Rewards & Consequences

A Kinder “Time-Out” That Really Works

Traditional time-outs rely on the “crazy idea that to make children do better, we must first make them feel worse.” This can be especially harmful for children with ADHD, who often rebel against this old-school discipline strategy. Improve your child’s behavior — and his self-esteem — by introducing him to new, improved time-outs.

A young girl with ADHD holding a clock, smiling after a time-out that really worked
Girl holding red clock

Do Time-Outs Work for Children with ADHD?

The time-out has been a popular discipline method in the attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) community. One best-selling book (and accompanying video) tells parents of ADHD-labeled kids to count “1…2…3…,” and if the child hasn’t complied with the parent’s command during the count, he or she must go to the time-out area for five minutes.

But do time outs really work? Unfortunately, using a time-out as a punitive method with kids diagnosed with ADHD may turn out to be counterproductive. Two prominent researchers, Thomas Zentall, Ph.D., and Sydney Zentall, Ph.D., have commented on using time-outs: “In general, time-out periods appear to be aversive to hyperactive children. If isolation really has a calming effect on hyperactive children, one would expect to see reduced activity during the time-out periods. However, we noted increased rather than decreased activity levels.” This may occur due to the need for many under-aroused kids to create their own stimulation in a place (the corner) that has very low levels of stimulation. Even if a punitive time-out controls a child’s behavior in the short run, it may come at the cost of the child’s self-respect.

How Offering Children Choices Improves Time-Outs

Child discipline expert Jane Nelsen, Ed.D., counsels parents to tell kids that it can be helpful to have a place where they can go when they feel upset or out of control. In their designated spot, they can do things to make themselves feel better, or to put themselves in a state of mind that will allow them to face the problem in a constructive manner.

[Free Resource: 50 Tips for Disciplining a Child with ADHD]

Nelsen suggests that the children be the ones to decide when they need to go to a time-out area. She even recommends that parents get a timer and have children set it to the amount of time they need to get themselves together. Places to go for time-outs could be anywhere: a bedroom, a special chair, or a bench on the school playground. If children associate the words “time-out” with punishment, rename the space: Call it the thinking corner, quiet space, home base, energy place, or chill-out spot. In this space, children begin to see the area as a place for renewal, not a place for feeling bad about themselves.

To those skeptical about the positive time-out, Nelsen insists that it can work if parents give the tactic enough time (three to six weeks), and if they adopt a positive attitude of encouragement and respect for their child. “Where did we ever get the crazy idea,” Nelsen writes, “that to make children do better, we must first make them feel worse?” A positive time-out gives kids a way to get a grip on their own behavior, and allows them to take a role in becoming capable people.

Excerpted with permission from The Myth of the ADHD Child: 101 Ways to Improve Your Child’s Behavior and Attention Span Without Drugs, Labels, or Coercion, by THOMAS ARMSTRONG, Ph.D. ©2017 by Thomas Armstrong. TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House.


How Can I Give a Smarter Time-Out?

Because you’re changing the purpose of a time-out from passive punishment to working out problems, suggest activities that your child can do in the time-out area to help him gain control and feel better. Possibilities include:

  • Visualizing an image that helps him cope (a special place in nature, a favorite trip, or an imaginary journey).
  • Meditating (focus attention on the inflow and outflow of breath, notice distractions that pop up, and return to focus on the breath).
  • Doing physical relaxation exercises (the yoga pose called the Cat) or imagining that you’re in a cozy elevator. As you feel it slowly descend, you feel more relaxed.
  • Thinking about, writing down, or drawing the solutions to his or her problem.

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  1. Please provide references to the individuals cited in the article who state that time outs don’t work, and that giving kids a choice works better. There are many “good” ideas floating around out there that have never been studied. Please show the research!

  2. The new “Time-out” we refer to as “Down-Time”. It works very well. It does take some time for kids to learn it, but it works better than the old Time-Out. We actually teach time-out as well for non-compliant behaviour. Of course you need to know what is ADHD and what is non-compliant. It is very important that you lead/coach your child toward a successful life. Kids with ADHD can learn to become accepted by reducing the ADHD-behaviour. Stigma seems to be the child’s biggest obstacle, we need to coach them toward better behaviour to reduce the stigma toward individual children. It can be difficult, but the rewards are worth it.

  3. We use something similar. On the surface, it is exactly the same as a timeout however the reasoning and implementation is slightly different.

    The main difference is that the “down-time” is not a punishment but rather a 5 min break where the person is simply asked to please calm down.

    It can be initiated by either a child or parent whenever the situation starts to get out of hand. The child can initiate it towards themselves or towards parents who are showing their frustration. In my opinion it sets a great example, when a child asks a parent to calm down and the parent respects the importance of remaining calm by excusing themselves for 5 minutes. This can be a teaching moment for your child as they are shown that respect goes both ways.

    Once it is called, (we have a unique code word), all discussion about the argument/disagreement stops. The discussion can not be restarted until after the down-
    time. The discussion is effectively paused or placed on hold until everybody is calm.
    From a parents perspective the focus switches immediately, “We are not discussing this until after your down-time”.

    One of the most important parts of getting this to work, is that the child has to say in a relatively calm voice when they are ready to begin their down-time. Only then does the 5 min timer get started. If they are throwing a tantrum, that is fine. The only response necessary is “Let me know when you are ready to begin.”

    After the time is up, a discussion can be restarted calmly if necessary, but often times when cool heads prevail, the original argument disappears.

    1. In our case the parent can ask:” Do you need some down-time”, but they cannot tell a child to go to down-time. We use this to teach the child self-regulation. We do not put a time on it either, as the child needs to be able to decide, when they are ready to talk. We use the same for parents, they can say they need down-time before something is discussed. When both parties are ready, they can talk about it or chose not to. The only thing is that there is a designated down-time spot for the child and another for the parent. The child can read, play music or do anything they like (avoid video games) in order to help them calm down. This is a reward system for trying to control themselves.
      If the child refuses to calm down we use time-out. Time-out is in a different spot not to confuse the child. This is a mild punihemnt with max 5 minutes. One needs a stronger deterrent, should the child not go to time-out or the situation escalates. Eventually the down-time wins out. The children are very proud of their success to control themselves. It does however, take some time before this happens.

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