Time Gets it Wrong on Time-Out

29 Sep 2014 10:46 AM | SSCP Webmaster (Administrator)

In a Time magazine article published on September 23, 2014, Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson (http://time.com/3404701/discipline-time-out-is-not-good/) report that time-out, a widely used behaviorally based approach to discipline for children, has indirect harmful consequences on social development.  They assert that time-out exerts this effect by producing social isolation.  Siegel and Bryson go on to suggest that time-out is generally ineffective as a disciplinary strategy because children do not develop any skills when this method is used.  The Society for a Science of Clinical Psychology (SSCP) takes issue with their conclusions, contends that their assertions overlook two extremely important features of behavioral treatment and are in contrast to a large body of empirical support for time-out.

First, time-out does not imply social isolation.  In fact, when properly implemented, time-out involves the presence of a caregiver, but requires that other activities the child might find rewarding are unavailable for the duration of time-out. This practice is in keeping with the origin of the term, which is time-out from reinforcement (or reward).  Siegel and Bryson argue that time-out sends an implicit message to the child of “I’m only interested in being with you and being there for you when you’ve got it all together.”  In contrast, we maintain that when properly administered, the message is quite different, and closer to “I’m here regardless of what you do, and look forward to rewarding you for your successes.” Decades of controlled research has shown that programs based on behavior management techniques, including time-out, are highly effective and have no adverse effects.

Second, time-out should never be a stand-alone intervention.  Any properly developed program of behavior management includes copious opportunities for reward, and discipline applied only when absolutely necessary.  Further, the proper implementation of time-out implies that there is ‘time-in,’ wherein the child has opportunities for reward.  During ‘time-in’, the caregiver has a responsibility to ensure that the child can be rewarded for doing well, and for progressing in learning new tasks.  The caregiver can create the opportunities for children to obtain these rewards.

In addition to the above two points, Siegel and Bryson assert that time-out makes children angrier and less capable of regulating their emotions.  This claim is contrary to the findings from numerous well controlled studies showing the opposite, that time-out is in fact a useful means of helping children better manage their emotional states.  However, it is again only in the context of a comprehensive approach to behavioral management.  That is, what happens after time-out is over is just as important as implementing time-out.  It is here that caregivers can provide guidance to ensure that time-out is implemented sparingly.

We are alarmed at how time-out has been mischaracterized by Siegel and Bryson.  The efficacy of comprehensive behavioral programs on children has been well established and is a true success story in psychological treatment.  Erroneous claims and reliance on assessments of reactions to time-out, out of context from a full program of treatment, can steer well-meaning parents away from an otherwise acceptable, effective, and compassionate approach to child behavior management. Parents who wish to find resources that present time-out as part of a full program of behavior management should consider consulting Alan Kazdin’s “The Everyday Parenting Toolkit.”

We agree with Siegel and Bryson that social isolation is detrimental to children.  However, with proper implementation, there are no harmful effects of time-out, because it does not involve social isolation. Behavioral management has a decades-long record of efficacy, but only when applied comprehensively.  This means that all the core components must be in place – reward for desired behavior, time-out only when necessary, and extensive opportunities for ‘time-in’. 

The authors are members of the Public Education and Media Committee, which is part of the Society for a Science of Clinical Psychology (SSCP).  SSCP is Section III of Division 12 of the American Psychological Association (APA), and an organizational affiliate of the Association of Psychological Science (APS), but we are writing on behalf of SSCP, not APA or APS.