Q: I’m wondering if you could extend Educating the Experts to research covering self-regulation of emotions in preschoolers by using time-outs? I see it as exactly equivalent to self-soothing in infants by using cry-it-outs. i.e. Time-outs will not teach my pre-schooler how to self-regulate his anger outbursts. But I’m having a little trouble with my parents on this one and would love some research to help me out.
Krystyna from Australia
A: There are typically two reasons behind the use of the time-out: 1) as a punishment for an act, or 2) as a way to allow a child to calm down. First let’s examine the use of time-out as a disciplinary tactic. There have been many people and sites that have written on the potential dangers of time-out – the messages sent to the child, demanding compliance, withholding love, etc. On the surface these seem like valid claims, but I will say now that there isn’t any evidence to support them. There also isn’t evidence to negate them. We’re stuck in a no-man’s land when it comes to what we actually know about the potential downfalls of the disciplinary use of time-outs. Now, there are a couple of scholarly articles (non-peer-reviewed and without data) that talk about how time-outs are either not developmentally-appropriate for toddlers or about how to utilize other techniques for preschool children that are more effective (see the Schreiber and Betz citations in Sources). But again, we fall to the realm of possibilities and anecdotes.
[Notably, when I say there is no data, I do not count studies that have examined future child behaviour as the outcome measure because I don’t believe that’s the issue we’re concerned with. The reasons why a child might behave after a time-out (or many time-outs) can vary and be due to many other factors outside of the internalization of whatever lesson is being taught (I’ve already written on the topic of crying and how not crying isn’t always the best indicator either and this is akin to that). Therefore, I will say that there is a fair amount of research on the efficacy of time-outs in inducing good behaviour, but why good behaviour happens is not measured. In fact, in one study by Arthur Bean and Mark Roberts which assessed child compliance after either parent-release or child-release time-outs, children in the parent-release time-out were kept from leaving early using spanking so it really raises the question if the time-out was effective or if the fear of spanking was the factor that lead to a change in behaviour.]
With respect to the second possibility, giving children a chance to calm down, again there is virtually nothing. The aforementioned Bean and Roberts study did include a child-release condition which can be seen as the closest thing to just a calming down period as children were told they could leave time-out as soon as they had calmed down (so there was no set time for the time-out or the need to wait for permission to leave). In this condition, while behaviour did improve after the time-outs, it took more time-outs and the improvement was statistically non-significant (though the small sample size suggests it could be a power issue). So… there’s the chance that a child-release form of time-out could be helpful for kids to calm down, but it’s rather unclear at the moment.
I realize this answer is rather annoyingly lacking in information, but please don’t shoot the messenger! To make up for this though, I thought I’d mention some research onto what is known to help with self-regulation of emotions in children. First, neurological research suggests that children under 3 years of age struggle mightily to inhibit any type of dominant response (known as inhibitory control), thus expecting a 3 year old to be able to control his or her anger is an exercise in futility (this also provides circumstantial support for some of the criticisms of time-outs in those children 3 and under). Interestingly, this ability to inhibit one behaviour in favour of what one knows to be correct seems to emerge around this time and children older than 3 seem to rapidly develop this ability, meaning that by 4 years of age, most children (though certainly not all and one must be cognizant of one’s child’s individual abilities) are able to try to control their anger (provided it is not at its peak phase). How do children do this? Research suggests that the dominant means is to effortfully direct attention away from the negative cues relating to anger. For example, children who use words to express anger instead of hitting, or deep breathing, or any mechanism that works to keep them from focusing on the anger.
I imagine this is where time-outs gained popularity as a theoretically helpful medium – moving kids away from the negative stimulus. However, I want to bring up one more thing: Time-outs don’t necessarily allow a child to calm down if they haven’t learned how to direct their attention away from the negative cues that elicited the anger in the first place. There is clinical research that has shown that children (albeit older) who were asked to engage in a type of “time-out” (stop and think about what the other person was thinking and feeling when they behaved in a way that angered them – perspective-taking) actually got angrier as opposed to calming down after this period of reflection. Without the appropriate training on how to direct one’s emotions away from the negative situation, time-outs could be utterly ineffective (which seems to be in line with the aforementioned research as threat of worse punishment was needed to even keep kids in time out), though not necessarily harmful if done without other threats. Perhaps focusing on teaching children methods to redirect their attention would be more fruitful. Children learn this active disengagement by first witnessing with their adult caregivers who model the behaviour for them and then by the caregiver actively helping them to perform these effortful behaviours. So a time-out with a caregiver who is actively helping a child to calm down would fall under the rubric of helping the child redirect his or her attention, but putting a younger child in time-out on his or her own would not be helpful.
Take-home message: Time-outs that include other threats of punishment will work to change behaviour, but it’s most likely due to the threat associated with time-out. Time-outs used to calm a child may very well be ineffective if an adult isn’t present to help the age-appropriate child learn to redirect his or her attention away from the negative cues or if the child hasn’t learned this type of behaviour already (though if they have, chances are they don’t need time-outs). But the idea that a time-out without threat is harmful in and of itself is neither supported nor negated by the current research.
Bean AW & Roberts MW. The effect of time-out release contingencies on changes in child noncompliance. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 1981; 9: 95-105.
Betz C. Beyond time-out: tips from a teacher. Young Children 1994; 49: 10-14.
http://www.awareparenting.com/timeout.htm (Accessed December 2, 2011)
O’Reilly S & McLaughlin TF. Etiological factors and behavioural reduction procedures for use with preschool children with behavioural disorders: analysis and recommendations. BC Journal of Special Education 1997; 21: 60-72.
Orobio de Castro B., Joop B., Veerman J. & Koops W. The Effects of emotion regulation, attribution, and delay prompts on aggressive boys’ social problem solving. Cognitive Therapy and Research 2003; 27: 153-166.
Posner MI & Rothbart MK. Developing mechanisms of self-regulation. Development and Psychopathology 2000; 12: 427-441.
Schreiber ME. Time-outs for toddlers: is our goal punishment or education? Young Children 1999; 54: 22-25.
Shriver MD & Allen KD. The time-out grid: A guide to effective discipline. School Psychology Quarterly 1996; 11: 67-75.