Time Out! Effective Discipline for Language Delayed Toddlers

The area I’m asked about most often that does not directly pertain to speech and language is discipline. It’s hard to discipline ANY toddler, but when you’re considering your options for a two-year-old with?language problems, it’s especially challenging.

Many parents ask my opinion about which disciplinary techniques are best to use for a child with language delays. First of all, let me say that I am NOT a psychologist, so this is not my area of clinical expertise.

However, I am a mother and have been for 18 1/2 years to 3 very different children with 3 very different temperaments. I have been a pediatric speech-language pathologist for so many years that I’ve treated well over a thousand children. I’ve volunteered in some capacity in my churches’ preschool departments for the last 10 years or so, and that’s exposed me to the full range of “normal” or “typical” behavior for one and two-year-olds. Although I don’t have the professional credentials, I think this qualifies me with “trial by fire” experience on the basis of sheer exposure!

I have also done more than my share of reading on this topic, not only in an effort to improve my own parenting skills, but also to be able to give parents advice initially while we’re waiting on the real expert to show up.

The biggest mistake that I see is parents who try to take disciplinary techniques designed for a typically developing child and use them with NO modifications with a child who is struggling developmentally. Where I live this includes disciplinary programs taught by churches in parenting classes or even other more practical solutions from books such as 1-2-3 Magic. Some of these techniques are too rigid, and are therefore inappropriate, for children with developmental delays.

(Let me add for those of you who may be offended by my remarks that I am also a Christian and feel that I am in no way slandering my faith by pointing out this trend. Although I am not going to name the particular childhood disciplinary program to which I’m referring, at first glance the authors seem well-intentioned are committed. After reviewing the materials, I can say that they likely have had very little experience with children who are not developing typically.  Even if they did, they may not recognize it because their approach seems to be a one-size-fits-all.  I am strictly opposed to the use of this program with children with any kind of developmental delay, especially problems with language comprehension and/or cognitive delays.)

My basic advice for discipline for parents of language delayed children is this- you are going to have to modify your disciplinary approaches and expectations for your child. Language affects all areas of development, and is closely tied to a child’s cognitive skills, or ability to learn. If your child is having difficulty learning language, especially if this includes his ability to understand language, you are going to have to do things differently. You are going to have to tweak your approaches, no matter what techniques you use.

For example, let’s look at the ever popular “time out.”

Time out is often recommended because it removes the child from the situation and gives everyone (including angry parents!) time to calm down and move on. It is often tauted as the “standard” for toddler discipline because it’s non-violent (as opposed to a spanking) and everyone has heard of it, or its sister popularized by Super Nanny, “The Naughty Spot/Stair/Mat.”

Here are guidelines that I have compiled for making the technique work for language delayed toddlers and preschoolers.

1. Know your child’s developmental level.

If your child is functioning at a lower age level cognitively or has a delay in his receptive language skills (how he understands language) so that his language level is well below his chronological age, you must use disciplinary techniques for THAT age level, not his true/chronological age. To expect a toddler to “act his age” cracks me up in the first place, and to expect a developmentally delayed child to function behaviorally at his chronological age, rather than his developmental age, is unfair and unrealistic.

2. Understand what time-out is — and isn’t.

Experts recommend that you view time-out as an opportunity to teach your child how to cope with common frustrations and modify his behavior, rather than as a punishment. This means that time out is really a teachable moment, and again, not a punishment.

Professionals explain that when a child is in time-out, he’s supposed to be on his own. It’s designed to be a neutral zone without positive or negative attention from you. You shouldn’t continue to be there to give him positive reinforcement, such as words of consolation or hugs. You also shouldn’t give negative reinforcement either. This means no yelling or angry remarks about his behavior. He’s supposed to just sit in solitude for a few moments to allow himself time to calm down, especially if he’s gotten all worked up.

It should also give you an opportunity to calm down yourself. This “time out” is for both of you and is what helps avoid the power struggle that so many parents (and therapists) lapse into when behavior issues arise.

What’s experts like about time-out is that it serves to redirect an escalating situation in an unemotional way. If you are yelling and screaming and breaking out in a sweat to make your child comply, you’re doing it wrong. Read on.

3. Don’t start too early.

Wait until your child is at least 2-years-old DEVELOPMENTALLY (that’s the 24 month level on language and cognitive tests) to introduce time-outs. Before that level, he won’t understand what’s happening. He might know you’re mad, but he won’t understand why since he can’t yet connect his actions with your reactions.

If you hold off until your child begins to understand and remember basic directions and routines, your child won’t get as frustrated. Neither will you.

4. Modify time out as necessary for your child.

Any toddler can find it hard to sit still in one place, much less one with developmental challenges. One author described time out with a two-year old this way. “Trying to make your child stay in a certain place for a prescribed length of time is likely to disintegrate into a chase scene: Your child runs away, delighted with this new game; you catch him, then struggle to make him stay in one place. You threaten, he laughs. You grab, he bolts.” Sound familiar?

A better way might be to use when parenting experts call “positive time out.” This is recommended for toddlers 18 months and up. When your child is getting on the verge of losing control, try to suggest an alternate activity that you can do together. This serves to distract him from what’s about to get him in trouble.

Everyone knows the minute per year of age rule for time-out, but experts originally intended this to be started after a child turns 3. Before then, time out needs to be even shorter, say 30 seconds to one minute. Longer than that and he may forget why he’s there in the first place.

Don’t be too picky about the certain place or chair either. Interrupting the moment to drag him to the chair sometimes escalates the whole situation, and a power struggle erupts. This defeats the whole purpose of time out, which is for everyone to calm down. Simply sitting down right where he is, placing him up on the couch, or putting his head down?on the ground may be a better idea.

5. Make sure you’re picking your battles wisely.

If your child is tired, hungry, or sick, you should meet those needs before trying to discipline or even redirect him. Children with developmental delays are often more at risk to “fall apart” when their physical systems are compromised by even a little illness, fatigue, or hunger.

One more thing to remember – It’s age-appropriate for toddlers to explore your home. It’s essential that YOU learn the difference between his natural drive to explore and “willful disobedience.” Some parents get really bent out of shape when their child is “misbehaving” by trying to pull the cords on the blinds, reach the phone, or use the remote for the TV.

When a child is a toddler, the very best strategy for keeping him out of trouble may be arranging your home to reduce the chance for him to get into trouble. If you are repeatedly telling your child “No” about something, start to think, is there a way to eliminate this threat? If there is, throw in the towel and move on! Your priorities can be shifted to something else when you’re not constantly policing your living area.

However, and this is a big HOWEVER, this does not mean to gate your toddler into a tiny child-proofed area and never let them be able to explore. I am all for baby gates on stairs, but some places I visit look more like a kennel than a home! Toddlers need to be able to move around in their environments, even if it’s inconvenient for you to rearrange your stuff. Let’s face it, once you have kids, you should forget about the call from Southern Living or House Beautiful to arrange the photo shoot.  Things may not look “pretty” again until you’re taking pictures before the prom.

I have some children on my caseload who are 2 and have never been allowed to play in the kitchen. I don’t remember making a meal or doing a dish when my toddlers weren’t right there with me emptying their special cabinet, sorting and stacking bowls, or pretending to cook with their own little dishes on their own little stoves. Make your home child-friendly, not child-proof!

As mentioned previously, distraction also works well to redirect him to something he can do vs. what he wants to do that’s off limits. When you see him headed for something that’s you’d prefer he not do, instead of yelling from across the room, suggest he do something else. An enthusiastic, “Look!” can often redirect a toddler who has learned to ignore “no.”

6. Know when he’s ready for a more traditional time out.

When your child can follow several simple directions consistently and has a slightly longer attention span of several minutes, he’s ready for a more traditional time-out. If your child is not stopping when you yell, “No,” or understanding other restrictive words like “Stop” and “Wait,” he’s still not ready for this. Keep rearranging your environment and using distraction as your main line of defense until he does understand.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t even tell him “no,” it just means that you need to be prepared to get up and help him move on, rather than depending on him to do it himself. Keep teaching “No No” by saying it when it’s truly necessary and using a big head shake and disapproving  facial expression to supplement your words. Children with language delays often rely on reading your non-verbal cues such as your gestures and your facial expressions. Make them all match, so he isn’t even more confused.

One other successful thing I do in sessions when a child is about to lose control is to drop my voice to almost a whisper, hold a child’s hands gently, and pull him in very close to my face to get his attention. This is usually such a stark contrast from how he’s been handled in the past that it’s an attention -getter. It usually helps by providing a big distraction (Me!), and serves to DE-escalate the moment by bringing the activity level down to a quieter, calmer place.

As he approaches the developmental age of 3, a child will likely be better able to comprehend that his actions can cause a negative consequence. Then you’re ready for a more traditional time out.

However, parenting experts recommend that you not begin time out in the midst of a battle. Explain it first. Use a simple explanation such as, “When you don’t listen or do something wrong, Mommy will say, ‘Time-out.’ This means you will sit in this chair for a little while until you can calm down.” Some parents find it useful to act this out ahead of time by using a baby doll or stuffed animal to demonstrate taking a time-out, but don’t make it too playful, or it will turn into a game.

7. As one parenting expert recommended, don’t expect miracles.

Parenting a toddler is tough, especially one that is struggling developmentally. ALL toddlers are strong willed and test limits; it’s why they call it the “terrible two’s.”

Patience is the only quality that’s sure to get you through this phase. Consistency in your responses is the only thing that will get him through this phase while he learns under your watch and care. Testing limits is normal in toddlerhood. It’s desirable so that you can see he’s progressing cognitively. It’s his way of learning how the world works. Your child may repeatedly throw your cell phone, drop food off his high chair, or pull the cat’s tail to see if the same thing happens today as yesterday and the day before. He may “disobey” in exactly the same way he did yesterday just to make sure it’s still “not okay.” Consistency in your responses is essential.

No single disciplinary approach — including time-out — will transform your 1, 2, or 3-year-old into an obedient robot. Would you want that anyway? We all want our children to be able to behave, but also to learn, to explore, to begin to think for themselves, and to try new things. Sometimes this may get them into trouble, but that’s okay too. It’s part of learning, growing, and developing.

Learn what behaviors are appropriate for your child’s developmental age so that you can keep your expectations realistic. Keep in mind that if your child is having delays in learning, you will not be able to use the same behavioral guidelines as you have for your other children, or your friend’s child who is not having difficulties, or even what you read in parenting books. “Special needs” also applies when it comes to discipline.





  1. Eric says

    I finally decided to write a comment on your blog. I just wanted to say good job. I really enjoy reading your posts.

  2. April says

    Wow Laura, this is a great website…I’ve been reading the “disciplinary” info..haha…and I have much more to explore! Great information for all parents, thank you for sharing your expertise 🙂

  3. Sarah says

    Hey I found your site through Cafe Mom! I am glad I found it!! I am a SPED teacher that has a 3 yr old with a speech/lang delay and developmental delay. She is about a year behind. Her daycare is struggling with her! She has a hard time listening and following directions. Transitions are REALLY hard for her! I am going to share your site with them to help them understand what they can do help her. They really want to help. It is hard to sit and expalin everything I do at home. Also this article will help my hubby understand our little girl too. He is starting to get frustrated that she is not listening like she is susposed to.


  4. Laura says

    Sarah – I’m so glad you found the website! I wanted to let you know that I am finishing up filming a DVD this week for strategies to use for kids with receptive language issues called, “Teach Me To Listen And Obey.” It will be released around the first week of September, so look for it on the site. It’s filled with examples of practical ways to target language comprehension AND developmentally appropriate disciplinary info. In the meantime, I hope the articles help! Laura

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