Consequence Strategy Spotlight: Quiet-Time, Time-Out 

Hi everyone,

It’s already the second half of Term 4! As we speed toward the end of the year, I thought it would be a good time to discuss a common strategy for managing inappropriate behaviour: Quite-time and time-out. Though time-out is a term familiar to many, the actual strategy is often used incorrectly. In this entry, I want to walk you through the quiet time and time-out process that is most effective in supporting behaviour change.

Before we begin, I should note that this process is built on the strong foundation of a positive relationship with your child, which involves plenty of descriptive praise for desirable behaviours, and a consistency that produces a sense of trust. If, after reading through this strategy, you find yourself thinking ‘sounds great, but my kid won’t stay in time-out if I use it!’ then this is not the next step for you – I would recommend going back to earlier articles I wrote on building the positive relationship, descriptive praise and trust. If, on the other hand, you have already established a generally compliant, positive and trusting relationship, this strategy might just be what you need for those remaining ‘sticking points.’

First thing is first: for a strategy like quiet time/time-out to be effective, we need to understand why we are doing it. Contrary to popular understanding, quiet time and time-out are not meant to be used purely as a punishment/consequence. Instead, they can both more usefully be considered as structured opportunities to help your child reflect and self-regulate.

Quiet time is a short time (the rule of thumb is a maximum of one minute per year of age, up to a maximum of five minutes; e.g. three minutes for a three-year-old, or five minutes for children five and older) with the child sitting in the area in which the inappropriate behaviour occurred, but off to the side. They are still in the area, but no longer in the situation, which helps to create distance and a chance to calm down. Time-out, on the other hand, is removed from the situation and the area, sitting instead somewhere safe and boring, such as a step, or a chair in a ‘boring’ part of the house.

Before using quiet-time time-out, it is important to practise it with your child at a time when there is no misbehaviour, and things are calm and relaxed. Explain how it works, and walk the child through the process. The process is this:

  1. If an inappropriate behaviour occurs, you will let your child know what happens next. E.g. ‘Lisa, if you yell at me again you will need to have quiet time.’
  2. If the inappropriate behaviour occurs again, follow through. E.g. ‘Lisa, because you yelled again, it’s now quiet time.’ Seat your child off to the side and set the timer. You do not interact, negotiate, or engage with your child in any way during the quiet time.
  3. If they remain quiet through quiet time, you can invite them back to the activity. E.g. ‘Well done Lisa, now that you’re calm, what would you like to do?’
  4. If your child misbehaves in quiet time, the next step is time-out. (I should note here that serious misbehaviour such as hitting is an immediate time-out, skipping quiet-time). Reapproach and say ‘Lisa, because you have not been quiet in quiet time, it’s time out.’ Lead our child to the identified time-out spot, and do not engage in discussion, negotiation or any comments/crying/screaming; simply follow the process.
  5. Set the timer for the necessary amount of time. If your child remains quiet for the duration, do Step 3.
  6. If your child misbehaves in time-out, show them that you have reset the timer. Do not talk or re-engage with them; however, they should know that the timer has started again (a beep timer is helpful with this, as they will know without any attention being given). The timer is reset each time an inappropriate behaviour occurs until the duration of the timer is successful with no inappropriate behaviours. Then do Step 3.

It is important that this process is unemotional, which means knowing each step, and explaining/practising it with your child at a calm and relaxed time. When it is over, it is important to start fresh. If the issue was refusing an instruction, give the same instruction again calmly and praise compliance if they do what is asked – but make sure the instruction was appropriate for your child’s age and ability!

Remember, quiet time and time-out are just one strategy. Consistency is important, and, to begin with, you may be using it several times in quick succession for a target behaviour. This can be exhausting, but if it’s done with consistency, your child will quickly learn that they essentially choose how long the process lasts, based on how quickly they comply and self-regulate. Where possible, logical consequences are the best route to teaching what is and isn’t appropriate, but it’s always helpful to have another tool when needed.

One last suggestion: make sure your children have the skills needed to behave well. For example, if turn-taking is an issue, it’s important to ask: do they know how to ask for a turn? Do they know how sharing works? If they’re struggling to use quiet time to calm down, do they have a strategy for calming down? Perhaps they need to be taught to take a few deep breaths or have a conversation after to figure out what they’re feeling.

Remember that a certain amount of misbehaviour is normal, and it is not a bad thing to use consequences in a skilled and planned way. If, however, you are finding serious challenges persist, it’s important to seek additional support from a professional.

For more information and tips on quiet time and time-out, visit Quiet time & time-out for child behaviour | Raising Children Network.

Graham Goodall-Smith

Registered Psychologist