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Time-Outs for Impulsive Behavior

by The Next Family December 17, 2010

By: Joe Newman

In my previous blog I laid out the basic steps for effective time-outs; make them short and frequent rather than long and seldom, use a neutral tone and take the emotional charge out of it, insist that your child self-regulate (stop crying) before the time-out begins, and make taking the consequences you give fairly easy and resisting them very difficult.  If you do this consistently you’ll have a powerful tool that can be used to solve a variety of problems and motivate your children without a lot of power struggles.

What follows is an excerpt from my book Raising Lions that demonstrates how a mother used my time-out principles to help her three-year-old daughter, Sophie, gradually develop impulse control and better self-regulation.

Sophie looked forward to her weekly dance class and would put on her dance outfit and dance around the apartment talking about the instructor, Miss Sarah, a couple of days a week. But when she was at dance class she would get over-excited and silly and refuse to follow Miss Sarah’s directions. She’d climb onto the stage and refuse to get down or she’d get out the Hula Hoops when the class was doing something else. Her mother tried taking her outside to have her calm down, but after a few minutes back in the class she was over-excited and out of control again. Her mother would warn her that if she couldn’t listen to Miss Sarah they’d have to go home. After warning Sophie repeatedly and even taking her out for ten minutes to calm down, her mom would take Sophie home in tears. They had been to four dance classes and hadn’t made it through to the end of one yet. Jennifer wasn’t sure Sophie was ready for this class and was debating whether to throw in the towel.

I suggested that she try a couple more weeks using the following program: If Sophie wasn’t listening or was becoming out of control, Jennifer would ask her to come over and sit next to her quietly for one minute. After the minute was over she could rejoin the class. If Sophie didn’t come over, or refused to sit for a minute when asked, then Jennifer would take her into the hall to sit two minutes quietly, followed by sitting for the one minute inside before rejoining the class. I suggested that she be willing to do this ten or more times each class to see how Sophie adapted.

I encouraged Jennifer to use language that helped Sophie understand the connection between her actions and the consequences. “If you’re not listening to Miss Sarah then you need to have a one minute break. If you sit quietly next to Mommy for one minute you can go back and dance with Miss Sarah.” And, “If you don’t come when Mommy calls you or I have to chase you then we have to have a time out in the hall. After the time out you can come back in, sit for one minute next to Mommy, then go back and dance with Miss Sarah.”  (This explanation may be more than a three-year-old can take in all at once.   Sophie will actually learn these rules as her mother applies them consistently.  Your actions are your child’s most powerful teacher.)

The first week Jennifer gave Sophie eight time outs, half of which were in the hallway. The second week Sophie needed eight time outs again, but only one in the hallway. On the third week Sophie needed six time outs, all of which were in the dance room. In other words, Sophie was following Jennifer’s directions, coming to her and taking the time outs when asked. In the weeks that followed Jennifer gave Sophie anywhere between two and five one-minute time-outs per class. But this seemed a small price to pay for allowing Sophie to participate in a class she so looked forward to. After all, she was able to participate in at least fifty-four minutes of each hour-long class, not to mention that the tears and disappointment of having to go home and miss dance class ended.

The most important thing for Sophie’s development wasn’t the dance class; it was learning how to exercise self-control. The regular use of short consequences allowed Sophie to gain gradual control over her impulses and slowly develop self-regulation at the rate she was able.

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