The Mystery of Time Out

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

When I consult with  parents, therapists, or teachers and ask what behavior techniques they currently use, Time Out is usually stated near immediately. Then when I ask if Time Out is effective, I hear “no/sometimes/maybe”.  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. It's a negative punishment because you are removing (not adding) 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 Math class because he refuses to do his work 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”.

Make sense? Good :-)

Another cloud of mystery around Time Out is regarding the rules of how to do it. I have been in a variety of settings and 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 ( see Hancock v. Avery, 1969)
-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 (like any punishment technique) 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 & 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:

    1. 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 explain 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 redirect the child to help you put a puzzle together. Once the puzzle is done, you bring the Play-Dough back out and monitor closely to see if mouthing continues.
    2. You are in the backyard with your children, swimming together in the pool. Your son begins to play too roughly with his sister, and won’t stop splashing water in her eyes. You tell your son to leave the pool and go sit on the grass. Your son starts crying and stomps over to the grass and sits down. Once he is calm and quiet, you tell him he can get back in the pool and remind him to play nicely with his sister.
    3. A dad is playing Monopoly with his kids. His son is caught cheating and not playing fairly. The dad tells his son he will miss his next 2 turns, because he was cheating. After his son has sat out for 2 turns, the dad tells him he can start playing again.

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, 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. This is why a punishment strategy should not be the go- to, knee jerk response to problem behavior. Please refer to my punishment post for more information about possible side effects of punishment techniques.

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