Time out



In Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), time-out is classified as a negative punishment procedure. Negative reinforcement involves removing a stimulus in order to decrease a behavior. Using a time-out after problem behavior is displayed can reduce the likelihood of the problem behavior re-emerging in the future.

The use of time-out can reduce or stop problem behaviors; however, it does not show appropriate behaviors. It should be used together with teaching and encouraging appropriate behavior while also providing positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is the addition of something to enhance that behavior’s odds of recurrence in the future, such as praising, rewarding, or allowing access to toys/privileges when the desired behavior (completing chores) occurs.

Three major types of time-outs:

  • exclusionary – involves removing the child from the reinforcing situation but not from the room or area of activity. For example, sending a child to a corner of the room or a chair positioned away from the ongoing activity.
  • non-exclusionary – similar to exclusion time-out in that the child is removed from the reinforcing situation for a certain amount of time but may still observe the ongoing activity of the class.
  • isolation – a behavior modification technique of removing the child from their environment of reinforcement to one that does not offer any incentive for their behavior.

Time-out for children with special needs

Time-out can give autistic children or children with developmental delays a safe space to work on calming themselves.

When TIME-OUT as a discipline technique is not recommended for a child with autism who:

  • use aggressive or self-injuring behavior, because it can reinforce the behavior.
  • avoid interaction with others because these children might misbehave as a way of being sent to time-out.
  • behaviors (repetitive hand flapping, repetitive tapping) will maintain or even increase the behavior.
  • tends to be withdrawn. It could end up being a reward rather than a negative consequence if it gives your child time alone.

How to use time-out

First, you must decide what type of behavior warrants a time-out such as fighting, arguing, or throwing tantrums. Secondly, you must try to enforce the time-out fairly and consistently. Finally, designate a space for the time-out. Never use their bed. Make sure to use an age-appropriate length of time for the time-out. The timer does not start if the child engages in the problem behavior (crying, whining, or tantrum) while in time-out. Let them know what you expect of them like keeping your hands to yourself and sitting quietly for one minute.

The time-out should always have verbal warnings before the discipline to allow the child to make appropriate choices. If their bad behavior continues, they should have an explanation for the time-out as they are being escorted to that area. Even one-year-olds understand when they have reached their parental limit, but the explanations should be age appropriate.

However, for time-out to be successful, the parent must confirm that the toys or activities the child is doing are highly preferred. For example, if a child is told to do chores (non-preferred activity) and then he/she hits their sibling, time-out should not be used because it delays having to do the chores. If a parent is consistent with this, the child’s hitting may increase in the future because they will learn that when they hit a sibling, they can delay doing the non-preferred activity.

Afterward, both the parent and the child should try to leave the incident behind.

Alternative discipline techniques for children with autism

The following discipline techniques can guide all children toward appropriate behavior and away from inappropriate behavior:

  • praise and rewards for appropriate behavior communicates to your child what you like about their behavior
  • clear rules about behavior let the child know what is expected of them
  • positive consequences for appropriate behavior
  • negative consequences for inappropriate behavior
  • modeling social skills for handling unfamiliar or difficult situations

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