Everything You Need To Know About Time-Out

Uncategorized Jun 13, 2020

When I ask you what time-out looks like, do you think of sticking your child in the corner of the room or placing them in their room and demanding they not come out? Contrary to popular thinking, time-out does not involve merely removing your child to a sequestered setting.

Time out is a behavior management strategy known to nearly every parent, is one of the most misunderstood and badly used strategies for dealing with inappropriate behavior of children. But when used properly, it is a very effective behavior management strategy to quickly reduce undesired behavior. 

Let's Define Time-Out

Time-out means time away from positive reinforcement. Formally, once a child is in a time-out situation, they don't have an opportunity to gain a reward for a specific period of time, such as adult attention (just to give one example). In order for your time-out procedure to truly be a time out, it requires three components. First, there must be a difference between the time in and time out environment. Second, the loss of reinforcement must be immediate, and finally, the future frequency of the behavior must be reduced in order for it to be considered a time out (Cooper et. al, 2020). Here is an example; Jack and Judy are playing in the playroom and Jack throws a toy at Judy. Their mother removes Jack (criteria two is met here) from the playroom and places him on the steps between the living room and playroom (this meets criteria one). Jack no longer throws toys over a period of a month (criteria three is met). 

Did you know there are two different forms of time -out? The one you are probably most familiar with is the exclusion time-out. This is when there is a physical separation of the individual from the time-in environment. This is usually when the child is a confined, safe, secure, supervised, and in a continuously monitored area. 

There is also time-out procedures known as nonexclusion time-out. This means your child is not put in a secluded area. There are four types; planned ignoring, terminate a specific reinforcer, contingent observation, and partition time-out. Let's break them down even further. 

Planned ignoring involves looking away from the child, remaining quiet, or refraining from any interaction whatsoever for a specific time. Planned ignoring is most commonly used for attention-seeking behaviors (Kee, Hill, & Weist, 1999). My daughter loves to push on the screen door as a way to get my husband's attention. As a way to decrease this behavior, he simply does not respond or looks at her when pushing on the screen. Over time, we have seen a reduction in the number of times she does this, so planned ignoring was effective.   

Terminate a specific reinforcer: each occurrence of the target behavior immediately stops an activity or sensory reinforcer. Bishop and Stumphauzer (1973) showed that turning off the television when the children sucked on their thumbs successfully reduced thumb sucking in three children. In the study, they identified that thumb sucking was highest during television time. Once the television went on and the children started sucking their thumb, the television was turned off. This was done repeatedly. Eventually, thumb sucking was greatly reduced. 

 Contingent observation: this is when the child is repositioned within the existing setting such that they can observe ongoing activities, but access to available reinforcer is lost. Remember the example of Jack and Judy above? Removing Jack to the steps where he can still see the play area would be an example of contingent observation. 

 Partition time-out: your child remains in the time-in setting, but his view within the setting is restricted by a panel or cubicle, or a select space in arranged to serves as the out-out area.  

Why Use Time-Out

Time-out is used to decrease any unwanted behavior. A time-out from reinforcement is a procedure that is desirable because of several reasons such as ease of application, acceptability, rapid decrease of unwanted behavior, and it can be combined with other positive behavioral interventions such as a token system (Cooper et. al, 2020).)

Check List Before You Decide To Use Time-Out

1. You always want to try nonpunitive measures to reduce unwanted behavior or response from your child such as pointing out the positives throughout the day. 

2. I usually recommend exclusion time-out for children four years or older. You can apply one of the nonexclusion time-outs around two and a half or three-years-old. 

3. Always use a time-out procedure with a reward system, specifically rewarding the replacement response or desired behavior. 

 How You Use Any Time-Out Procedure Effectively:

  1. Do not use a time out if your child is trying to avoid or get out of doing something. The time-out will reward the undesired behavior. Let's say your toddler is a master at avoiding the bedtime routine. If you decide to put your child in time-out, that will strengthen the behavior because it's buying them more time outside of the bed. 
  2. Enrich the time-in environment- if your child likes to throw food to express they are done with their meal, what alternative would response would you prefer? Possibly, "all done?" Enriching the environment would mean you provide opportunities for your child to use "all done" and reward it immediately. 
  3. Define the behavior that will lead to a time-out- you must define it to all caregivers involved with your child's care so there is no confusion as to what target behavior warrants a time-out. You also want to make it clear to the child. 
  4. Determine the form and variation of time-out- which one will you use? Exclusions, non-exclusion?
  5. Explain the time out procedure and rule- Posting rules in the environment should include the duration of the time-out and the exit criteria (Van Houten, 1979)
  6. Determine the duration of the time-out period - time out periods should be between 2-5 minutes. Time-outs that exceed 15 minutes are not effective. They are counterproductive for several reasons; it removed them for them to earn reinforcement or engage in the appropriate alternative response (Solnick et al., 1977)
  7. Apply Time-out consistently- each time the target behaviors occur, it needs to lead to a time-out. Using time-out occasionally may lead to a child being confused about which behavior are acceptable and which are not. 
  8. Establish how and when you will eliminate the time-out- it's important to have an end criterion. Usually, a good ending criteria is when the behavior has dramatically decreased or has been eliminated. Set a date on the calendar (one, two weeks ahead) and check in to see if see a decrease in the undesired behavior. 

In summary:

  • There are different forms of Time-out; exclusion and nonexclusion time-out. 
  • Time-out should be used as a last resort.
  • Implementing a time-out requires thoughtful planning and not used in a moment of adult frustration. 
  • Time-out should be short; 2-5 minutes. 



Bishop, B.R., & Stumphauzer, J.S., (1973). Behavior therapy for thumb sucking in children: A punishment (time out) and generalization effect- what's a mother to do? Psychological Reports, 33, 939-944.

Cooper, J., Heron, T. and Heward, W., 2020. Applied Behavior Analysis. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, Nj: Pearson.

Kee, M., Hill, S.M., & Weist, M.D. (1999). School-based behavior management of cursing, hitting, and spitting in a girl with profound retardation. Education and Treatment of Children, 22(2), 171-178. 

Solnick, J.V., Rincover, A., & Peterson, C.R. (1977). Some determinants of the reinforcing and punishing effects of timeout. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 10, 415-424. 

Van Houten, R. (1979). The performance feedback system. Child Behavior Therapy, 1(3), 219-236. 



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