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September 20, 2018

Time Out is Out: Supporting Children Through Stressful Moments

Contributed by Toni Berrafato, Program Evaluation Specialist

Do you remember what it was like to be two? Or three? Perhaps four? Chances are, probably not. There are many reasons for this, but simply put, at that age the human brain has not yet developed the complex neural pathways that it requires to form memories. In fact, there is a lot about the brain of a young child that has yet to develop—including the ability to control big emotions. As an adult I will admit that there have been moments in my life where I’m having emotions that feel “bigger than my body”. One could say that it typically happens when I’m a bit “hangry”.  The difference between adults and toddlers is that we have the ability to understand how we’re feeling, why we’re feeling that way, and the appropriate way to regulate our behavior. Think about it, these little ones are just learning about themselves in concrete ways. Some children are just discovering their hands for the first time others are learning how to put their pants on in the morning by themselves. Their focus is on what is happening visually around them, they are not yet ready to understand the complex and abstract reasons why they feel a little cranky when they’re overtired. All they know is that something doesn’t feel right, and sometimes that feeling comes out in ways that we—as adults–  can’t comprehend because we have forgotten what it’s like to be so small.

The beauty of our role is that we can help children learn to regulate their behaviors and understand their emotions in a way that will impact them for the rest of their life. Many methods of behavior management that are commonly used (timeout, traffic lights, etc.) unintentionally shame children for expressing themselves in the only way that they know how. My Mom and I recently had a conversation about her style of discipline when I was a child, and what stood out most to me above and beyond everything else was the phrase “timeouts never worked”.  So, over 20 years ago, when timeout was common practice it was still ineffective. What has changed over the past 20 years? Child development certainly hasn’t. What has changed is the research and information that is available to us that explains all of the reasons why punitive behavior management strategies are ineffective. You will notice in the Doodle Bugs! program that we focus on methods that help to  develop the whole child while supporting them through the confusing and stressful moments.


Some of these strategies include…


The flip it method is a research based, highly effective way for adults to help children develop social-emotional competence. It stands for Feelings, Limits, Inquiries, and Prompts. This strategy is based on the principle that “Behaviors are feelings to be understood”. This aligns with ways that we coach our teachers to understand that all behavior is a form of communication.

You can learn more about the FLIP  IT method here, and if you love what you see, the book is a great resource.


Coaching Towards Emotional Understanding

The key to understanding why children are demonstrating a difficult behavior is just that—understanding. Making a judgement about a behavior will lead to a lot of frustration from an adult standpoint. Young children require coaching through difficult situations to understand why they feel a certain way and how they can act upon their emotions in a productive manner. For example, when speaking to my 4 month old daughter when she is upset I will ask her “Why are you so sad?”. Surely, I know that she will not respond. However, I then always follow up by saying “Are you hungry?” and then give it a try. Eventually this will help her to understand “When I feel this way I am hungry.” And when she has the appropriate words she will be able to say “I am hungry” instead of crying. This will not happen for years, but with consistent repetition it helps to provide context. This is in contrast to approaching the situation by saying “Why are you still crying? You just ate an hour ago.” Sometimes we all need a second breakfast.

Approach Every Situation with Empathy

All methods aside, the best way to guide children is to develop meaningful relationships and approach every situation with empathy.  All too often, we expect the little people in our life to act like grown adults when they have only been on this planet for less than a handful of years. Next time you are faced with a challenging behavior, consider what it might like to be two and put yourself in the shoes of the child. As we approach each situation with empathy and understanding, knowing that there is a purpose for all behaviors, we will certainly give children what they need when they need it.