Using Time-Outs as a Method of Decreasing Problem Behavior

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

In general, time-out is the removal of a child from an apparently reinforcing setting to a presumably nonreinforcing setting for a specified and limited period of time. Time-out is “time away from positive reinforcement” (Powell & Powell, 1982). According to Cuenin and Harris (1986), the definition of time-out includes two important factors: (a) time-out is contingent on the exhibition of the target behavior, and (2) a discrepancy that is meaningful to the student exists between the time-in and time-out environments. Such removal can effectively decrease a target behavior (Hall & Hall, 1980b). Time-out is a frequently used behavior management intervention. In a questionnaire survey of preschool teachers and teachers of students with behavioral disorders in Kansas and Nebraska, Zabel (1986) found that 70% of her sample applied some form of time-out in the classroom. Teachers of young children used time-out more frequently than teachers of older children. Ruhl (1985) found that 88% of special education teachers surveyed used time-out with their students. In a similar study, Shapiro and Lentz (1985) found that 85% of school psychologists used time-out procedures. Jones, Sloane, and Roberts (1992) compared the effectiveness of time-out and verbal reprimand (“Don’t”) interventions on the oppositional, aggressive behavior of three preschool children toward their siblings. Mothers of the children were trained and applied the interventions in the home. The researchers found the immediate time-out intervention to be more effective than the verbal reprimand.

According to Lewellen (1980), there are three types of time-out:

  1. Observational time-out is a procedure in which the student is withdrawn from a reinforcing situation by (a) placing him or her on the outer perimeter of the activity, where the child can see and hear the activity but not participate in it; (b) requesting the child to place his or her head on the desk (called “head-down”); (c) removing activity materials; or (d) eliminating or reducing response maintenance stimuli (e.g., room illumination).
  2. Exclusion is a procedure in which the student leaves a reinforcing situation to a presumed nonreinforcing situation while remaining in the classroom. The student is not allowed to observe the group. An example is placing a screen between the student and the group.
  3. Seclusion is a procedure that makes use of a “time-out room.” In this situation, the student leaves the classroom and goes to an isolated room.

Isolation time-out is a highly controversial intervention (Mayerson & Riley, 2003). It removes the individual from his or her educational program, even if it is for a brief period of time. The use of time-out should be carefully reviewed by the IEP team and administrators responsible for the student’s program. Careful data regarding the application and results of time-out should be recorded.


Benji is a very active first grader. The boy was having difficulty remaining in his seat and refraining from impulsive grabbing of persons and objects near him. He was also taking and eating his classmates’ lunches. His teacher realized that these behaviors were interfering with Benji’s classroom progress and that of his classmates. She attempted several procedures to help Benji control his behavior. Among these were verbal reprimands, ignoring the inappropriate behavior and reinforcing appropriate behavior, and peer pressure. Observation data revealed that none of these interventions were effective, although her efforts were sufficient.

A behavior management consultant observed Benji and recommended time-out as a potentially effective intervention. Together, the teacher and the consultant decided that each time Benji left his seat, he was to be moved to a separate table for 2 minutes.

This intervention necessitated defining and specifying several factors:

  1. Out-of-seat behavior was defined as any time Benji’s posterior was not in contact with his chair.
  2. When the unacceptable behavior did occur, the teacher’s assistant was to escort Benji to a separate table. Benji was to remain 2 minutes; during this time, he had to be quiet.
  3. After the time-out period, Benji would return to the group. There would be no discussion or reprimand.
  4. Benji’s desk and chair were relocated in the classroom to ensure that he would not participate in unacceptable behavior, such as grabbing people and lunches, without leaving his seat.
  5. A separate table was placed in the corner of the classroom. A chair was provided nearby for the assistant who was to monitor Benji whenever he was in time-out.
  6. The intervention was imposed, and although the behavior did not cease immediately, significant progress was observed during the first months.

Benji’s in-seat behavior increased within a period of several months. However, the separate table remains available for when the undesirable behaviors occur.

The time-out intervention includes the reinforcement of acceptable behavior. A child who is performing or approximating the desired behavior in the classroom should be reinforced for these efforts. The effectiveness of time-out as an intervention is contingent on several factors (Cuenin & Harris, 1986):

  • characteristics of the individual child;
  • teacher’s consistent application of the intervention;
  • child’s understanding of the rules of time-out;
  • characteristics of the time-out area;
  • duration of time-out; and
  • evaluation of the effectiveness of the intervention.
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