course if you are concerned about your child’s behaviour then seek help from a Psychologist or a Behaviour Support Practitioner