Time-out or Not?


By Shelley McLean, M.Ed, BCBA

The Autism in Education (AIE) Partnership

Controversy over the use of time-out in schools seems to span time and international borders. Common questions that arise tend to focus on how or when time-out should be used, or whether it should be used at all.  Although the issue of time-out in schools is a tricky topic to navigate, or maybe because it’s such a tricky topic to navigate, we decided it may be helpful to address some important considerations regarding time-out and its use and misuse.  We’ve tried to clear up some misconceptions about what time-out is and what it is not, and highlight some important questions to ask if time-out is being considered as part of a plan to change behavior.

Time-out procedures are sometimes reported to be used in schools in response to behaviors such as verbal aggression, physical aggression, refusal to work, failure to follow directions, inappropriate language, and property damage, among others. In spite of the efforts of educational systems to develop policies, guidelines, and protocols regarding its use, there really isn’t much information available about how frequently time-out is used in schools, or about exactly how it is used, and there is a great deal of debate over its use.

Perhaps at the heart of the debate is the fact that, although there is much confusion about what time-out is, when or if it may be an appropriate strategy, and how it should be carried out, there is research to support its use in some situations.  There exists a body of scientific literature which demonstrates that time-out is a procedure which may be effective in reducing problem behaviors for individuals with a range of behavioral difficulties, including those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) (Campbell, 2003) and behavior disorders (Mace et al, 1986), under certain circumstances. 

The term “time-out” is often used in a variety of ways, but the proper use of the term refers to a procedure which is more accurately called “time-out from positive reinforcement.”  In behavioral terms, it is a punishment procedure – a procedure in which a consequence is applied immediately following a behavior and the result is a decrease in that behavior in the future (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007).  The purpose of time-out is to remove access to the reinforcement that may be maintaining undesirable or challenging behavior, thereby reducing or stopping the behavior.  Time-out may be considered an intrusive behavior reduction procedure because it interrupts a student’s instructional program (Nelson, 1997).   However, contrary to some popular thinking, time-out does not require removal of a student to an isolated or secluded setting.  Time-out might more appropriately be viewed as belonging to a continuum of strategies to reduce problem behavior (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007; Horner & Sugai, 2009; Nelson, 1997; Ryan et al, 2007).  This continuum ranges from minimally-intrusive, “non-exclusion” strategies such as removing attention or materials for a brief period of time, to more complex interventions that may involve removing an individual from the learning environment.

Although it is important to understand what time-out is, it is equally important to understand what time-out is not.  There are many misunderstandings about the term “time-out” and about the use of this procedure.  There may be many reasons why a student may be located in an environment away from his or her peers for periods of time, and many of these do not constitute time-out.  For example, some learners may require a distraction-free environment for short periods of time and for specific purposes.  This would not constitute a time-out.  Some students may require periods of individual, one-to-one instruction or practice in order to build specific skills before those skills can be generalized into the classroom or another learning environment.  These types of situations are not examples of time-out.  The purpose of a time-out procedure is to reduce or stop problem behavior by removing access to reinforcement for a period of time. 

When thinking about whether or not a time-out procedure should be part of a planned intervention to address challenging behavior, it may be helpful to consider the following questions:

Have we enriched the “time-in” environment?  If the learning environment is not reinforcing to the learner, a time-out intervention cannot possibly be effective.  The reinforcement strategies you choose will depend on your individual learners, but strategies such as providing lots of positive praise throughout the day, allowing students to be “classroom helpers,” building in times when students can sit beside a peer buddy, giving students a 3-minute “brain break,” and offering choices between work tasks may be helpful in making the classroom environment more reinforcing for some learners. It is also essential to ensure that tasks are at the correct instructional level. Tasks that are difficult for the learner are more likely to evoke challenging behavior.

Have we gathered baseline data on the problem behavior?  Before implementing any intervention to address a problematic behavior, it is important to have a clear understanding of what it is about the behavior that is causing it to be a problem.  A particular behavior may be problematic because of how often it happens (frequency), how long it lasts (duration), how severe it is (intensity), or even a combination of these factors.

Have the learner’s family and appropriate Educational Support Services personnel been involved?  Involving parents/guardians and appropriate Educational Support Services personnel in discussions about the use of behavior-change procedures from the very beginning can keep important lines of communication open and provide valuable information that may help in making decisions about interventions.

Do we know the function, and maintaining consequences of the behavior?  In general, behavior functions to either obtain something the individual wants (attention, items, pleasurable sensations, etc.) or to escape or avoid something that the individual doesn’t want (difficult or unpleasant tasks, non-preferred people, unpleasant situations, etc.).  If the learner’s behavior is motivated by escaping task demands or avoiding the learning environment for any reason, a time-out intervention will very likely reinforce the behavior and will result in an increase in that behavior in the future.

Have we identified what behavior the student should do instead of the challenging behavior and whether or not he/she has this skill?  Some students have skill deficits that prevent them from demonstrating the behaviors that are being expected of them.  Unless a student has been specifically taught how to do the desired behavior and has proven that he or she can consistently demonstrate that behavior in a variety of settings and under a variety of circumstances, it should not be assumed that the learner has the skills necessary to do what is being asked.

Is it feasible to implement a time-out procedure?  There are a number of criteria that must be met in order for a time-out procedure to be effective.  For example, can staff be consistent in applying the time-out procedure?  Can staff ensure that the student does not leave the time-out area before the time-out is over?  If the necessary components cannot be guaranteed, then time-out may not be the best choice (Donaldson, J. M., personal communication, November 13, 2015).

Have we weighed the risks of implementing the time-out procedure vs. the risks of not implementing time-out?  The school team and family should consider the desired outcomes and potential benefits of implementing a time-out procedure and weigh those considerations against the potential disadvantages and risks.  It is important to think about the anticipated loss of instructional time and learning opportunities, the potential for negative emotional effects on the student, the impact on the perception of other students in the learning environment, and the potential for negative impact on peer interaction.

Have we obtained informed consent? Depending on your jurisdiction, there may be specific guidelines or policies regarding which intervention strategies require formal informed consent and which do not.  In general, less intrusive time-out procedures, like withdrawing attention or materials for short periods of time, are commonly used and typically do not require parental consent prior to use, although it would be expected that parents would be kept informed.  If a more restrictive time-out procedure, such as exclusion, is being considered as a behavior-reduction strategy, it should be a documented component of the student’s intervention plan and parental consent should be obtained.

Time-out involves a continuum of behavioral strategies intended to reduce or stop a specific behavior through the removal of a reinforcing item, activity, event, or situation.  Based on the research, there is little doubt that time-out may be an effective behavior-reduction strategy in some situations and for some individuals.  However, it is also important to keep in mind that time-out is a behavior-reduction procedure, and as such, even if it is effective, it can only decrease undesirable behaviors; time-out on its own does not increase desirable behaviors or teach new, more appropriate replacement behaviors.  When considering a time-out procedure, staff should have an understanding of behavior-change principles, have sufficient training and experience, give careful consideration to the range of potential interventions, and be aware of the potential risks.  Most importantly, the highest level of consideration for the safety and dignity of students should be promoted and maintained.

Do you have experience with time-out procedures?  Tell us about it in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!


Campbell, J. M. (2003). Efficacy of behavioral interventions for reducing problem behavior in persons with autism: A quantitative synthesis of single-subject research.  Research in Developmental Disabilities, 24, 120-138.

Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis, 2nd edition. Columbus, OH: Pearson Education Inc.

Donaldson, J. M., & Vollmer, T. R. (2011). An evaluation and comparison of time-out procedures with and without release contingencies.  Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 44, 693-705.

Horner, R., & Sugai, G. (2009). Considerations for seclusion and restraint use in school-wide positive behavior supports.  OSEP Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports.

Mace, F. C., Page, T. J., Ivancic, M. T., & O’Brien, S. (1986). Effectiveness of brief time-out with and without contingent delay: A comparative study.  Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 19, 79-86.

Nelson, C. M. (1997). Effective Use of Time-out.  Kentucky Department of Education.  Retrieved from Behavior Home Page: www.ky.us/agencies/behave.html

Ryan, J. B., Sanders, S., Katsiyannis, A., & Yell, M. L. (2007). Using time-out effectively in the classroom. Teaching Exceptional Children, 39, 60-67.

Autism in Education (AIE) Partnership

The Autism in Education (AIE) Partnership is an inter-provincial partnership among the Departments of Education and Early Childhood Development of Canada’s four Atlantic Provinces (New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island) with the aim of enhancing access to best educational practices in the area of autism across Atlantic Canada. The mission of this inter-provincial partnership is the advancement and dissemination of knowledge of autism spectrum disorder in the area of educational instruction and practices.

Shelley McLean, M.Ed., BCBA, serves as the Coordinator of the AIE Partnership.  You may contact her at [email protected]

To read the complete AIE information paper, “Current Research Regarding Time-out” in English or in French, please visit the Autism in Education Partnership’s website at:  http://aie.apsea.ca

1 Comment on "Time-out or Not?"

  1. This is an outstanding, comprehensive article that explains the range of issues that may be a play in a child’s behavior. The section on examining the quality of the student’s “time-in” environment and assessing the student’s capacity to perform the tasks presented to him/her will be helpful for many people. A great contribution. Thank you!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.