Weighing the Pros and Cons of “Time Out”

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

By Erica Kearney, M.A., LABA, BCBA

“Time out” is a term that is familiar to parents, caregivers, teachers, and other adults who work with children on a regular basis. Most of us have a good general understanding of what time out is and what it can look like.

But what do we really mean when we say “time out”? Do we mean a child sits in a chair for a specific amount of time? Gets sent to their room or a time-out location? Loses phone or tablet privileges? Is asked to leave the classroom?

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education defines time out as “a behavioral support strategy in which a student temporarily separates from the learning activity or the classroom, either by choice or by direction from staff.”

Whether used in school or at home, the purpose and intention of time out is to reduce future occurrences of problematic, or undesirable, behavior. When used correctly and in conjunction with rewards for desired behavior, time out can help reduce how often the child engages in the disruptive behavior.

An example of the effective use of time out would be if a girl hits her brother while watching her favorite movie and then is sent to the dining room to sit in time out for five minutes. Time out from her favorite movie will likely cause her to not want to hit her brother again in the future – at least not while her favorite movie is on!

It’s important that people who use time out know that there are pros and cons to consider (as with most behavioral interventions) and they should, therefore, use caution. Believe it or not, the improper use of time out can sometimes cause a child to engage in more problematic behavior. Wait, what?! Time out can cause more problematic behavior?

Unfortunately, it’s true. If a teacher is using time out with a disruptive student and his problematic behavior isn’t becoming less frequent or going away over time, there is a chance he could be engaging in that behavior in order gain access to time out. For example, if he does not like loud or crowded environments, he may yell out or scream during a class assembly in order to be asked to leave the overwhelming environment and go to a quieter place – “time out.”

Will time out work to improve your child’s behavior? A good way for parents, caregivers, and teachers to make this determination is to seek out the expertise of a professional, such as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), who can collect reliable data and analyze the effectiveness of the behavioral intervention.

Remember, time out should be used with a reinforcement procedure. Focus on highlighting on your child’s positive behaviors and reinforce him or her (with praise, stickers, or a favorite snack) for behaving appropriately or not engaging in problematic behavior. It’s amazing how positive reinforcement works and can help reduce the need for time out.

Erica Kearney M.A., LABA, BCBA, is the Executive Director of the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in Chicopee, Mass. She can be contacted at

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. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with ASD and other developmental disabilities, including one in West Springfield, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit