Alternatives To and Effective Use of Time Out

  • Situation

    I work with clients in a residential facility.  When any of the boys (ages 8-11) is told to take a timeout (2-3 minutes) an escalation usually occurs (cursing, hitting staff, screaming) increasing the time for their timeout. How can I best use time out and reduce the amount of escalation?

  • Summary

    When implementing behavior reduction procedures, it is best to determine the function of the behavior first. (See related resources below.)

    Consider use of less intrusive behavior reduction procedures prior to using Time Out (i.e. differential reinforcement, extinction, response cost).  (See related resources below.)

    Remember that an environment can be behaviorally enriched by:

    • Giving 4 times as much positive reinforcement as negative or punishment.
    • Having a systematic behavior support plan for teaching and reinforcing a replacement behavior that serves the same function as the undesired behavior. These less intrusive procedures should have been determined as ineffective before timeout is used.

    Ensuring effective timeouts takes some preventative work when everyone is calm.  Attempting to explain and teach a concept when someone is upset can be difficult.   The following steps/guidelines are intended to help implement timeout procedures appropriately and effectively.  They are not a comprehensive or complete explanation of how to use timeout.

    Those who are attempting to implement timeout procedures for the first time should consider having support and consultation by professionals with expertise in behavioral intervention procedures.

  • Definition

    The timeout strategy involves removing the child from all sources of positive reinforcement as a consequence of a specified undesired behavior.

    Strategies to be considered prior to using time out include:

    • Differential reinforcement – At its most basic level, this procedure involves reinforcing only the appropriate response (behavior you wish to increase) and ignoring other behaviors.

    • Extinction  – An intervention that makes a behavior less likely to occur or stop occurring altogether.  Extinction occurs when reinforcement of a previously reinforced behavior is discontinued (ignored).  To be used effectively, you must know what has been reinforcing and maintaining the undesired behavior.  Extinction procedures can be challenging to implement in a school setting and likely requires the support of a Behavior Analyst or other professionals experienced in Applied Behavior Analysis.

    • Response cost  – The term used for removing reinforcement of an undesired or disruptive  behavior, thus decreasing the likelihood that the behavior will occur again.  This is often used with a token economy system which is a procedure that offers a child some type of token (sticker, bingo chip, point) for displaying positive behavior.  These tokens are then traded in for a reward.  If using Response Cost, tokens are removed when negative behavior occurs.

  • Quick Facts

    • Child's Age: 3-5, 6-10, 11-13, 14-17
    • Planning Effort: Moderate
    • Difficulty Level: Moderate
  • Pre-requisites

    Teach the concept to the student.

    Prepare the timeout area.

    Prepare a data sheet for collecting a written record of each occasion that timeout is used.

    Review steps/guidelines with all staff for consistency.

  • Process

    1. Consider Positive alternatives to time out first.

    2. Remember to Catch them being good!!!

    3. Identify specific behavior and determine its function using an ABC Data Chart.


    Consider the following steps/guidelines for implementing time outs if necessary:

    1. Identify timeout area

    2. Explain the timeout concept to the child.

    3. Implement a warning signal indicating that timeout is imminent if he/she doesn’t alter their behavior, if appropriate.

    4. If the behavior occurs again, say a statement to the student that is used consistently each time by all staff.

    5. Be consistent every time the behavior occurs.

    6. Do not look at or talk to child during timeout.

    7. If the child leaves the area, return him/her without talking.

    8. The child must be calm and quiet to leave the area when the time is up.

    9. Keep written records of each occasion that timeout is used include the following: child’s name, behavior resulting in a timeout, beginning and ending time of timeout, location of timeout and child’s behavior during timeout. This data will show the effectiveness of the timeout.

  • Documents and Related Resources

    ABC data sheet (tool for determining function of behavior)


    Reinforcement Tower (related answer not his site)


    Mystery Motivator (related answer on this site)


    Structured Choice for De-Escalating Behavior (related answer on this site)


    Time Out Chart   (Word document)


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