I tried using a calming basket a couple of years ago, but my daughter didn't go for it when in the throes of a tantrum. Therefore, I didn’t explore this tactic further and resorted to timeouts in her room. I now realize the point of the calming tools is to teach your child to use them before they explode. I’m not sure how well this would have worked with a two-year-old, but I would imagine introducing the concept sooner would have helped in the long run.
Now I'm working with a behaviorist who suggested a "calm-down corner." I’ve outlined how to implement a traditional one below. It might seem overwhelming, but it didn’t take very long to put together. The concept may not work for all children, mine included, so keep reading for how we're modifying it to fit our family. Please read all the details, because if executed improperly IT WILL BACKFIRE!
1) Set Up the Corner.
Choose an area that is accessible all the time.
The goal is for the child to eventually seek out this area on their own when they are feeling upset or overwhelmed before they act out. This is why a calm-down corner isn’t a reward for bad behavior. They can play there anytime they want, making it a tool, not a reward.
Choose a prime location.
Pick a space that can be seen from the main living area of the house, so you can keep an eye on them. Eventually, as they choose to go to the area on their own you may be alerted to big feelings before they become a larger issue.
Make it comfy.
I went big with this. A simplified set up would suffice with most children. My little one is super strong-willed and spirited, so I committed hard to this concept by purchasing a ridiculously large bean bag chair. A small chair could work, but if your child is strong-willed and quick to anger splurge on a super cozy spot. You could use an old crib mattress, exercise mats, floor pillows, or even a pop-up tent in the space. Then add lots of soft blankets, pillows, and stuffed animals (I let her choose- give them some control when you can!)
Stage calm down tools.
I collected sensory items and calming activities into a couple different containers.
Here's what was included:
Family photos in a soft photo album
Anything and everything squeezable
A plastic slinky
Scarves/fabrics with different textures
Different colored large pom poms (for counting or sorting by color)
Pinwheels and straws (for blowing); this creates the action of a deep breath and makes it fun! Sometimes she's open to pretending to sniff a flower and then blow out a candle. Please note this has to be taught when they're not upset first.
Coloring books and washable crayons/markers
Paper (for ripping)
What’s not in our area?
Hardcover/board books, wooden blocks, large toys.
Basically, anything that can be thrown and would hurt or damage property should not be in this area. I would like to add slime and putty at some point, but right now she would just make a mess.
2) Set Your Child Up for Success.
Create a positive association.
When you first set up the area, use it for everything but discipline. Read books, play, cuddle, and enjoy! We decided to call it her “comfy, cozy corner” because it sounds more inviting than “calm-down corner.”
Talk about feelings.
Discuss feeling sad, frustrated, and mad. Read books about feelings. Talk about what you can do to help that feeling pass before they are upset. Tell them what you do when you feel this way. Explain how taking a breaking and focusing on something else will help calm down those feelings.
Introduce the calm-down tools.
I call them “calm down toys.” Explore all the tools together and teach them what to do with them before they get upset.
Be a role model.
Don’t engage with your child when they act out. Not only are they looking for a reaction, but throwing your emotions into the mix only makes things worse. Easier said than done. Trust me, I know how hard this is! Do your best. If you make a mistake, apologize and explain that you are working on calming yourself down too.
3) Using the area.
Let them know they have control.
This is not a timeout. Timeouts are for a certain amount of time and the parent has control over when it ends. This is a calm-down corner. The child can leave the area whenever they are ready. They have control of how long they stay there.
Choose your language wisely.
All caregivers need to use the same concise and specific wording every time. Right now we are working on hitting and biting, so we chose “Stay until have gentle hands.” You could use, “stay until your body is calm.”
Create a plan for other children.
If your child can be volatile, choose a safe space for other children to go. I have a four-month-old who can be placed in her room on the opposite side of the house.
Send them to the area.
Ok, here’s the tough part. Initially, you have to send them to the area when they are acting out. If they get up, return them gently to the area. Use your agreed upon language to explain when they are allowed to come out of the area. Don’t engage. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t yell. Don’t let them know they’re getting to you.
This is different than engagement because you would only do this once the child has begun to calm down. Checking in on how your child is feeling will help with their emotional development. You could even use pictures of children’s faces showing different emotions or colors associated with feelings (red- mad, yellow- stressed, green- good to go). Then the child can point instead of verbalizing their feeling, which is much more difficult when upset.
Limit Your Lesson.
Keep it short and sweet. Let them know what they did wrong and that you still love them. For strong-willed, quick to anger children you may need to wait several hours or even until the next day before bringing up what happened. This goes so against my instincts because I need to talk about things to move on. However, I’ve learned that if I do this with my child we just end up right back where we started. For now, we just need to work on calming our bodies down safely. Conflict resolution skills can wait.
If your child is already used to sitting in time out, this should be a relatively smooth transition with a more positive long-term life lesson. However, if your child has never been capable of staying put somewhere and you know they will test your patience to its breaking point this may not work for you. You know your child best. Read on for how to tweak the concept to allow for more manageable execution.
What went wrong?
My child has never been able to sit in time out. We’ve had to use physical barriers, e.g. a car when outside the home, a gate in her room which eventually led to a reversed doorknob when she got too tall. I was advised by a parent coach to do this because ultimately my safety matters and I was pregnant when initially handling accelerated outbursts. We don’t spank, because we’ve been told by countless professionals it will only make her more aggressive.
The first time we used the calm down area in its intended form was an epic failure. It immediately became a game to her and she is like white on rice. I couldn’t even put her in the area and take one step in the opposite direction without her clinging to me. If you have the self-control to not get heated when someone is kicking, biting, and hitting you, you are my hero! Despite my best efforts, I just couldn’t hold it together. My baby also started crying and needed to be fed.
After sheepishly admitting defeat to our behaviorist. She recommended an alternative approach. One that is more in line with a traditional time out, but we’re using it as a stepping stone. The behaviorist didn’t want us locking her in her room, because children live completely in the moment and that meant our daughter had no idea when we would let her out. We’d say, “we’ll let you out when you’re calm,” but that is too vague. No wonder her emotions only escalated.
What to do instead?
Now, we are giving a choice to go to her room or the comfy corner. This way we’re not immediately taking away control. If she doesn’t make a choice, she goes into the room. Then we set the timer for 4 minutes (because she is 4 years old) and say, “When the timer goes off, I will check to see if you’re calm.” It is key to say the sentence in that order, because the child may only catch the first part and that's the most important in the beginning. It's okay to repeat it a couple times, but stick to that one phrase. That one sentence lets them know there is an end to what’s happening and they have control of whether or not to be calm when the timer goes off.
We also have a plan for if she chooses the corner. We set the timer and say, “Stay here until the timer goes off, then I will check to see if you are calm.” If she doesn’t stay, she goes into her room. If she pops the lock to her room (which she now knows how to do) she goes back into the room. We were told that consistency is critical to this working. She has to know what to expect and it needs to be the same from both parents. So to ensure this happens, I made a Visio diagram for the plan and posted it in three locations of our home. Overkill? Maybe, but it lets my husband know exactly what to do and he can’t “forget.” It also helps me remember to use the same exact language every time.
We've been doing this for a few weeks and she has started choosing the corner sometimes and staying put. I am also seeing signs of its ultimate purpose at work. Instead of trying to goat me into giving negative attention per usual while feeding the baby, she has actually chosen to color in the corner a few times. Also, one day I was able to bring her to the bean bag and punch it with her instead of her hitting me. This made her laugh and completely diffused the situation. We still have a long way to go, but I’m happy to be providing an alternative that encourages self-growth rather than straight up punishment.
Have you ever used a calm-down corner? What do you think of the concept? Please let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading!
Hi! I'm Nicki, a full time working Mama in a fast-paced male dominated industry. I blog for a creative outlet and to help moms like you make this parenting journey a little easier!
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