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Time-out is a US term for a form of punishment that involves temporarily separating a child from an environment where inappropriate behavior has occurred, and is intended to decrease positive reinforcement of the behavior. It is an educational and parenting technique recommended by some pediatricians and developmental psychologists as an effective form of child discipline. Often a corner (hence the common term corner time) or a similar space where the child is to stand or sit during time-outs is designated.
The concept of time-out was invented, named, and used by Arthur Staats in his extended work with his daughter (and later son), and was part of a long-term program of behavioral analysis beginning in 1958 that treated various aspects of child development. He introduced various elements that later composed foundations for applied behavior analysis and behavior therapy (the token reward system was another invention). Montrose Wolf, a graduate student assistant of Staats on several studies dealing with reading learning in preschoolers (see, for example, Staats, A.W.; Staats, C.K.; Schultz, R.E.; Wolf, M.M. "The conditioning of textual responses using 'extrinsic' reinforcers."), used that background when he went to the University of Washington where he began his creative program of research. Wolf first used Staats' time-out procedure in a 1964 published study dealing with the behavioral treatment of a child.
Staats described the discipline of his 2-year old daughter in 1962: "I would put her in her crib and indicate that she had to stay there until she stopped crying. If we were in a public place [where her behavior was inappropriate], I would pick her up and go outside." This has the effect of weakening the offending behavior so that it occurs less frequently, quickly disappearing unless the behavior has been well learned.
The use of time-out as an acceptable therapeutic procedure has gained wide acceptance in schools, clinics, and hospitals. The purpose is to isolate or separate the child for a short period of time (usually 5 to 15 minutes) in order to allow the child to calm down, as well as to discourage inappropriate behavior.
Time-outs may be on a chair, step, corner, bedroom, or any other location where there are no distractions. The child should be old enough to sit still and is required to remain there for a fixed period. The procedure has been recommended[who?] as a time for parents to separate feelings of anger toward the child for their misbehavior, replacing yelling with a calmer and more predictable approach.
To be most effective, parents should evaluate each situation to determine what may be causing the misbehavior, such as a toy, frustration, hunger, or lack of sleep. Parents should also explain why the child was put there, in order to make it an opportunity for learning, and how long he needs to stay there (but too much explanation can reinforce the unwanted behavior ).
In some views, the only requirement for release is for the child to be sitting peacefully, while others advocate a set period of time. When the child has calmed down, they may then express their needs in a more polite manner or return to their activity.
Time-out is one of a class of behavior control methods based on removing positive reinforcement. Less elaborate methods from the same class like ignoring or turning away also can be effective in cases where parental/care-giver attention is the positive reinforcer.
This class of methods are more effective if the child gets a significant amount positive reinforcement (praise, attention) for good behavior.
While some proponents of time-outs insist on silence and stillness from the child during the time-out, it is easier to use a "release-contingency," such that the requirement is only that the child is sitting peacefully at the end of the time-out period. Those who use time-out for children to get anger and frustration "out of their system" or for children to think about their behavior, are using time-out in a way that is different than those basing it on operant behavioral principles (that time-out from positive reinforcement may reduce recurrences of the unwanted target behavior).
In a study by Donaldson and Vollmer, the efficacy of a fixed duration time-out and a release contingency time-out were compared. In the fixed duration condition, children were sent to time-out for a total of 4 minutes and were released from time-out whether or not they performed problem behavior during the time-out session. In the release contingency condition, children were not released from time-out if they were performing problem behavior during the last 30 seconds of their time-out. The time-out was extended until there were no occurrences of problem behavior for a total of 30 seconds or until the time-out reached the ten minute mark. Results showed that both time-out procedures were successful in reducing the problem behavior for the subjects. The subjects in the release contingency did not benefit from staying in time-out for an extended period of time either. Moreover, the results show that only 4 minutes is necessary for a successful time-out procedure.