Time out is a commonly used consequence for problem behavior, but it is often not effective in reducing the occurrence of that behavior in the future. This is because time out is often used improperly or in the wrong situations. Here are a few tips on how to use time out most effectively:
Why Time Out Works
In order to understand when it is appropriate to use time out, you need to understand why it works. The basic idea is that children engage in problem behavior for a reason- they are either trying to get something or get away from something. A child may hit you because they want you to pay attention to them or because you are making them do something they don’t want to do, like schoolwork. Pay attention to what happens directly before and after the behavior. If they are not receiving attention or there is an item or activity that they show interest in before the behavior occurs and, after the behavior, they get attention (even if it is just reprimands) or the item/activity, then there is a good chance that they are engaging in that behavior to get something (attention/item/activity). If there is a certain person who is there or a specific activity occurring each time the behavior occurs and, as a result of the behavior, the person goes away or they do not have to engage in the activity, then they are probably engaging in the behavior to get away from something. For more details on how to determine the function of a behavior, see previous blog post, “Do You Know Your ABC’s?”
Time out works on the assumption that the child is engaging in problem behavior in order to gain access to something. By removing the child from the area where the behavior occurred and not providing attention while doing so, the child does not get any reinforcement for engaging in the behavior. If time out is implemented consistently, the child learns that engaging in the problem behavior will result in the opposite of want- removal of attention and/or fun items or activities.
Knowing why the behavior occurs is important because if the child is engaging in the behavior to get away from something then time out may actually increase the behavior. If a child hits the teacher every time he or she is instructed to do a math worksheet and is put in time out, the child has learned that engaging in the problem behavior will get them out of doing this activity. Other behavior management techniques should be used to address these behaviors (see previous blog for more details: “Reducing Behavior through Non-Aversive Techniques: Extinction and the Extinction Burst”).
Time out Technique
If you have determined that the target behavior can be appropriately addressed using time out, the key to using the procedure effectively is ensuring that the child does not get what they want by engaging in the problem behavior. One way to accomplish this is to remove him or her from the environment where the behavior occurred. This is particularly important if the child is trying to get access to a particular toy, activity, or person in that environment. Removing the child from that area is a clear non-verbal signal that they will not get what they want while they are engaging in problem behavior.
Another important factor is withholding attention while enforcing the time out procedure. This means interacting with the child as little as possible, which entails not speaking to the child at all if possible or providing only minimal prompts (ex: “sit down”, “no”). A common mistake made in implementing time out is talking to the child about what he or she did wrong and reprimanding him or her. While it is important that the child understand that this behavior is not acceptable, if the child is engaging in the behavior to get attention then he or she is actually getting exactly what they want. To most children, any attention is good attention, regardless of whether we would consider it positive or negative. Therefore, expectations for appropriate behavior should be discussed well before the behavior occurs in the form of rules or a behavior contract so that the child knows what is expected of him or her.
To remove the child from the area, the caregiver may say, “time out”, take the child’s hand, and lead him or her to the time out area. If the child is resistant, the caregiver may have to carry the child. The caregiver should not talk to the child during this time and provide the least amount of physical guidance necessary. Once in the time out area, the child must be calm and refrain from engaging in problem behavior for a given amount of time (10-30 seconds depending on the child). No attention should be provided during this time. Once the child behaves appropriately (i.e. quiet and calm) for the set amount of time, he or she may return to the area where the behavior occurred.
The final component of time out to consider is teaching the child appropriate ways of getting what he or she wants. It is important that they not get what they want from engaging in the problem behavior, but if they are not taught a more appropriate way of getting it then they will continue to engage in problem behavior to get it, as they have no alternatives. Teaching appropriate requesting (ex: “play with me,” “I want that”) and general play and social skills are good goals.
Implementing time out effectively can be difficult, but if used correctly it can be a useful tool for reducing problem behavior. Do you have experience implementing time out successfully? If so, explain your experience below in the comment section.