Last week, I commented on the use of the "time-out" method to guide young children's behavior. I pointed out that "time-out" really works only when an undesirable behavior has been rewarded in the past; if that's the case, then withholding rewards like attention or other kids' giggles can reduce the frequency of the behavior adults don't like.
But there are two important issues about this. The first is that a lot of behaviors that adults want to stop did not in fact develop because they were rewarded by other people. Instead, they are self-rewarding because they are fun or interesting, or they are driven by some intrinsic motive of the child's, like fatigue or fear. Trying to withhold rewards by isolating the child in these cases is not likely to decrease the behavior and might even increase it.
The second issue is that even if "time-out" can decrease the occurrence of a behavior that's been rewarded, it does NOT do so instantaneously. Sometimes parents expect a "time-out" event to have an immediate effect, the way they might expect a spanking to do (not that spankings necessarily do this, but people expect them to). However, if you consider that a behavior was learned and increased in frequency over a period of time during which it was fairly regularly rewarded, you'll understand that one failure to reward will not solve the whole problem. If anything we'd expect a spurt of increased activity as the child seeks the old reward, later followed by a decrease. This is what we see in experimental studies manipulating the occurrence of rewards for behavior.
Is there any other, more effective way to offer discipline or guidance for young children's behavior? What can we do if we're looking at a behavior, like whining, for instance, that may not have been rewarded but happens anyway? One thing parents can do in cases like this is to keep an eye on the child, watch for situations that are likely to bring out the undesirable behavior, and cue the child to do something more desirable-- to use words rather than whine, for instance. (Remember, we're talking about toddlers and preschoolers here.)
Another useful alternative is "time-in". Rather than isolating the child and withholding contact which might be rewarded, the adult keeps the child near him or her for a period of time. There are several situations where this may work well. One is an overwhelming social situation where the young child is both fascinated and fearful about others' activity and becomes over-excited, fussy, and demanding. Another is a situation where the child is fatigued or hungry or both and seems to "melt down" at the slightest frustration. Under these circumstances, staying near a familiar adult-- and having needs like hunger met-- can help restore the child's emotional equilibrium. Keeping the child near should not be thought of as punishment or combined with scolding, frowns, or muttering by the adult, but instead should be seen as a guidance method that helps the child get back into a better mood and mode of behavior.
To understand young children who are "acting up", it's sometimes helpful to think about infant behavior. Infants can show us in a more obvious form some tendencies that still exist in toddlers and preschoolers. A relevant point about infants is that they can have a lot of trouble organizing their own behavior, and need adult caregivers to help structure the babies' experience. For example, one 6-week-old, brought by her mother to a party, seemed hungry but was unable to drink her bottle. The mother was busy catching up with friends and simply offered the bottle now and then without success. Another adult took the baby to another part of the house, talked to her quietly, and sat down in a darkened room where no one else was. In a few moments, the baby addressed herself to the bottle, drank it all, and fell asleep. The baby was not able to organize her feeding behavior while in a bright, noisy, active place, and needed an adult to structure her experienced environment at a level she could deal with.
Toddlers and even preschoolers may also need help in self-organization. If too much is going on, the disorganized child may be unable to eat, even though she is hungry, or to fall asleep when tired. When these problems exist, sending the child to "time-out"-- away from adults who can offer help-- would simply exacerbate the situation. "Time-in" would be a much better guidance approach under these circumstances.