The Mystery of Time Out

time out
Time Out (Photo credit: Ben McLeod)

by Tameika Meadows

Time Out is a highly misunderstood and overused behavioral management technique.

When I consult with parents and ask what behavior techniques they currently use, Time Out is usually stated pretty quickly. Then when I ask if Time Out is effective, I hear "No/Sometimes".

There seems to be this mysterious cloud surrounding Time Out that people cant break through in order to really understand the procedure.

That is unfortunate because the very people who use Time Out the most tend to be the ones who don't really understand it. Time Out is a concept that seems to be very simple and straightforward, but if that were true it wouldn't be implemented incorrectly so often.

Time Out is a punishment technique, and punishment can be positive or negative. Time Out is a negative punishment because you are removing something. Many people don't know when they say the phrase "Time Out" they are using an abbreviation. The full name is Time Out from Reinforcing Activities.

Once you understand that, then you can see how putting little David in Time Out during homework time because he refuses to do his homework will not be effective at all. You must be able to identify and then isolate the reinforcement embedded in an activity for Time Out to be effective. In other words, the "Time In" environment must be reinforcing to the child before you can implement "Time Out".

Another cloud of mystery around Time Out is regarding the rules of how to do it. I have seen Time Out done many different ways, and often the parents or teachers will report confusion about the "rules" of Time Out. People describe some very creative Time Out rules to me, that range from odd to confusing.

Not surprisingly many of these rules have no merit. These rules are not based in research, and are not written in stone anywhere. They are just passed from person to person, spreading incorrect information. The biggest guidelines to remember about Time Out are:

-Time Out is not supposed to be humiliating, or degrading to the child
-Time Out is not supposed to be excessive, overly punitive, or cruel
-The child cannot leave Time Out if they are still engaging in the inappropriate behavior
-It should be clear to the child why they are in Time Out
-Time Out is not a replacement for teaching skills

All of that describes what Time Out is not. So what is Time Out supposed to be?

The goal of Time Out is to decrease the future occurrence of a specific behavior. The child should learn over time that engaging in a specific behavior leads to a removal of reinforcement. All punishment techniques should result in the target behavior going down. If the target behavior does not go down, then what you are doing is not punishing to the child.

There are two main categories of Time Out: Exclusionary and Non-Exclusionary.

-Exclusionary is when the child is removed from the environment and the reinforcement. This is the most common type of Time Out I see, where the child is sent out to the hallway (if in school), or sent to a certain chair (if in the home) for a period of time.
-Non- Exclusionary is when the child remains in the environment, and only the reinforcement is removed. I don't see this kind of Time Out as often. This would be things like planned ignoring, or taking a reinforcer away.

Now that you know what Time Out is, here are some examples of correct implementations:

- During a session with a client you bring out some toys to play with. The child immediately reaches for the Play-Dough, so you open up the Play-Dough and start playing. The child begins mouthing the Play-Dough. You give the child a reprimand to stop eating the Play-Dough. The child continues to try and eat it, so you close the Play-Dough and place it out of reach. You then direct the child to help you put a puzzle together. Once the puzzle is done, you bring the Play-Dough back out and remind the child "No mouth" before letting them play with the Play-Dough again.

- Some of the children in your 1st grade class are being disruptive and off task during art time. You remove your attention from those children and start giving eye contact and compliments only to the children who are doing their art project (e.g. "Lisa I love the circle you made! Very nice"). As the other children stop being disruptive and start doing their art project, you give eye contact, praise, and smiles to them too.

- Setting a partition in the classroom and when a child misbehaves they must go sit behind the partition. They are still in the classroom, but they cannot participate in or see what is going on.

- The "sit and watch" technique. The teacher is outside on the playground with his class, and one child begins to become aggressive with his peers. The teacher tells the student to come sit near him, and take a break from playing. The child sits down near the teacher and watches the other children play. After some time, the teacher lets the child get up and re-join his peers.

These are all different ways to do Time Out, none of which might fit what most people think Time Out is. Time out is much more than just a timer and a "Naughty Chair". If you have been consistently using a Time Out technique and aren't seeing a behavior change, its possible the "Time In" environment isn't reinforcing enough.

**Quick Tip:

Understand that you may have to do Time Out with the child. In other words, if the child will not stay in Time Out, or becomes aggressive when you put them in Time Out, you may need to stay with the child to restrain them or block them from leaving Time Out. So in a way, every time you send the child to time out you are putting yourself in Time Out as well.

It is not uncommon for punishment techniques to lead to anger, retaliation, or aggression. Be aware of that in advance and decide if that is something you are able to handle.

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