Quiet time and time-out: strategies for guiding child behaviour


Quiet time and time-out are ways to guide children away from challenging behaviour. They involve removing children from activities for short periods. When you use quiet time and time-out, stay calm, focus on family rules and be consistent. Quiet time and time-out work best when you combine them with strategies for encouraging good behaviour.

Quiet time and time-out: what are they?

Quiet time and time-out are strategies that can help you manage children’s challenging behaviour.

They both involve taking children away from activities and not giving them attention for a short period of time.

Quiet time and time-out can guide children towards better behaviour. Even young children can understand that when they misbehave, they lose the chance to be around other people and interesting things for a short time.

Quiet time and time-out work well when you usually have plenty of warm and loving time with your child. If your child’s behaviour or other things in your life are affecting the time you spend with your child, talk with your General Practitioner or a counsellor.

Quiet time and time-out: what's the difference?

Quiet time is when you remove your child from the situation, but not the place.

For example, if you’re at home, you might ask your child to come and sit near you, away from toys or other children. You can also do quiet time in another room with your child. This gives your child a break from other people or activities.

Quiet time works well away from home. For example, if you’re at the park you might sit under a nearby tree with your child for five minutes. This lets your child calm down away from other people.

Time-out is when your child goes to a time-out area. It’s somewhere that you and your child have talked about beforehand. It’s usually a safe and boring place without toys or games. For example, it could be a spare room or hallway.

How to do quiet time and time-out

Here’s how to do quiet time and time-out:

1. At a calm and relaxed time, explain to your child what quiet time or time-out is, and what behaviour will lead to it. For example, ‘Time-out is when you sit quietly on the bottom step for three minutes. Hitting people gets a time-out.’
2. When the behaviour happens, give your child a chance to change their behaviour. For example, ‘Peri, if you keep throwing those blocks you’ll need to take some quiet time’.
3. Follow through on quiet time or time-out. For example, ‘Xander, remember the rule: time-out for throwing. I’m setting a timer for three minutes. Then you can go and join the others again’.
4. Avoid talking to or looking at your child during quiet time or time-out.
5. Start fresh when quiet time or time-out is over. For example, ‘What do you want to play with now?’ Avoid reminding your child of what they did wrong. For example, it’s best not to say something like ‘Now, no more hitting your sister’.

As soon as possible after quiet time or time-out, try to catch your child being good and give your child some positive attention. Quiet time and time-out always work best when you combine them with strategies for encouraging good child behaviour​, like giving attention ​ and praise​.

Making quiet time and time-out work for you: tips

Keep quiet time and time-out short

Aim for one minute per year of age, up to a maximum of five minutes. For example:

  • three minutes maximum for three-year-olds
  • four minutes maximum for four-year-olds
  • five minutes maximum for children aged 5-8 years.

Keeping it short means your child doesn't have to wait long before showing you that they can behave well. If time-out or quiet time is too long, your child might forget what it's about and just feel resentful.

Stay calm
If you stay calm, your child is more likely to stay calm too. If you feel upset or stressed, try pausing and taking a few deep breaths before you respond to your child's behaviour.

Focus on family rules
It's good to talk about how your child's behaviour has broken a family rule. For example, 'Hurting people is not OK in our family'. This works better than telling your child that they have been 'bad' or 'naughty'.

Change one behaviour at a time
Pick one behaviour to change first – for example, hitting or swearing. When the behaviour you've chosen is no longer a problem, you could work on another behaviour – for example, throwing toys.

Be consistent
Quiet time and time-out work best when your child knows what to expect. So make sure to always follow through on challenging behaviour. If your child thinks they might be able to get out of quiet time or time-out, these strategies become much less powerful.

If you have a partner, it's important that you both use quiet time or time-out the same way for the same behaviour. You could also speak to your child's educators and carers and plan to use quiet time or time-out the same way.

Challenging behaviour in quiet time or time-out

If your child argues or yells, remind your child that quiet time or time-out begins when they're quiet.

If your child is having trouble calming down, you could help your child calm down first. Then try again. You can calmly repeat your reason – for example, 'Remember, we don't hit each other. If you hit, you'll have time-out. Are you ready to start now?'

If quiet time or time-out time isn't working for you​

Here are some things you can try if time-out and quiet time aren't helping with your child's behaviour:

  • Change the environment . For example, if your child misbehaves when they're tired, plan to do the grocery shopping after your child has had an afternoon nap.
  • Use a distraction . Pulling a funny face or pointing out something interesting can often quickly change a young child's behaviour without the need for quiet time or time-out.
  • Use consequences  if your child won't go into time-out or quiet time. You can say something like, 'Zoe, go into time-out now or you'll miss out on watching television this afternoon'.
  • Ask for help. A professional like a counsellor or psychologist can help you if you're having trouble managing really challenging behaviour. Ask your General Practitioner or pediatrician for advice and a referral.

It's typical for children to behave in challenging ways when they're ill or going through certain developmental stages, or when there are big changes in your family life. In situations like these, it might be worth waiting to see whether your child's behaviour changes when the situation changes. If it doesn't, you could try quiet time or time-out. Either way it's always a good idea to spend some time talking with your child about their feelings.

Time-out for children with special needs

Time-out can give autistic children or children with developmental delay a safe space to work on calming themselves.

But time-out isn't recommended for autistic children who:

  • use aggressive or self-injuring behaviour, because it can reinforce the behaviour
  • avoid interaction with others, because these children might misbehave as a way of being sent to time-out.

If this sounds like your child, talk with your child's General Practitioner or therapist about other ways to manage your child's behaviour.​

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