What are the benefits of using timers with children?
Sometimes, getting children to do chores or complete homework can be a challenging task for the adults in their lives. Timers are an effective way to motivate your child or student(s) to complete tasks and follow directions.
My own experiences over the past 21 years have consistently shown me how effective timers can be when working with students who have trouble staying on task, completing non-preferred activities, and transitioning away from preferred activities.
Timers even help me stay on task when I am working from home.
With timers, we can structure time and activities in ways that feel manageable to the person completing them. If I told you to clean the whole house and you thought it would take hours, you may be resistant. If I said clean the kitchen for five minutes, I am setting the timer, and then you can do something you like, I would likely get a different result.
What does the research say about using timers with children?
Additionally, a study completed at Apple Tree Learning Center, in 2012, in Washington D.C., concluded that using a timer with a picture schedule, with a preschool student with a developmental delay, significantly increased his time on task during center-based play.
(Be sure to check the end of the article for types of timers to use with children who may have trouble understanding the countdown on a traditional digital timer).
Here are three ways to use timers to get your children to complete chores and homework.
Side Note: In addition to the strategies in this article, there are other methods that are helpful to encourage chore/homework completion and other positive behaviors.
See the bottom of this article for recommendations on other articles to read.
If you have significant concerns about your child’s ability, motivation, learning, behavior, or level of attention talk to your child’s doctor and/or school to find out what supports they offer.
1. Tell your child that they need to complete a specific (manageable) portion of a task, and allow them to work toward a timed break.
Some children have difficulty working for prolonged periods of time without a break. A child can get frustrated or mentally drained if they need a break, but cannot take one.
I have seen children start to look around, talk, and play with items during prolonged periods of homework or classwork. This often leads to an adult telling them to get back to work before they are mentally ready.
Some children become resistant and refuse to get back to work. Other children make statements such as, “I am too tired.” “It is too hard.” “I am bored.” or “I don’t care about this.”
If they do get back to work, they may work slowly, rush through the assignment, or not put forth their best effort.
Example of using a timer: If your child is given 20 math problems for homework, you can say, “Complete the first ten problems and then take a five-minute break to do something of your choice. Then do the next ten problems.” (If ten is too many, scale back the task-demand to a place where your child will be successful).
During the break, set the timer for five minutes (or however many minutes you decide) and make sure the child can see the timer, so they know exactly how much time they have left.
This is a great method for encouraging work completion because children like to work towards something fun.
Many children also need a mental break and will work more effectively when they have the opportunity to take one.
Using a timer takes ownership away from the parent or teacher.
The adult is not arbitrarily telling the child that the break is over. The timer dictates the length of the break. This leads to less resistance from the child.
If you are doing an open-ended activity, such as studying or practicing an academic skill, try setting the timer for 10 minutes and saying something like “we will practice for ten minutes, take a five-minute break to do something of your choice, and practice for another 10 minutes.”
In this case, you would use the timer to let the child know how long the practice/study session will last and how long the break will last.
Some children need suggestions for the break (e.g., when you take your break do you want to draw or play a game on the computer).
If you are offering suggestions, pick things that you know your child would want to work towards.
Work with your child/student to see how much time works best for them.
You can adapt the number of minutes (or the number of problems completed, sentences read, etc.) as some children can work for longer periods, some need to work for shorter periods, and some benefit from longer or shorter breaks.
Start where your child is successful and slowly build from there as they build stamina. So if at first, your child can only do one problem, one sentence, or one minute at a time, then that is where you start.
If you want to increase the expectation, you may say something to yourself like, “my child completed two math problems every day this week before they took a break, next week we will try three problems.
You can let your child know that they are doing so well, so next week you will try an extra problem, sentence, page, paragraph, etc.
If this week two problems lead to a five-minute break, then next week, three problems may lead to a seven-minute break, as an example.
A simple list of the plan can be extremely helpful:
- 10 math problems
- 5 minute break for a preferred activity
- 10 math problems
- Finished (pick activity of choice)
Children who struggle with reading/language may need the list to be in visual form. See How to Use Schedules to Improve Children’s Behavior for more on this topic.
This same strategy can be applied to chores:
- put toys in toy bin
- five-minute activity of choice
- put pajamas on and brush teeth
- play a favorite game for 10 minutes
- bedtime (may read in bed)
2. Some children benefit from timer games.
Some children are easily distracted during routine tasks like getting dressed, putting toys away, or copying down their spelling words.
The child might look around, talk, or play with items rather than get the task done.
If the child is able to do the task competently but gets easily distracted, they may benefit from a “timer game.” Try it out to see if it benefits your child/student.
For instance, you can tell your child that if they finish putting away their toys by the time the timer goes off, they can engage in an activity of their choice when they are done. Make it reasonable, and start where you know they will be successful.
You may want to time the fun activity they choose if you want them to do something else afterward (e.g., put your toys away before the timer goes off, play on the computer for 20 minutes, get ready for bed).
If “timer games” make your child anxious there are other methods that may be successful or, maybe they can push through some of that anxiety and get it done.
IF you do not want to turn it into a game you can say something like “you have around ten minutes to put your toys away” and then set the timer to help your child monitor how much time they take to complete the task.
Once I saw a teacher tell the class they had “around” a hundred seconds to put their coats on and line up for recess. She put on a song where the singer counted aloud to 100 like the one in the video below.
This gave the children a fun guide for how long the transition would take. It helped them stay on task while preparing for the transition.
Side Note: Try to keep distractions to a minimum when asking your child to complete a task or transition between activities.
Related Article: 5 tips to Set Up the Classroom for Students with Autism and ADHD
3. Use timers to prepare children to transition from one activity to the next.
Has your child ever resisted when you told them to clean up, leave the park, get off the computer, or turn off the television?
Children often have difficulty breaking away from something enjoyable when they are not prepared that their “fun time” is coming to an end. Using a timer is a great way to prepare your child for these situations.
For example, you can set the timer and say “In five minutes it is time to turn off the computer and start your homework.”
Similarly, you can say, “when you are done with that puzzle, you need to work on cleaning your room for five minutes (e.g., during those five minutes, work on putting your clothes in your laundry basket and throwing away any garbage on your dresser).
You may need to supervise initially as your child gets used to these new methods.
Teachers can also use timers in their classrooms with individual students or the whole class to encourage classwork completion, again using the same strategies described above.
For children who have trouble understanding the concept of time or numbers, a visual timer can be helpful because the child can see how much time is left.
Here are some examples below:
Red Clock Visual Timer
With a red clock visual timer, children can see time running out as the red disappears.
Sand timers let children know that time is up when the sand at the top gets to the bottom.
You can also create a visual countdown chart like the one below. You would watch the timer yourself, and as each minute passes you pull off a number, so a child understands when the activity or break is coming to an end.
Education and Behavior – Keeping Adults on the Same Page for Kids.
- How to Use Schedules to Improve Children’s Behavior
- Top Ten Discipline Tips for Kids with Oppositional Defiant Disorder
- 12 Effective Strategies for Children with ADHD (great strategies for kids with and without ADHD)
- 15 Behavior Strategies to Help Children on the Autism Spectrum (great strategies for kids with and without autism)
- How to Use Natural and Logical Consequences to Improve Children’s Behavior
Rachel Wise is the author and founder of Education and Behavior. Rachel created Education and Behavior in 2014 for adults to have an easy way to access research-based information to support children in the areas of learning, behavior, and social-emotional development. As a survivor of abuse, neglect, and bullying, Rachel slipped through the cracks of her school and community. Education and Behavior hopes to play a role in preventing that from happening to other children. Rachel is also the author of Building Confidence and Improving Behavior in Children: A Guide for Parents and Teachers.
“Children do best when there is consistency within and across settings (i.e., home, school, community). Education and Behavior allows us to maintain that consistency.”