How does a time-out influence disruptive behaviors in children?

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Time-out refers to the temporary withdrawal of access to positive reinforcement immediately following performance of an undesirable or maladaptive behavior. It is based on operant conditioning principles and has been widely used to reduce a variety of disruptive behaviors in children.
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Time-out, also called time-out from positive reinforcement, refers to the temporary suspension of access to reward or positive reinforcement immediately following performance of inappropriate or maladaptive behavior. Child time-out is administered either by removing positive reinforcement from the situation or by removing the misbehaving child from the situation and placing him or her in a time-out room or specially designated area.

Time-out has been used to suppress a wide range of behaviors in children, including tantrums, physical aggression, noncompliance, and self-injurious behavior. For example, psychologists Montrose Wolf, Todd Risley, and Hayden Mees instituted a time-out for Dicky, their three-and-a-half-year-old autistic client. Whenever Dicky threw his glasses, he was sent to his room for ten minutes. When this time-out procedure was in effect, the frequency of throwing glasses declined to zero in five days. The frequency of throwing glasses increased over the course of three weeks when the time-out procedure was suspended and then declined to zero in six days when time-out was reinstated.

Evidence of the selectivity of the suppressive effect of time-out was provided by psychologists Ronald Drabman and Robert Spitalnik, who implemented a time-out procedure for male adolescents in a psychiatric hospital. Boys were placed in a time-out room for ten minutes for being physically aggressive or vacating their seat without permission. Time-out significantly reduced the frequency of both of these target behaviors but did not decrease a nontarget behavior, disallowed vocalizations.

Time-out from positive reinforcement does not have to be administered in a separate room to be effective. In a 1976 study, very young children were required to sit and watch other children for one minute if they exhibited disruptive behavior such as aggression or destruction of toys. In a 1978 study conducted in a special education classroom, a ribbon that signified that a child was eligible to earn social reinforcement in the form of verbal praise and smiles was removed for three minutes if the child was disruptive. Both techniques were effective in reducing disruptive behavior and had the advantage that the children in time-out could observe other children’s appropriate behavior and positive reinforcement.

The use of time-out to manage behavioral problems in children has not been without controversy. There is concern that if time-out is used by an adult or perceived by a child as punishment, it may have negative consequences similar to those associated with physical punishment. Potential undesirable effects include generalized suppression of behavior, reduced motivation, and impairment of the adult-child relationship. Isolation time-out also removes the opportunity for learning appropriate behaviors, and its extreme use in schools may violate students’ individual rights. Praise and reward for appropriate “time-in” behaviors has been advocated as a substitute for or supplement to the use of time-out for unwanted behavior.


Three conditions are considered crucial to the effectiveness of time-out for eliminating disruptive behavior in children. First, the time-out period should be devoid of any positive reinforcement. The location for isolation time-out should be boring and should not permit activities that are more interesting than those available in the “time-in” environment. Ignoring a child in isolation time-out is also important to ensure the absence of social attention, which is a powerful reinforcer for children. Second, release from time-out should occur only after the specified duration has elapsed and appropriate behavior is exhibited. This contingency prevents the reinforcement of an unwanted behavior coincident with release from time-out. Third, time-out should not enable escape from or avoidance of activities that a child finds unpleasant. In such cases, not only will time-out fail, it may actually be countertherapeutic and increase disruptive behavior.

Studies have demonstrated that short duration time-outs may be superior or equal to long duration time-outs unless the child has been exposed to time-outs of longer duration. The general recommendation for children is one minute for each year of the child’s age. Research has also suggested that consistent application of the time-out contingency may be more important than the duration of time-out. Finally, time-out from an enriched environment is more effective than time-out from an impoverished one.

Origin of Time-Out

Time-out was introduced by the behavioral psychologists Charles B. Ferster and B. F. Skinner in Schedules of Reinforcement (1957). Originally, time-out denoted the removal of all conditioning stimuli and the insertion of a brief period of darkness, a blackout, following an incorrect or nonreinforced response in a discrimination procedure or an error on a matching-to-sample procedure in nonhuman animals. The use of time-out as a procedure for controlling disruptive behavior in children first appeared in the early 1960s. Four decades later, it was recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics as an alternative to physical reprimands. Its widespread use by parents and teachers to manage children with emotional and behavioral disorders at home and at school, respectively, reflects one of psychology’s most successful social inventions.


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