Every parent, caregiver and ECE pro knows the value of a well-managed break — it gives children (and their caregivers) time to cool down during challenging situations.
But the evolution of time out is as up-and-down as a toddler’s mood swings.
Sounds a little scary, right? 😅
From its ‘revolutionary’ beginnings to a recent swingback from modern behavioral experts, there’s a lot more behind the time out than you might think.
But does the time out really still hold value today? How has behavior management in early childhood changed over the decades? And what are some alternative techniques?
In the months following the death of Arthur Staats, creator of the time out, we thought it was time to learn more about the origin of the time out and how it’s evolved over the years.
The time out was invented by behavioral psychologist Dr. Arthur Staats back in the 1950s.
After having children of his own, Staats realized the need to remove children from challenging behavioral situations to give themselves and their parents a break. (We’ve all been there, right?)
Today, the time out is often viewed as an archaic and ineffective form of behavior management. But back then, many parents who had been spanked, yelled at or criticized themselves as children, found the technique to be revolutionary — and ‘time out’ soon became a household phrase.
Here’s how the time out worked according to Dr. Staats:
Unsurprisingly, behavior management has moved on since the 1950s. As we’ve learned more about child psychology, tactics have changed, and many experts now actively speak against time out.
Critics believe time outs can have a detrimental effect on children — leading them to become more distressed, and to feel bad or guilty about the disruption to their parental relationship.
Even so, many people still advocate for well-managed time outs, and Dr. Staats' invention laid the foundation for numerous behavior management techniques.
Here are a few modern alternatives to the time out:
Time in (or positive time out): Opponents of the time out often suggest ‘time in’ as a more comforting hands-on tactic to get behavior issues under control. Children are invited to sit down with their caregiver to express their feelings, while the adult offers empathy and an explanation of why the behavior was inappropriate.
Verbal or physical redirection: With verbal redirection, the adult points out the child's unacceptable behavior and gives them a better option. For example, “We don’t stand on chairs, they’re for sitting on please”. Physical redirection uses a nurturing touch instead of or as well as verbal redirection. For example, placing a gentle hand on the child’s shoulder to help them sit down.
Natural and logical consequences: This one is all about letting the child learn the consequences of their behavior. For example, if they refuse to wear a raincoat, they’ll get wet (natural consequence), or if they draw on the wall, their caregiver can ask them to clean it up (logical consequence).
Time out today: There is potentially still a place for the time out in today’s world of behavior management. As long as you create a safe place for the break, don’t make it last too long, take care to ignore the behavior and not the child, and explain why they’re going to time out, then a pause for both parties to reframe the situation can be positive.
Depending on how you use it, taking a quick break via a time out could potentially be a game-changer — giving both kids and carers a constructive moment for reflection and strengthening the relationship through pause and discussion.
But there’s a time and place for every behavioral management tactic, and they only really work as part of a positive and loving relationship.
So, when it comes to your ECE classroom, make sure to choose the best tactic for you and the child. And remember, the right behavior management tactic at the right time can lead to a healthier, happier classroom (and a healthy, happier you).