Time-in vs Time-out

Positive Time-Out (Time-In) vs. Punitive Time-Out: What are the differences, and which is more effective?

If you’re a parent, you’ve probably heard about time-outs, and maybe you’ve also heard about positive time-outs. Regardless of whom you’ve talked to or where you’ve learned about time-outs, the traditional time-out is very different from the positive time-out. Although most parents use time-outs with good intention (it originally came about as a method of disciplining children without hitting them or yelling at them), they don’t always consider what children are thinking, feeling, and deciding about themselves and others. 

The traditional or punitive time-out is typically something that is forced upon a child and might mean that the child has to go to an undesirable place and/or be removed from an activity so they can reflect on their misbehavior. The punitive time-out is often experienced by children as unpleasant, unfair, humiliating, and boring. Punitive time-outs (and punishment in general) uphold the idea that in order for children to do better, first, we have to make them feel worse. The fact of the matter is that children do better when they feel better. How do we know that? Because all people do, and it’s not just common sense; it’s how our brains are wired to work!

What makes the human brain so different than that of all other mammals is our highly developed prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that governs critical thinking and allows us to interpret meaning. When there is some kind of threat, however, to our emotional or physical safety, our brains automatically tend to switch into survival mode (flight, fright, or freeze) and become highly emotionally activated. Not until the real or perceived threat has passed and the child is once again feeling calm can they once again engage their partially developed prefrontal cortex and think clearly. Around the age of 25, adults have a fully developed prefrontal cortex and have a much more pronounced ability than children to regulate their emotional responses. Children, while not great interpreters are great perceivers, and that’s because their brains already have a well-developed survival and emotional brain. Unfortunately, children don’t have a fully developed prefrontal cortex, and because of that, they are far less able to engage in emotional self-regulation, appeal to reason, and attempt to interpret the reasons for things happening to and around them. 

All behavior is communication, and misbehaving children are essentially discouraged children who are trying to get their needs met in unskillful and/or mistaken ways. When parents use a punitive time-out in an effort to manage misbehavior and teach the consequences of mistakes, children’s emotional safety is affected, and their brains are more likely to be in an emotional or survival mode (instead of a thinking mode). If we want children to enjoy positive relationships, acquire valuable social and life skills, and learn the value of respect and cooperation, punitive time-outs actually prevent that from happening. Rather than achieving good behavior through compliance, why not help children learn to do the right thing for their own right reasons (intrinsic motivation)? If a misbehaving child is a discouraged child, and you notice that your child is acting out, a positive time-out might help them to regulate their behavior. 

So how is a positive time-out different than a punitive time-out, and why is it more effective when it comes to helping children to feel and do better? A positive time-out (or better stated a time-in) is actually not that different than the time-out that athletes take when playing sports. When an athlete is feeling tired or discouraged on the field or court, they have the option of taking a break during which time they can engage in self-care activities (resting, eating, drinking, socializing, and regathering their thoughts, emotions, and strength). After a positive time-out, they feel better, and when they go back out to play, they do better. In that sense, the goal of the positive time-out is to offer discouraged children an activity or setting from which they will derive encouragement and get their needs met in appropriate ways. Parents can also take their own positive time-outs and in doing so model self-regulation for their children. In tense situations and emotionally charged moments, a positive time-out taken by parents and/or children often allows the much needed time and positive distraction that the brain needs to get back to a place of calm and rational thought. It also offers time for parents and caregivers to reconnect with their child to help figure out what is contributing to the challenging behavior in the first place. It’s important to note that encouraging the child is very different from encouraging the child’s challenging behavior. Whatever challenging behaviors children exhibit, it’s important to use parenting strategies (like positive time-out) that focus on connection before correction. Teaching respectful relationships starts with modeling respect, and when we engage in connection before correction with our children, we are establishing a foundation of trust, safety, and deeper learning. 

Here are some guidelines for Positive Time-Out/Time-In From Positive Discipline by Jane Nelson, Ed.D. 

Involve the Children 

  1. Discuss the purpose of positive time-out (to feel better so more positive choices can be made)
  2. Let the children name the positive time-out space (Hawaii, the “feel-good” spot)
  3. Let children design the positive time-out space (what objects should be there to help the children self-soothe-music, books, stuffed animals) 

Using Positive Time-Out 

  1. Remember positive time-out is not the only effective discipline tool
  2. Allow children to choose positive time-out (If a child is too young to choose it, s/he is too young to use it)
  3. It is okay to suggest a positive time-out (“Would it help you to go to [positive time-out spot]?’ “Would you like to go by yourself, or would you rather I go with you?)
  4. Let children decide how much time-out they need 

To learn more you can visit the Positive Discipline’s Santa Cruz website at pdcrcc.org. There you can access their helpful tipsheets, see a list of upcoming classes/workshops and more! 

Written by Sarah Nofi of the Redwood class; she has been the head guide since 2011. Sarah works in our primary program with students aged from 3 to 6.