The Effective Use of Time Out

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

A few weeks ago I watched a 6-year-old send her puppy to “time out” after she discovered the dog had chewed one of her favorite stuffed animals. Subsequent questioning revealed that she had a fairly detailed knowledge of the time out technique based on its frequent use in her kindergarten classroom. For this youngster, as well as for parents, teachers, and clinicians across our country, the use of time out is commonplace. Despite its popularity, however, the technique is often misunderstood and misused.

The ubiquitous term “time out” – actually a shortened version of “time out from positive reinforcement” – refers to the loss of access to positive reinforcers for a short time in response to a problem behavior. Positive reinforcers are pleasing items or events such as a favorite television program, toy, or snack that increase the likelihood that behaviors they follow will occur again.

Some researchers support the use of time out as an effective punishment technique. The use of punishment, however, is controversial due to the risk of rights violations and other potential negative outcomes. Therefore, time out should only be used when other techniques have proven ineffective. In addition, time out should only be used in accordance with the rules and regulations of specific treatment settings or populations served.

According to Raymond Miltenberger, a well-known researcher and author in the field of applied behavior analysis (a scientific approach to assessing, monitoring, and changing behavior), several considerations need to be addressed to ensure the effectiveness of a time out:

First, because time out was designed to reduce behaviors aimed at accessing social attention, preferred items, or activities, it should not be used in response to behaviors demonstrated to escape demands, like disruptive behavior used to avoid completing schoolwork. It should also not be used in response to behaviors that produce sensory stimulation, such as spinning or other repetitive behaviors that create pleasing sensations. In these cases, implementing time out will likely reinforce or create opportunities for the behavior you’re trying to diminish.

Secondly, teachers, clinicians, or parents should be able to easily implement time out procedures within the given physical environment. That is, they should be able to direct the individual to the time out area without significant delay or resistance. If an individual actively resists to the point of becoming aggressive or unsafe, reconsider the use of a time out.

Third, time out rooms or areas need to be free of positive reinforcers and from unsafe conditions or objects. When in time out, individuals should be monitored at all times and never left unattended. Time out rooms should not have doors that lock.

Fourth, time out should be brief, from one to 10 minutes in length. Time out should only be ended when the individual is calm, and followed immediately by a return to normal activities. If necessary, briefly extend the duration of a time out to ensure calm behavior is demonstrated prior to its termination.

Fifth, parents, teachers, and clinicians need to remain calm and limit all interaction with the individual while he or she is in time out. This includes avoiding explanations, reprimands, or any other form of social attention. Remaining near the individual to ensure his or her safety and prevent early departure is critical to success.

Finally, time out is a procedure designed only to discourage unwanted behaviors. To teach more desirable behaviors, teachers, clinicians, and parents need to supplement time out procedures with reinforcement strategies aimed at encouraging more appropriate, alternative behaviors. This includes ensuring that “time in” areas are sufficiently interesting and appealing. In the end, individuals will come to understand that “time in” is more fun than “time out” and will be more likely to learn new skills as well.

By Patrick F. Heick, Ph.D., BCBA-D?

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. For more information, call 800.778.7601  or visit