Parents of children with special needs may wonder how to discipline their child in a productive, loving way. It's important for parents to consider everything they know about their child's diagnosis and how that may impact their ability to process information, demonstrate self-control, and understand cause and effect. This will help parents to set their expectations and choose ways to guide their child in learning wrong from right and how to interact with others.

Time out is a common practice for disciplining young children. Time out involves removing a child from the environment where a child displays unwanted behaviors and placing them in a safe space free from distractions or preferred activities.


Disciplining A Child With Disabilities: How To Manage Behaviors

Here are a few helpful steps, tips, and considerations for using time out to manage behavior for your child with special needs.

Follow Steps For Time Out

Child with down syndrome smiling

According to Parenting for Brain, when used correctly, time out can be an effective way to stop unwanted behaviors. They list 8 steps to use each time you choose time out to address a behavior issue.

  1. ​​​​​Give a warning. Remind your child of your expectations and give them a chance to make a better choice.
  2. Go to time out. If the child continues to misbehave, immediately direct or walk the child to time out.
  3. Quiet, distraction-free time out. The space should not have any of your child's preferred activities nearby (turn the TV off too!) A consideration for children with special needs could be made to have access to flexible seating, calming fidget, or sensory toy.
  4. Stay in time out. The child physically remains in time out, parent may lead them back to time out as necessary.
  5. Brief duration. 2-5 minutes is recommended.
  6. Quiet and calm behavior. Wait for your child to follow your expectations (at least for a few seconds) before they are released.
  7. Follow the original request. Before time out is over give the same request. The child must complete it or time out may be repeated. This could also be your child showing an understanding of the consequence of time out by stating which rule was broken.
  8. Time in. Give your child plenty of praise and positive attention when you see them making good choices!

Introduce Time Out

Wooden chair

Explain the process of time out before misbehavior occurs. Walk your child to the designated spot in the home and tell them your time-out expectations. You will let your child know which behaviors are appropriate (sitting/standing, staying in the designated area, quiet voice, etc.) and how many minutes they will be there. Children with special needs benefit from visual supports. A sand timer, mechanical, or digital timer will help them understand when time out will be over.

Know When To Use Time Out

Young boy with sad expression


The CDC recommends not overusing time out for all unwanted behaviors. First, try to redirect or ignore unwanted behaviors if possible. Time out may be the best discipline method in these situations:

  • Your child does something dangerous
  • Your child harms another child or adult
  • Your child does not follow directions after a warning
  • Your child breaks an important rule

Pick One Behavior At A Time

Young boy with crossed arms and angry expression


If you are having any behavior issues come up and are desperate to start implementing discipline strategies to resolve them, try to choose only one misbehavior to address at a time. Per John Hopkins All Children's Hospital, parents of children with special needs should focus on repeating the expectations until their child is ready to move on to the next behavior goal.

Use Clear & Concise Wording

Parent talking to child

​​​​​​A tip from John Hopkins All Children's Hospital on disciplining a child with special needs is to limit your communication with your child when the misbehavior occurs to just a 2–3-word phrase, such as "no hitting". You may also use pictures, stories, or sign language to communicate your expectations.

While this is a helpful tip for all young children, it's especially important for children with special needs because processing language can be overwhelming.

Be Consistent

Child with special needs sitting in chair

​​​​​​For any discipline technique to be effective, consistency is key. Your child needs repetition to understand the consequence. This is another reason why choosing only one behavior at a time is key for managing the use of time out in your home. It's also most helpful when time out immediately follows the misbehavior to help your child learn cause and effect. This sends a message to your child's brain, "If I do x (hit, kick, bite, etc.), then I go to time out."

Time Out For Toys

Boy sitting on toy car

The CDC suggests that if misbehavior frequently occurs related to toys or objects, consider placing the toy in time-out rather than your child. You will avoid the potential power struggle of time out by removing the object rather than your child. Explain to your child the expectations you have for how to play with the toy before giving them another chance.

Along with these tips, communicate with those who spend time with your child to be sure everyone is on the same page with your behavior goals and discipline plan. This will help to reinforce the rules and consequences in all settings. Talk with caregivers, teachers, therapists, grandparents, or anyone who takes care of your child often to build a team of support. They may also provide useful strategies for addressing any behavior concerns you have. Remain patient and consistent as your child learns to make safe, helpful choices!

Sources: CDC, John Hopkins All Children's Hospital, Parenting for Brain