Time-out Doesn't Have to Be Time Away

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

Most of us are familiar with “time-out,” a strategy used to discourage problematic and disruptive behaviors. Teachers use it in their classrooms as a consequence when students get out of their seats without permission or talk excessively during class. Parents use it at home to get their children to stop fighting, screaming, and engaging in other inappropriate behaviors.

The concept of time-out is simple – the individual who engages in inappropriate behavior loses access to all reinforcing materials – toys, games, television, magazines, and personal attention – for a brief period of time.

Although implementing a time-out can involve removing an individual from the area and taking him or her to an isolated space or a separate room, this is not always necessary. There are less restrictive variations of time-out that can be just as effective. Non-exclusionary time-out, for example, makes it possible to withhold reinforcement without isolating the individual.

This form of time-out can be implemented at home, in school, or even in public. During non-exclusionary time-out, the individual who is not behaving appropriately is allowed to remain in the area with others, but is denied access to all reinforcing materials and given no attention until the time-out period has ended.

Contingent observation and the “time-out ribbon” are two examples of non-exclusionary time-out that are often used in classrooms and group settings.

During contingent observation, a student who engages in inappropriate behavior is required to stand or sit just outside of the group and observe while his or her peers participate in a fun activity. The student can watch his or her peers reap the benefits of behaving appropriately, but is unable to participate due to his or her misbehavior. After a designated period of time, he or she is allowed to return to the group, and reinforcement resumes.

With the ribbon method, each student gets a colorful ribbon to wear on his or her wrist. When they are wearing a ribbon, students receive attention from the teacher and have access to all sorts of preferred items. If a student engages in any inappropriate behaviors, however, his or her ribbon is removed for three minutes. During this period, the student is not allowed access to reinforcers and all attention from the teacher ceases. The peers who are wearing ribbons continue to participate in ongoing activities, receive reinforcement, and interact with the teacher. After three minutes have passed, the student’s ribbon is returned, he or she is able interact with the teacher, and is able to access preferred items like the rest of the class.

Contingent observation and the time-out ribbon are recommended practices because they effectively reduce problematic behaviors while teaching the individual appropriate ways to access reinforcement. In general, non-exclusionary time-out allows individuals to remain where they are and learn from their peers. By observing the behaviors of others, the individual can see what he or she is missing out on, and which behaviors get reinforced.

Non-exclusionary time-out is a safe and effective alternative to more restrictive, isolating behavior modification methods. When this variation of the time-out strategy is carefully implemented, educators and parents will find that it is a great tool for teaching their students and children appropriate ways to behave that will result in obtaining the rewards and attention they desire.

By Teka J. Harris, M.A., BCBA​

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) 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