Beyond Time-Outs – What to do When Your Toddler Acts Out

When your child takes the crayons out of the closet and draws on the living Time-Out-Main-Landscaperoom walls, a common reaction would be to put him or her in time-out. After the time-out, your child goes back and draws on the walls again. What is happening? Sometimes, time-outs aren’t the best way to show your child what’s appropriate or inappropriate.

What is a time-out?

A time-out is a procedure that is used to decrease future occurrences of a specific behavior (e.g., drawing on the walls with crayons). There are many types of time-out procedures that can be utilized.

A time-out can be beneficial when the “cause” of the behavior is determined. A child engages in these behaviors to communicate his or her wants/needs. For example, if Jessie is playing on the playground with her peers and kicks David, Jessie may be attempting to remove David from playing on the jungle gym or gain attention from David to play with him. It’s important to pay attention to what happens right before and right after the behaviors occurs to help determine what your child is communicating to you.

Time-outs can be harmful when the person implementing the procedure overuses it and it becomes his or her “go-to” method for all target behaviors. Since time-outs are used to remove reinforcement for a portion of time, the procedure does not teach positive behaviors that the child can engage in instead.

There is evidence that time-out procedures are effective, however; other less restrictive methods, such as reinforcement, can be just as effective in isolation or in combination with time-outs.

What can you do other than a time-out?

Since time-outs can be very restrictive, interventions that include reinforcement and proactive procedures can help decrease the future occurrences of a problem behavior. They can also help reduce the need to use time-outs. Here are a few strategies that can help reduce problem behaviors:

Proactive Procedures (procedures that occur before a behavior):

  • Provide choices for activities/items (when possible): Select between two and three choices at one time to avoid overwhelming the child.
    • Example: If Johnny is about to eat dinner, you can provide him the choice of which vegetables to eat by saying, “Would you like carrots or peas with dinner?” This may decrease Johnny’s refusal behavior by allowing him to make his own choice, rather than being instructed to do something.
  • Give frequent reminders and expectations throughout the day: This can be in the form of vocal or visual displays (e.g., speaking to your child or showing him or her pictures of the expectations).
    • Example: If Debbie has a doctor’s appointment at 3 p.m., you can say, “Remember, you have a doctor’s appointing at 3 p.m., then we can get ice cream at your favorite store!” You can provide this reminder every two hours until 3 p.m.

Reactive Procedures (procedures that occur after a behavior):

  • Provide specific praise for appropriate behaviors: Specific praise includes the particular action that the child did in addition to the positive words (e.g., “Wow!” “Great job”) or actions (e.g., high fives, hugs) provided.
    • Example: If your child is politely asking his sibling for a toy she’s playing with instead of kicking her to gain access to the toy, say, “Awesome job asking your sister for the toy. That was really nice of you Billy.”
  • Ignore the problem behavior and only attend to the appropriate behaviors (if there is no immediate danger): You can help your child engage in the appropriate behavior by modeling or prompting the response.
    • Example: If your child is screaming to access the cookies on the top shelf, you can ignore the screaming and tell him, “If you want the cookies, you can say, ‘Can I have one cookie please?’” Then you can provide attention and praise when he complies with politely asking for the cookies instead of screaming.

Providing attention and praise to your child’s appropriate behaviors may help decrease the frequency of problem behaviors and need to use time-outs. To help with the use of time-outs and other intervention strategies to treat both appropriate and problem behaviors, contact a Board Certified Behavior Analyst in your area.

NSPT offers services in BucktownEvanstonHighland ParkLincolnwoodGlenview, Lake Bluff and Des Plaines. If you have questions or concerns about your child, we would love to help! Give us a call at (877) 486-4140 and speak to one of our Family Child Advocates today!

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