The use of time outs to deal with problem behavior is an effective tool for many parents. As a short-term measure, this aversive strategy is appropriate. However, punishing behavior only changes behavior briefly because no alternative behavior learned.
There may also be behavioral trap attached to using time outs. Generally, according to Dr. Mark Duran’s Motivational Assessment Scale (MAS), there are primarily four basic function of behavior: to get attention, to obtain a tangible, to escape or to receive sensory stimulation.
Considering that “escape” is one of the functions of behavior, a child seeking to escape is not being punished by a time out, but is actually being rewarded. Behavior strategies have to be individualized to work and the first step in the process is to find out what purpose a behavior serves for the child.
If a child is getting time outs at school during lunch, then that period should be evaluated to see what is going on that is cuing the child’s behavior. Or perhaps, at home, the child has behavior problems while watching television with siblings or playing outside. The best way to figure out what motivates a child to behave inappropriately is to observe.
The MAS is a simple questionnaire that anyone can use to assess one specific behavior and determine which of the four functions it serves. Teachers can use it at school and parents can also use it at home to help plan behavior change strategy. Of course, if getting attention is the motivation for a behavior, time out might seem an appropriate strategy.
However, while the child may try to stop the inappropriate behavior to avoid being separated from his or her parents, peers or siblings, she or he has not learned an alternative behavior to get the attention desired. For example, suppose a child gets upset every time an infant sibling is fed by his mother and starts throwing his or her food.
If the parent knows that the function of the behavior is not escape, the child might be sent to time out until the baby is done eating. That is an effective strategy for two reasons: first, the mother can concentrate on feeding the infant without having any distractions and secondly, the child needing attention can get it once the baby has been fed.
The only problem is that the behavior is likely to occur every time the mother feeds the baby. A simple preventative strategy might teach the child another way to get attention. One such strategy might be having the older child help with feeding the baby by getting things like a paper towel or a clean spoon for his or her mother.
Including the child will prevent the behavior and also teach the older child how to assist with feeding the younger sibling. The mother might also schedule the older child’s eating time later and provide an activity for the child to do while feeding the baby and frequently remind the child not eating that she or he will be eating later.
An added bonus for a child seeking attention would be if the child is told that he or she was told that the mother would be eating with her or him. Knowing this, the child would have no reason to “act out” to get the mother’s attention and would learn how to wait patiently to get what he or she wants.
Time out, while often used successfully to stop behavior that is inappropriate, does not really change a child’s behavior. This strategy is aversive because it punishes a child rather than teaching her or him an alternative behavior to just to get his or her needs met.
Positive discipline: Why time-outs don’t work
Timeouts Don’t Work!
“Time Out” — Time Off or Serving Time? | Taking Children Seriously
DEALING WITH SEVERE BEHAVIORS
Motivation Assessment Scale: About the MAS
11. Motivation Assessment Scale – Administration Guide
1. MOTIVATIONAL ASSESSMENT
1. MOTIVATION ASSESSMENT SCALE
1. MOTIVATION ASSESSMENT SCALE