Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Positive Time Outs and Self-Regulation: Calming Down Without Negativity

“Where did we ever get the crazy idea that to make children do better, we must first make them feel worse?”— Dr. Jane Nelsen, Positive Discipline

NAMC montessori positive time outs girl and mother sitting in grass

There have been many times in my marriage when I have ‘forgotten’ to make dinner. I say forgotten, but what I really mean is that I have become so engrossed in whatever I was doing at the time that I neglected what I was supposed to be doing. I am certain it was unintentional; nevertheless, my focus was not on my responsibilities. Never once has my husband come home and said, “That is it. Go to your room and think about what you have done!” Nor has he taken away my computer privileges until I learned my lesson. Instead, he lovingly asks if he can help or suggests we order pizza.

Helping Children Self Regulate Behavior with Positive Time Outs

I realize that the idea of my husband sending me to ‘time out’ or grounding me seems ridiculous. And if he did, I would be more likely to sit and think about how angry I am at him rather than think about a solution. Or, I might beat myself up with feelings of inadequacy and guilt over not being the perfect wife and mother. Neither situation would get dinner made.

As ridiculous as it seems, adults impose negative time outs on children all the time. Websites and retailers offer cute pictures of time-out chairs, as if having a cute form of punishment removes the parents’ guilt or somehow makes the isolated child feel better. In reality, having specific time out furniture really says that the adult expects and is planning for misbehavior.

Rather than imposing isolation as punishment for misguided behavior, Dr. Jane Nelsen, author of the Positive Discipline series, suggests removing the negative aspect and creating a positive time out. Dr. Nelsen explains that the main purpose of a time out should not be to punish, but to help adults and children calm down until they are able to function positively and rationally. Only when everyone is calm can problem solving begin.
Positive time-outs are empowering because they allow children to gain control over themselves instead of having limitations forced upon them by others. Learning to self-regulate is an important life skill that will serve children well in their adult life. Positive time outs are respectful means to help children regroup and manage their own behavior.

NAMC montessori positive time outs mother and son

When my son was 3 years old and before I learned about Montessori, he attended daycare while I was at work. I would pick him up and hear about the wonderful day he had had but once we got home, he would completely fall apart. At first, I tried punishing him by putting him in a traditional time-out, not letting him play with his trains, etc. But that only seemed to make matters worse.

One day when I was at my wits end and felt like crying too, I scooped up my son and just hugged him tightly on my lap. We snuggled in our big pink chair. Slowly, I felt the tension melt away from his little body. He stopped crying and hugged me back. After some time, he started talking about his day and what he wanted to do at home that night. Eventually, he forgot his tears and frustration and was ready to go play. There was no yelling, no fighting, and best of all, no hurt feelings.

This positive time-out became our nightly ritual until he no longer needed it. Sometimes, he would ask for “Mama time” at other times of the day when he was feeling frustrated or out of control. By asking for time-outs, he was showing that he recognized and could control his own behavior.

Being considerate and respectful of a child’s feelings helps develop his sense of belonging, which in turn builds his identity. Providing this respect should never be compromised. Instead, we must put ourselves in the shoes of the child and think about how we would like to be treated in the same situation.

For more information on positive time-outs, you may wish to visit Dr. Nelsen’s article on Positive Time Out.
As much as possible, NAMC’s web blog reflects the Montessori curriculum as provided in its teacher training programs. We realize and respect that Montessori schools are unique and may vary their schedules and offerings in accordance with the needs of their individual communities. We hope that our readers will find our articles useful and inspiring as a contribution to the global Montessori community.
© North American Montessori Center - originally posted in its entirety at Montessori Teacher Training on Tuesday, October 22, 2013.


  1. I think this is great advise. But sometimes I put my son in his room to give myself a time out. When I am so cross that if we stay in the same room I will yell. I am not capable of giving him a hug - i need to regulate my own behaviour first. Do you have any advise for those times when as a parent you are too mad to offer a positive time out?

  2. Hi...A positive time out can be time spent apart. It's ok to tell your son to spend some time in his room. Only think of ways that are positive. Rather than telling him to sit on his bed and "think about his actions", invite him to read a book, listen to music, or even quietly play. The purpose of a positive time out is to calm the mind and the body, for both the adult and the child, not as a means of punishment. While he's enjoying some quiet time, make yourself a cup of tea, chat with a friend, or read a book. Then, when you're both calm, come back together to peacfully reconcile. There may still be natural consequence for actions, but it will be in a much calmer frame of mind.

  3. When my daughter and I are so frustrated with each other that I can feel a loud, verbal explosion coming on, I will sometimes put myself in a "time out." I will tell her that I am stressed out by the situation and that I need to calm myself down before I can handle it. This helps my daughter see what I need to do to calm down, and it gives her a concrete example of what to do when she is in a tense situation.

  4. I think this is great, and the idea of a positive time out is great. My only concern about having "mamatime" to calm down, is that the child may not learn how to calm down on their own. What will they do when mama is not their to help them calm down. I think children need some time alone, and as long as you do it positively then a "time out" can be a good thing. I tell my daughter to go chill out in her room or in a chair, to take a few breaths, and come out whenever she is feeling better. It's not a punishment, it just takes her out of the situation and gives her time to calm down on her own. She comes out within 30 seconds, all smiles for the most part.

  5. I have never used words such as 'time-outs', or allowed these in my Montessori Children's House. We are supporting ourselves and the child to become more self-aware, and with this in mind, I always found that natural consequence, hearing of the impact on others from our actions, and re-direction better served children. I also never used words like 'good' or 'bad' or 'should' or 'you need to'. I think our language (body and words) are essential, and that most times when we feel the need to have the child go away, or do something....it is to avoid certain feelings that are arising in the adult. This is what I understand from Maria Montessori.

  6. Pamela, you make a great point. Although we use the term “time-out” in our blog and may use it when speaking with other adults, it is not a term to be used with the children. Similarly, telling a children that they are “good” or “bad” is rarely helpful and can be quite harmful to their self-esteem. As you say, language is important and the words we choose can have a strong impact on children.

  7. Thank you for this! I also thought of schools or teachers who take recess away from kids who misbehave. I understand the need for consequences, but that particular one seems so ridiculous. For a child struggling to sit still or needing to get some energy out, recess is so needed! Find another approach to dealing with the misbehavior, but don't take away recess! This post explains perfectly why we need to give more thought to the ways we approach discipline. Thanks again!


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