Time Out: Insights From Football
By Sandra Crosser, Ph.D.

I don’t know much about the game of football. But my son plays, so it is time to learn. The table between us becomes a football field as he coaches me in the basics. When the waitress arrives with our order, number 61 calls a time out.

” What about time outs?" I ask. "Is that when you rest?”

No, Mom," he laughs. "There is a strategy to calling time outs.”

At once I am learning more than either of us intended. I think back to Ralph, a kindergarten boy I observed over several months. Ralph was stuck in a permanent time out beside the teacher's desk. Ralph learned a lot during his isolation. For example, he learned how to scoot his chair swiftly across the tile floor to sit beside me and whisper important stuff. When asked why he wasn't sitting with the other children, Ralph admitted that he was being punished. He didn't know why.


We have translated the concept of time out from the world of sports to the world of the classroom, but something seems to have been lost in that translation. Don't teachers, as well as coaches, need a strategy for calling time out?


In the world of football, there is a limit on the number of time outs that may be called, and there is a set, short timeline during which they must be concluded. There is always a purpose to the time out, and the team huddles together to plan how to achieve the goal. A time out may be called by an official when an injury has occurred, by a quarterback when he finds the defense has confounded the planned play, or by a coach. When a coach calls time out, it is for one of three reasons: to tell the team what they are doing wrong, to plan what to do next, or to pump up the players. Coaches never call time out when their team has momentum. However, calling time out may work to break the opponent's momentum. Therefore, time out is a strategic maneuver used to advance the team's effectiveness.


The widely used classroom disciplinary time out practice typically involves isolating a child from other activities. Is time out an educationally wise practice? Perhaps we, as teachers, could gain insight by reflecting on how time out is used on the playing field. Let's look at the strategies individually.

In Football Time Outs Are Limited in Number and Duration

On the field, players and coaches must use time outs frugally. The allotted time is short, so there is no time for punishment. Just like football players, young children are often aware immediately after an infraction that they have done something wrong. Newman and Newman (1997, p. 409) caution that "...extensive punishment or shaming at that point serves only to generate a child's anxiety and further disorganize thinking rather than to reinforce the child's internal recognition of an inappropriate act." Time out is an opportunity for a child to learn social skills. It is not an appropriate time to punish.

Any disciplinary strategy that is overused becomes ineffective. Time out should never become the answer to every problematic situation and most certainly should never become permanent as in Ralph's case. If she chooses to use the time out technique, the teacher must be selective in deciding when time out is appropriate. If things are getting out of hand in the block area, perhaps the teacher could call all of the block players together for a time out huddle to solve the problem. This positive use of time out stops the negative momentum and gives children the opportunity to regroup.

On the other hand, it would seem important to note that calling a time out might be terribly inappropriate on those occasions when children have built up a positive learning momentum. If minds are clicking and exciting discoveries are being made, adult interruption would interfere with the child's growth. Never call time out when your team has momentum.

In Football Time Out Is Purposeful

Because classroom time out is a disciplinary tactic, we need to think about the purpose of discipline in the early childhood setting. If the purpose is to maintain a safe environment for children, then certainly a time out similar to an official's time out may be appropriate, especially when children are about to engage in dangerous behavior or if someone has been injured.


However, the larger, more encompassing goal for discipline must be to promote the development of self-regulation, or self-control. The goal is for the child to rely more and more on her own inner resources and less and less on external control of her behavior.


According to Kopp (1987), self-regulation first becomes possible during the second year when the child has developed a sense of herself as a separate person with individual control over her actions; has reached a level of cognitive maturity that permits her to remember and internalize what adults have said; and has applied the stated rules of behavior to her own actions.


As these abilities develop, the child will show evidence of compliance with adult requests. If the child willingly complies with adult directives, we know she is cognitively mature enough to benefit from strategies directed at developing self-control (Kaler & Kopp, 1990). As language abilities develop, the child may use private speech to inhibit her own behaviors (Luria, 1961) as she tells herself "No! No!" (Kochanska, 1993). If the child has reached a cognitive level that permits the development of self-control, then disciplinary strategies should be carefully selected to further that development.


Is time out a disciplinary strategy that can foster self-control? That depends on how it is used. If the child is simply isolated on a time out chair or sent to sit in his cubby for a few minutes, he may learn something, but he will not learn self-control. He will not have learned to apply socially acceptable alternative behaviors in future situations. In addition, he will not have learned to show empathy or to explain why what he did was wrong. However, he may have learned to avoid the punitive adult (Berke, 1997).

In order for discipline to teach self-control and morality it must incorporate four elements (Newman and Newman, 1997):

  • Assist the child in stopping the undesirable behavior.
  • Help the child discover an acceptable alternative behavior to use in the future.
  • Provide understandable reasons for the wrongness or rightness of an act.
  • Help the child take the perspective of those who were wronged by his/her actions.

Traditional time out for misbehavior addresses only the first element. It stops or interrupts the undesirable behavior, but it does nothing to build self-control or moral understanding. Therefore, for time out to be an effective disciplinary tactic, it must be followed by time in-time spent with the child developing understanding, empathy, and alternative behaviors.

Baumrind (1971) and Martin (1975) found that if children did not understand why they were being punished, their level of aggression increased. Children need to understand the reasons for their punishment.

In Football the Team Huddles for Time Out

Just as group problem solving on the football field involves all of the football players, so should group problem solving involve all of the classroom players. When conflicts arise, all involved players benefit from being guided as they negotiate a solution. At times, it may be beneficial for the whole group to problem solve together. Children who are bystanders can often offer helpful suggestions.  


In Football Time Out Is an Opportunity to Coach

In football, the coach calls a time out to help the players see where they are going wrong or what they need to do next. He may use a time out simply to pump up the players. These strategies are also appropriate in the classroom. Children often solve their problems without adult intervention. However, there are other times when it becomes necessary for the adult to call a stop to the action in order to coach or guide children as they learn the rules of socialization. Self-regulation is a learned behavior. Therefore, the teacher must coach children in self-discipline as surely as she must coach them in mathematical concepts.


In Football the Quarterback Can Call a Time Out

If the quarterback steps up to the line and sees the defense set up in such a way that the planned play just won't work, the quarterback may call a time out. Yes, one of the players may see a need to stop the action and make another plan.


Should children, as classroom players, be permitted to make the same judgment? Could children call their own time out? Could children and teachers agree on a signal to be used when a child feels the need to stop the action and regroup for the good of the participants? Children can be taught the importance of planning together and changing plans in socially acceptable ways if the teacher coaches them in how and when to call a time out appropriately. In this way, independence and autonomy are fostered as children learn they have increasing control over and responsibility for their actions.


Is Time Out a Developmentally Appropriate Practice?

Berke (1997) suggests that the time out practice may be an appropriate alternative to more coercive disciplinary tactics. If a child is out of control, time out may serve as a period for her to calm down and regain composure. A short period of time away from the conflict may provide the space necessary for her to regain self-control so she will be receptive to more effective guidance techniques (Betz, 1994). But it is important that the child does not perceive the time out as punishment. The child may need to be quietly rocked or gently held while she regains composure. This form of time out is soothing and helps the child become ready to think and talk about the problem calmly. If the child is not receptive to physical comfort, she may be told, in a matter-of-fact manner, to get a drink of water or go to a quiet place for a few moments and get ready to talk about the problem.


In cases where time out is not a particularly appropriate strategy to use with young children, what strategies could be effectively substituted? Research gives us several clues.


  • Engage the child in reasoning combined with warmth and loving care (Zahn-Waxler, Radke-Yarrow, & King, 1979).

  • Give explanations that appeal to the child's concern for others, their pride, and acting grown up (Eisenberg, 1992).

  • Explicitly model and teach the behaviors children are expected to imitate (Fukushima & Kato, 1976).

  • If punishment is used, it should be accompanied by a verbal rationale that the child understands (Berke, 1997).

  • Avoid demanding and controlling strategies that increase defiance (Kucsynski, Kochanska, Radke-Yarrow, & Girnius, 1987).


As we have seen, the typical isolation and punishment procedure that time out has become is seldom an appropriate technique to use with young children. However, if we take the lessons learned from the playing field, we can turn time out into time in...time in for productive and strategic learning of self-control and positive social skills.

Sandra Crosser, Ph.D., is associate professor at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio.


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