News Story

State of Michigan Bans Day Care Providers From Giving Young Children Timeouts

‘This is not about children; it’s about increasing government control’

Hundreds of licensed child day care providers in Michigan have been quietly ordered to eliminate the disciplinary tool of enforcing timeouts for unruly children under the age of 3. The rationale: Such measures are “unlikely [to] prevent repeat misbehavior” and can leave a toddler “upset, confused and angry.”

The new regulation was enacted by the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs in December and implemented over the last few months.

The department has long had a rule against corporal punishment, confinement or inflicting mental or emotional stress as means to enforce discipline in a day care. The recent action adds a ban on timeouts and placing substances such as soap or hot sauces in a child’s mouth.

The regulation does say that other “reasonably appropriate discipline or restraint may be used to prevent a child from harming himself or herself or ... harming other persons or property.”

Some day care providers wonder what that means, and consider the new restriction a case of government overreach.

Sherry Loar, who has run a licensed day care for young children in Petoskey for more than 25 years, questioned the department’s logic. “If not timeouts, what? Do you let them walk around and bite other children until they’re three? What do they want us to do?”

State regulators provided a clarification of their ruling.

“Time-out is a form of behavioral modification that involves temporarily separating a person from an environment where an unacceptable behavior has occurred. The goal is to remove that person from an enriched, enjoyable environment, and therefore lead to extinction of the offending behavior,” the licensing agency stated in an email. “It is inappropriate to discipline children under 3 years of age for behavior that is beyond their control and understanding. They should be kindly and firmly removed from what they cannot do and be redirected to an activity they can do. If children under 3 years of age are upset and need time to calm down, an adult should go with the child to a quiet place and help him calm down. The adult can help the child calm down by doing a relaxing activity with him, such as hugging him, reading a book, listening to peaceful music, or sitting with him as he cuddles with a stuffed animal until he feels better.”

The timeout has been in use for decades as way to address extreme physical or emotional outbursts in children. In it, a caregiver attempts to calm an unruly child by briefly removing him or her from the activity being disrupted, such as group play.

The tactic was developed in large part as a response to a growing consensus among child development experts that physical punishments, such as spanking, were counterproductive.

In recent years, however, the tactic has come under more scrutiny, with some experts suggesting that it not be used for children under 3 or 4, because they are too immature to grasp the lesson being rendered. They also say it may also be inappropriate for children over 6, because it leads to shame and humiliation, especially if administered in a school setting.

The preferred approach to misbehavior, according to some, is to redirect the disruptive child to another activity, like reading.

One reader of a popular website on childrearing commented on redirecting. “Our day care used to laugh at redirecting. He hit someone? OK, now he has to go read a book. He threw the book? OK, so now he has to go play with cars. He took a friend’s car? OK, now he has to go play in the kitchen! He hit a friend with a spatula?”

Petoskey’s Loar clashed with Michigan’s day care bureaucracy a decade ago over an attempt to involuntarily unionize the home day care workforce. When asked about timeouts, she said that a blanket ban on them is one more way the administrative state is extending its control over private sector providers.

Loar, who gives care to about a dozen children, most of them infants and toddlers, said she and her staff have almost never had disciplinary issues, and she doesn’t recall having used timeouts.

That doesn’t mean, she said, that the tactic is never appropriate in specific contexts with specific children.

“The way that it’s written, it’s like until they reach age 3, it’s a free-for-all,” Loar said. Regulators and childcare providers, she added, should work together to help children. But “this is not about children. It’s about increasing government control.”