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Young children's perceptions of time out.

Abstract: Preschoolers' perceptions of, and feelings about, time out were assessed. Observations were conducted in 11 child care centers by pairs of trained child study students. Forty-two young children were interviewed subsequent to a time out experience. More children were observed to be isolated for reasons of non-compliance than for aggression. The largely negative self-attributions expressed by most--feeling alone, disliked by one's teacher, and ignored by one's peers--as well as the feelings of sadness and fear expressed by many, suggest that time out is perceived as a punishment by the very young child. Furthermore, the inability of many young children to say why they were in time out (or to recall an adult telling them why) reduces the likelihood that the specific time out event, as a punishment, will inhibit future occurrence of the same aggressive or non-compliant behavior.

Time out, a brief social isolation and temporary suspension of usual activity, is a discipline technique frequently employed to decrease young children's undesirable behavior in early childhood settings. Originally designed as a technique for the modification of deviant behavior in clinical populations (Wolf, Risley, & Mees, 1964), time out has been embraced by many as a means of quelling an array of undesirable behaviors in noncompliant children, from thumb sucking to crying to hitting others (Clark, Rowbury, Baer, & Baer, 1973).

While a vast literature details with whom and for what behavior the technique has been successfully or unsuccessfully employed (e.g., Harris, 1985; Sachs, 1973), no one has tapped the perceptions of time out as constructed and held by children themselves. Certainly, young children's understandings of time out and perceptions of self and others vis-a-vis the time out event are interesting and worthy of investigation. More important, however, children's perceptions may provide insights for adults trying to determine the developmental appropriateness of using time out as a guidance technique.

The utility of time out first was demonstrated as a means to reduce tantrums and self-destructive behavior in an autistic child (Wolf et al., 1964). Each time a deviant behavior occurred, the child was placed alone in a room and allowed to leave only after the tantrum or self-destructive behavior subsided. Applied immediately and consistently, time out has been determined to be most useful in the reduction of aggressive behavior, both verbal and physical (Zabel, 1986).

Proponents of using time out with young children extol its virtues, at least for children 2 or 3 years of age and older (e.g., Dobson, 1978; Twiford, 1984). Time out is viewed as an efficient means of providing space and time for the young child to mull over wrongdoings, refresh feelings of guilt, and ponder socially desirable responses in similar circumstances. Consequently, time out appears to remain a popular technique because of the positive reinforcement received by the adult when administering time out to a misbehaving child (Webber & Scheuermann, 1991).

Critics of time out acknowledge that the practice can reduce undesirable behavior; they lament, however, that time out falls to teach desirable behavior (e.g., Betz, 1994). Time out, say these critics, should be reserved for use only when a child is wildly out of control or is a threat to other children. Under these extreme circumstances (for example, when the young child is engaged in flagrant hitting or biting), the adult is advised to approach the child physically, get down to the child's level, look him in the eye and tell him calmly what the offense is, and then escort the child to the time out site; the rule of thumb for the length of time out is one minute per year of the child's age (Betz, 1994). Others recommend selecting a boring location for time out, setting a timer to prevent forgetting the child in time out, announcing "time out is over," and seeking the next available opportunity to praise the child for a good behavior (Saarni, as cited in Israeloff, 1994).

There is speculation that time out may be hurtful in a number of ways. If the child perceives it as a punishment, time out can have serious side effects that are commonly associated with punishment, including increases of other maladaptive behaviors and withdrawal from or avoidance of the adults administering time out (Miller, 1986). Furthermore, when escape is impossible, some young children are apt to withdraw and become passive (Parke, 1969).

Because of the young child's limited knowledge and experience, he or she may ultimately feel anxious, rejected, hurt, and humiliated as a result of time out (Clewett, 1988). Gartrell (1995) suggests that, given their social inexperience, young children tend to internalize negative labels, see themselves as they are labeled, and react accordingly. Stone (1993) declares time out a "dead end" for young children at the threshold of social development. Instead, the preschool-age child, who is wrestling with egocentrism and with limited knowledge of social relations, would probably benefit from social skill modeling and instruction.

Because no one has paused to ask children their perceptions of time out and their feelings about being placed in time out, there is no known support, other than suppositional, for these expectations. Therefore, this exploratory study was designed to flesh out young children's views of time out, subsequent to the experience of a time out event in an early childhood education setting.

The following research questions were asked:

1. What feelings about time out do young children express?

2. What perceptions of time out do young children express?

3. What behavioral events are resulting in preschool children being placed in time out by their teachers?

4. What differences in feelings about time out can be identified between children who perceive themselves to be frequently in time out and those who perceive themselves to be infrequently in time out?

5. What is the correspondence of the child's stated reason for being in time out and the observer's view of the reason for the child being in time out?



Subjects included 42 two-, three-, and four-year-old children. Twenty-three of the children were boys, 19 were girls.


Observations were conducted in 11 child care centers in a north Florida community that serves primarily working and fee-paying families (60% Caucasian, 35% African American, and 5% other ethnic backgrounds, including Hispanic and Asian American). The centers constituted a convenience sample of sites at which directors reported the use of time out as a disciplinary technique. Observations were performed both in indoor and outdoor classroom environments.


An interview targeting children's perceptions and feelings about time out was constructed by the first author. The 17-question interview, revised from a 14-item interview employed in a pilot study, was designed to gauge children's views of school, ability to recount the specific event that led to the time out incident, specific feelings about being in time out, and perceptions of time out in general.


After receiving parental and teacher permission, observations were conducted at local child care centers by students enrolled in a child study class at a local university. These students had been trained in observation techniques and interviewing skills for a minimum of 30 hours prior to data collection. To minimize bias, the social desirability of time out as a disciplinary technique was not addressed and the exploratory nature of the investigation was emphasized. Each of 40 pairs of observers observed a minimum of 6 hours over a 30-day period and recorded time out events using an anecdotal format.

Each anecdote included a description of the precipitating event (what the child was doing that led to placement in time out), adult direction of the child to time out, location of time out, child behavior in time out, adult release of child from time out, and duration of the time out incident. Time out was defined as an occasion in which the child is removed from an activity or group for performing an act deemed unacceptable or undesirable by an adult, and spends time in a designated spot isolated from others at the request of the adult.

Precipitating events expected to lead to time out were aggressive and noncompliant behaviors. Physical aggression was defined as the act of striking, slapping, kicking, pushing, biting, or pulling others, or throwing objects at others; verbal aggression was described as aiming offensive words at others with the intent to harm another person. Noncompliance was designated as refusal to initiate or complete a request made by an adult.

At the conclusion of a time out episode, one researcher would approach the affected child and invite him or her to talk about being in time out. If a child did not wish to participate, that name was deleted and the child was excluded from the study. If the child responded favorably to the invitation to talk about timeout, one researcher asked each of the questions, while the other recorded the child's answers. Upon completion of the interview, the child was thanked and encouraged to rejoin the class.

In anticipation of this research project, a pilot study was conducted at a similar child care center. The purpose of the pilot study was to assess the usefulness of an interview measure and develop procedures for training undergraduate students in techniques for accurately recording anecdotal records of noncompliant and aggressive behavior and subsequent time out events, as well as teaching the students interviewing skills. In this pilot study, five students observed and interviewed 15 young children placed in time out. It was determined that the clarity of the operational definition of time out assured 100% interobserver agreement. Subsequent modifications to the interview included simplification of wording, omission of two items, and development of five items to better tap into young children's perceptions of time out.


Analyses were made up of cross-tabulations and non-parametric chi-square tests. The results are presented as answers to the following research questions:

Question #1: What feelings about time out do young children express?

Children's recountings of their feelings during the incident of time out were measured using seven questions (see Table 1). Significantly more children than not reported feeling all alone, yet safe; disliked by their teacher; and ignored by their peers while in time out. Significantly more children reported disliking, as opposed to liking, being in time out. About as many children declared themselves to be happy in time out as admitted to being sad. Similarly, almost as many children felt liked by their peers during time out as felt disliked.

Question #2: What perceptions about time out do young children express?

Children's perceptions of time out were ascertained by six questions. Significantly more children than not were able to describe a precipitating event of some nature, such as "I wasn't playing the right way" or "I was standing on the bookshelves," when asked to tell what had just happened. Significantly more children reported being in time out "a little" than "a lot"; and more declared they would not repeat the behavior that led to the time out incident. Regarding their other perceptions of time out, almost two-thirds of the children reported that an adult told them why they were put in time out. More admitted that they deserved to be in time out than not. Finally, most children expressed some notion about what they needed to do to be released from time out, from "be quiet" to "be good" to "do what I'm told."

Question #3: What behaviors result in preschool children being placed in time out by their preschool teachers?

Most children were placed in time out for noncompliance (n=27). Fewer still were placed in time out for physical aggression (n=16) or verbal aggression (n=3) toward others.

Questions #4: What differences in feelings and knowledge about time out can be identified between children who perceive themselves to be frequently or infrequently in time out?

Eight children admitted being in time out a lot, while 22 said they were in time out a little. Children who perceived themselves to be frequently in time out differed from their peers who believed themselves to be infrequently in time out on five of seven expressions of feelings (see Table 2). They liked being in time out less, and while in time out, they declared they felt more alone, scared, sad, and disliked by their peers.

Questions #5: What is the correspondence of the child's stated reason for being in time out and the observer's view of the reason for the child being in time out?

While almost three quarters of the childen acknowledged that they knew why they were put into time out, only a little more than half of those children gave answers that actually corresponded with the observers' anecdotal records.


Despite their rosy accounts of liking preschool and having friends at preschool, the young children queried in this study upon release from a time out event expressed largely negative feelings about time out and about themselves in time out. Not only did they not like being in time out, many said they felt sad and scared while in time out. Such negative self-attributions confirm Clewett's (1988) and Gartrell's (1995) expectations regarding the feelings likely to be generated in the very young, socially inexperienced child in time out. The negative impressions of self, vis-a-vis the larger social group expressed here--feeling alone and disliked by one's teachers and disliked and ignored by one's peers--suggest that time out may indeed be perceived as punishment by the very young child, as cautioned by Parke (1969).

The inability of many children to tell why they were in time out or to recall an adult telling them why they were in time out makes it less likely that the specific time out event will be effective in inhibiting future occurrences of the same aggressive or noncompliant behavior. Punishment is more effective when accompanied by a rationale that is understood (Parke, 1969).

Children in this study were placed in time out for a variety of reasons (e.g., biting, spitting, splashing water out of the sink, not sitting in circle for storytime), yet most were isolated for nonaggressive, noncompliant behavior. Clearly, in these preschool settings, time out is not being reserved consistently for use when a child is wildly out of control or a threat to other children, contrary to the recommendations of Betz (1994). Indeed, many children are receiving time out for trivial reasons that are a far cry from the behavior that the technique was initially meant to address (e.g., Wolfe et al., 1964), thus confirming Webber and Scheuermann's (1991) observation that time out is a seductively easy reinforcing technique for harried caregivers, who may be eager to get a noncompliant child "out of their hair" for a few moments.

Intuitively, one might expect differences in feelings about and perceptions of time out to be expressed by young children who believe themselves to be in time out "a lot" as compared to those who believe themselves to be in time out "a little"; indeed, such was the case. The responses of two subjects are indicative of even these young children's ability to describe their perceptions of time spent in time out. In response to the question, "Do you think you are in time out a lot or a little?" one child volunteered, "Lots, maybe a hundred," while another said, "Just a little. Sometimes I have good days." Clearly, those children who perceived themselves to be in time out often liked time out less and felt more isolated, sad, scared, and disliked by their peers. These harshly negative self-attributions again appear to confirm the punitive effects of time out when employed with the preschool child, especially the child who is frequently in time out.

The fact that fewer than half of the young children queried could accurately recall what they had done that resulted in their placement in time out, or refused to recall their misbehavior, despite most declaring that someone had told them why they were in time out, raises doubts that these preschoolers, at least, were mulling over their misbehavior, generating feelings of guilt, or pondering alternative desirable responses in similar circumstances, contrary to the expectations of Dobson (1978) and Twiford (1984). What is more likely is that these children are withdrawing or acting out in other, even more undesirable, ways (Parke, 1969). With little direct tuition provided by adults to children regarding the specific misbehavior to correct, it is hard to imagine that the children in this sample, despite their earnest protestations to the contrary, will not misbehave again.

In this sample, at least, the observations of young children in a variety of child care centers appear to indicate that time out can have unintended consequences. Miller (1986) cautioned that time out can lead to increases in other maladaptive behaviors, here evidenced by one boy calling his caregiver "Meany" upon being placed in time out. One girl's response, crying, "I want my mommy. I want my mommy" throughout the entire episode of time out, suggests that some young children may indeed feel anxious and hurt by the practice (Clewett, 1988).

Finally, what is clear is the discomfort of many young children on the heels of being released from a time out. When asked at the end of the interview, "Is there anything else you want to tell me about time out?," one subject offered, "I want to go play," while another implored, "I want to say something good--about my family and toys."

Several limitations of the current study, as conducted, must be acknowledged. First and foremost, use of a convenience sample limits generalization of the findings to other children in other settings. Furthermore, many more incidents of time out were observed among children whose parents had not granted permission for their participation in this investigation. It is possible that the findings of this study may not be applicable to these other young children. Finally, as with any observational study, there is the possibility that the observers alone may have influenced the findings by affecting the behavior of the adults administering time out, the behavior of the children, or both. Observer effect may have been amplified to the extent that observation and interview were performed by the same pair of researchers.


In this investigation, young children in selected group child care settings were queried individually about their time out experiences and feelings. Despite recommendations that time out be reserved for occasions when the child is wildly out of control or an imminent threat to other children, it appears that time out is being used largely for reasons of noncompliance that give immediate irritation to caregivers. Furthermore, it appears that the consequences of time out, for many young children, may be punitive rather than instructional. Systematic, fine-grained observations of caregiver application of time out procedures over time, and documentation of children's attendant responses to, and feelings about, time out are needed to confirm these preliminary and potentially disturbing findings.


Betz, C. (1994). Beyond time-out: Tips from a teacher. Young Children, 49, 10-14.

Clark, H. B., Rowbury, T., Baer, A. M., & Baer, D. M. (1973). Timeout as a punishing stimulus in continuous and intermittent schedules. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 6, 413-455.

Clewett, A.S. (1988). Guidance and discipline: Teaching young children appropriate behavior. Young Children, 43, 27-31.

Dobson, F. (1978). How to discipline--with love: From crib to college. New York: Rawson Associates Publishers.

Gartrell, D. (1995). Misbehavior or mistaken behavior? Young Children, 50, 27-35.

Harris, K. R. (1985). Definitional, parametric, and procedural considerations in timeout interventions and research. Exceptional Children, 51, 279-288.

Israeloff, R. (1994). Meltdown. Parents, 69, 76.

Miller, D. E. (1986). The management of misbehavior by seclusion. Residential Treatment for Children and Youth, 4, 63-73.

Parke, R. D. (1969). Social effects of punishment on children's behavior. Young Children, 24, 225-240.

Sachs, D. A. (1973). The efficacy of time-out procedures in a variety of behavior problems. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychology, 4, 237-242.

Stone, S. J. (1993). Taking time to teach social skills. Childhood Education, 69, 194-195.

Twiford, J. R. (1984). Managing children's behavior. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Webber, J., & Scheuermann, B. (1991). Managing behavior problems: Accentuate the positive . . . eliminate the negative! Teaching Exceptional Children, 24, 13-19.

Wolf, M., Risley, T., & Mees, H. (1964). Application of operant conditioning procedures to the behaviour problems of an autistic child. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 1, 305-312.

Zabel, M. K. (1986). Time out with behaviorally disabled students. Behavioral Disorders, 21, 15-20.
Table 1

Preschoolers' Feelings About and Perceptions of Time Out

Children's View of School f % X2 p

Do you like school?

 Yes 37 93 28.90 <.001
 No 3 7

Do you have friends at school?

 Yes 39 93 30.86 <.001
 No 3 7

Children's Feelings About Time Out
When you are in time out,
 do you feel...

 alone or 24 75 8.00 .005
 part of the group? 8 25
 scared or 8 29 5.14 .023
 safe? 20 71
 happy or 20 54 .24 .622
 sad? 17 46
 that the teacher liked you or 9 27 6.82 .009
 disliked you? 24 73
 that everyone was looking at 7 21 10.94 .001
 you or
 was not looking at you? 26 79
 that other kids like you or 13 43 .53 .465
 dislike you? 17 57
 that you like time out or 5 13 20.63 <.001
 don't like time out? 33 87

Children's Perceptions of Time out
Can you tell me what just happened?

 Yes 29 81 13.44 <.001
 No 7 19

Did the teacher tell you
 why you were in time out?

 Yes 23 66 3.46 .063
 No 12 34

Are you in time out a little or 24 71 5.76 .016
 a lot? 10 29

Do you think you needed to be
 in time out?
 Yes 21 54 .23 .630
 No 18 46

Do you think you will do
 (the act) again?

 Yes 6 16 17.79 <.001
 No 32 84

What do you have to do to
 get out of time out?

 Be quiet 6 17
 Be good 6 17
 Do what I'm told 3 9
 Other 12 34
 Don't know 8 23 6.286 .179
Table 2

Feelings About Time Out Expressed By Children Perceiving Themselves To
Be in Time Out Frequently and Infrequently

 Frequently Infrequently
 (n=10) (n=24)
Feelings About Time Out f % f %

 alone or 7 1.00 14 .64
 part of the group - - 8 .36

 scared or 3 .38 4 .24
 safe 5 .62 13 .76

 happy or 2 .33 15 .63
 sad 6 .66 9 .37

 others liked you or 1 .11 10 .56
 disliked you 8 .89 8 .44

 like time out or - - 5 .21
 dislike time out 10 1.00 19 .79

Note. Of the 42 subjects, only 34 answered the query regarding their
perceptions of frequency of being in time out. Of these 34 children,
only, the answers of children responding to each question about feelings
are presented.
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Article Details
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Author:Chapman, Paula L.
Publication:Journal of Research in Childhood Education
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2000
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