TIME-OUT: What it REALLY Means and When to Use it

August 24, 2015

Parents use many different strategies (reprimands, loss of privileges) when their child exhibits problem behavior (whining, tantrums). One procedure that is often over- or misused is time-out. The definition of time-out (time out from positive reinforcement) based on Cooper, Heron, and Heward (2007) is “the contingent withdrawal of the opportunity to earn access to positive reinforcement or the loss of access to positive reinforcers for a specified time.”

Generally speaking, this means time-out is when a child exhibits problem behavior and they are no longer allowed to have preferred items or do preferred activities for a specific amount of time. For example, if a child is playing with toys and then hits their sibling, a parent may take the child to time-out for hitting for 2-3 minutes. This is the correct way to implement time-out (assuming the toys the child was playing with were highly preferred). As long as the parent is consistent, the child’s hitting may decrease in the future because they will learn when they hit a sibling they lose access to play with toys or do activities they like.

However, for time-out to be successful, the parent must confirm that the toys or activities the child is doing are highly preferred. For example, if a child is told to do chores (non-preferred activity) and then he/she hits their sibling, time-out should not be used because it delays having to do the chores. If a parent is consistent with this, the child’s hitting may increase in the future because they will learn that when they hit a sibling they can delay doing the non-preferred activity.

When Time-Out Should Be Used

Time-out should not be used when the child engages in any self-injurious behavior (hitting self, biting arm) that could cause harm to himself. In order to maintain safety, someone needs to be with the child in order to physically block self-injury attempts. Additionally, time-out should not be utilized when the problem behavior is automatically reinforcing, meaning engaging in the behavior itself is reinforcing (doing the behavior “feels good”). Allowing the child to engage in self-stimulatory behaviors (repetitive hand flapping, repetitive tapping) will maintain or even increase the behavior. Please refer to a past blog regarding the use of Response Interruption and Redirection (RIRD) to decrease stereotypy.

In Applied Behavior Analysis verbiage (ABA), time out is considered a negative punishment procedure. The “negative” means something is removed and the “punishment” refers to decreasing a behavior. It may sound harsh, but it simply means that by implementing time out when problem behavior occurs it will decrease the probability of the problem behavior occurring again in the future.

While time out can effectively decrease or eliminate problem behaviors, it does not teach appropriate skills or behaviors. Time out should be utilized in conjunction with teaching appropriate behaviors and positive reinforcement. The “positive” means something is added and the “reinforcement” refers to increasing behavior. This simply means that when appropriate behaviors (completing chores) occur, something is added (praise, rewards, access toys/privileges) it will increase the probability of the appropriate behavior occurring again in the future.

Although time-out can be an effective tool to reduce problem behavior, there are times when time-out is not appropriate. Time-out should not be used when the behavior follows a demand (doing chores). Removing the demand (doing chores) when the child engages in problem behavior (hitting) allows the child to escape or delay the demand and increases the likelihood that the child will engage in problem behavior when that demand is placed in the future. Instead, the original demand should continue to be placed until the child completes the demand (chores). We do not want the problem behavior to “work” for the child meaning that hitting works to get them out of completing demands (chores). In contrast, we want appropriate behavior to “work” for the child meaning that appropriate behaviors (listening, doing chores) work to get them toys/activities.

A link to additional information on time-out, positive reinforcement, and rules relating to Florida schools use of time out is: http://briefings.dadeschools.net/files/25655_TAP_Guidelines_for_Time-Out.pdf

How to Use Time-Out

So what does time-out “look like?” It is not a place necessarily, but removal of preferred toys/activities when problem behavior occurs. When using a time-out, it is important to give minimal attention to the child’s problem behavior. If you are not careful, you will end up giving attention to the problem behavior which might increase the problem behavior in the future. 

It is best to provide as little attention to the child while implementing the time-out (turn them away from others in the room, do not talk to him/her). You can state the expected behavior one time in a positive way (“We keep our hands to ourselves”) and then have the child sit quietly for a set amount of time.

Depending on the severity of the problem behavior and the age of the child, the length of the time-out procedure may vary slightly. The timer does not begin until the child is sitting quietly and appropriately. If the child engages in problem behavior (tantrum, crying, whining) while in time-out, the timer does not start. It may be necessary to sit with the child and use gentle physical guidance to ensure they stay seated. Once the child has completed their time sitting quietly and appropriately for the set amount of time, you may/may not restate the expectation in terms of what you want them to do (“We keep our hands to ourselves”) before returning to the previous toys/activity.

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