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Time Out
in the
School Setting

(Antecedent Interventions)
Classroom Interventions for Children with Attention Deficit Disorder


Time out is a punishment proceedure that involves the withdrawal of positive reinforcement as a  consequence of inappropriate behavior.  Time-out has been recommended for children as old as 9 to 10 years of age.  The effectiveness of time-out in reducing imappropriate behavior is well-documented;  however, the proceedure has been somewhat controversial die to its potential for misuse (Abramowitz & O'Leary, 1990).  Most concerns about time-out are related to the restrictiveness of the proceedure;   however, the degree of restrictiveness varies with the type of time-out proceedure used.  The least restrictive forms of time out are those that do not involve exclusion or isolation.  Examples of such nonexclusionary forms of time-out include:  having the children put away their work for a time (which eliminates the opportunity to earn rewards for academic performance);  the temporary removal of rewarding materials, such as taking away art materials;  or having the children put their heads down on their (which reduces the opportunity for engaging in social interaction) (Barkley  1990).

A more restrictive time-out proceedure involves excluding a child from classroom activities by placing a child in a designated area for a period of time while attention and other rewarding activities are withheld.  This may involve having the child sit in a chair facing a wall.  The most restrictive time-out proceedures involve removal of a child to an isolated room.  In most schools, the principal of least restriction should be followed when selecting a time-out proceedure, starting with the least restrictive proceedure, and moving to the more restrictive proceedures only after the others have been ineffective.  To ethically and effectively implement isolatioin forms of time-out in the classroom, the following guidelines are recomended (Abramowitz & O'Leary, 1991).

*  Prior to implementing time-out proceedures that involve isolation,
    techniques for increasing appropriate behaviors and other punishment
    proceedures that are less restrictive than isolation time-out should be properly
    implemented for a time and documented.

Staff must be fully trained in the proceedure and physically capable of carrying
    it out.

*  Both the target behaviors and the specific time-out proceedures should be
    clearly specified in writing and kept in the child's school records.

Determine how noncompliance to the time-out proceedure will be dealt with in
    advance of implementing the proceedure.

Information on the level of target behaviors prior to implementing time-out and
    during the implementation of time-out should be recorded to document the
    effectiveness of the intervention.

*  Each time-out should be recorded.


The effectiveness of time-out in reducing inappropriate behavior is well-documented.  Time-out has been shown to be an effective component of an overall behavioral plan to reduce noncompliance and aggression.  An additional advantage to time-out is that it is a punishment technique that can be administered immediately.  Behavioral techniques, which can be administered as close to the behavior as possible, are appropriate for younger children and children with ADD.


Time-out is a highly technical proceedure that is difficult to implement properly.  There many way that time-out can go wrong and become less effective.  Time-out operates on the assumption that the  activity that is withheld from the child is rewarding.  Teachers should be careful that the child is not avoiding some unpleasant activity by going to time-out.  For example, going to time-out for not staying on-task during independant math work actually may be preferable to doing math work to a child who dislikes math.  Due to its restrictiveness and difficulty in implementation, time-out should be reserved for intervention with the most disruptive and unacceptable behaviors and only with staff that are trained in how it is properly used (Abramowitz & O'Leary, 1991).

A second limitation of time-out is that it is a punishment technique.  As with all punishment techniques,punishment will only have the effect of decreasing or weakening the punished behavior.  Punishment will not increase or promote appropriate behavior.  Increasing or strengthening appropriate behavior will require positive reinforcement techniques.  Furthermore, punishment results in negative interactions between children and caregivers, which can disrupt children's mood.  To avoid this negative side effect, punishment should be used sparingly and only after an appropriate reinforcement program has been in place.

Time-out does not appear to be as useful with children older that 10 years of age.

Implementation of Exclusionary Time Out:

Exclusionary time-out is a relatively technical proceedure.  If implemented properly, it can be an effective management tool for reducing unacceptable behaviors;  however, if not implemented properly time-out can be ineffective.  The steps for implementing an exclusionary form of time-out are detailed below.  These proceedures can be adapted for use with nonexclusionary and isolation forms of time-out.

Step 1:  Choose an appropriate time-out place.
Time-out from attention or other rewarding activities.  Therefore, the location of the time-out place should be relatively boring.  The student should not have direct access to toys, books, people, windows, or any other potential reinforcement.  It is often helpful to place a chair in the time-out place to serve as a reminder to the children.  a chair in the corner or back of the room will suffice;  some classrooms are a cardboard partition or a three-sided cubicle.  The time-out place should be located  where the teacher can easily monitor the child.

Step 2:  Establish the rules regarding behavior during time-out.
In most time-out proceedures, children need to fulfill specific criteria before they can be released from  time-out.  Recomended criteria are detailed below.

*  The teacher should determine the duration of time-out.  The timeout should be
    long enough to be punishing, but short enough for reasons of ethics and
    practicality.  How children will respond to time-out appears to be somewhat
    dependant on how long previous time-outs have been for the child.  For example,
    time-out is likely to be less effective if it has been preceeded by a time out of
    greater duration (Kendall, Nay, & Jeffers, 1975;  White, Neilsen, G., & Johnson 1972).

    A rule of thumb used by clinicians is one to one to two minutes in time out for
    every year of life.

*  Once in time-out, there should be no interaction with the child for the duration
    of time-out.  Any verbal or nonverbal interaction can make time-out less boring
    and reduce its effectiveness.  All comments, questions, pleas, and inappropraite
    talk should be considered attention-seeking and should be actively ignored.

*  Once in time-out, the child needs to stay in the chair until the teacher releases
    him/her.  If the child leaves time-out prior to being released by the teacher, a
    backup punishment should be delivered.

    (These punishments should get progressively more severe)

*  Release from time out should also be dependent on a brief period of quiet.  If a
    child is released  from time-out while being disruptive, the disruptive behavior will
    be rewarded by being released.  If the child in the chair for the specified period of
    time, the teacher should wait for at least a five second period of silence prior to
    releasing the child.

*  If the child was sent to time-out for noncompliance to a teacher request, the
    child should be asked if s/he is ready to do what s/he was originally requested.  If
    the child answers "no," then the teacher should start time-out over by saying
    "Okay, then stay in time-out until I tell you to get up."  If the child was sent to
    time-out for breaking a rule, s/he can be released with a reminder that if s/he
    breaks any more rules, s/he will have to go to time-out again.

Some children will refuse to go to time-out or will not follow the rules while in time-out.  In these cases, some back-up proceedures will be needed.  One proceedure is to allow the children to earn time-off for complying with the rules.  Another is to add time to time-out or restrict some other school privilege for not complying with the time-out process.  It also may be necessary to remove the child from the classroom to serve the time-out in another area, such as another classroom or the principal's office.  As with learning any new behavior, a child's time-out behavior may need to be shaped over time.  The children will likely need to experience time-out several times before they learn that the teacher will be consistent in implementing time-out.

Step 3:  Communicate effectively during the time-out sequesnce.
Punishment should follow a predictable sequence of communication.  Sending a child to time-out for noncompliance to a teacher request should be predicted by a properly worded request and a warning.  The qalities of an effective request are outlined below.
1.  Requests should be direct
    rather than indirect.
A direct request should leave no question in the child's mind that s/he is being told to do something, giving no illusion of choice. Indirect request:
"Let's pick up the toys."
"How about washing your hands?"
"Why don't you open your book?"
"Do you want to throw that paper away for me?"

Direct request:
"Jimmy, pick up the paper, please."

2.  Requests should be
    positively stated.
Positively stated requests give the child information about what "to do." Negative request:
"Stop running!"

Positive request:
"come and sit next to me."

3.  Requests should be
    specific.  Avoid vague
Vague requests are so general and non specific that the child may not know exactly what to do to be obedient. Vague requests:
"Be good."
"Be careful."
"Clean up your act!"

Specific Requests:
"Move away from the door."
"Talk in a quiet voice."

4.  Give only one command
    at a time.  Avoid "hidden"
Some children have a hard time remembering more than one thing at a time.  You do not want to punish a child for having a short attention span or for failing to remember. Stringing requests:
"Go close the door, then turn in your papers, and then go sit in your seat."

Hidden requests:
"Clean up your area."  (This really is several requests, such such as: put the toys in their place, straighten the chairs, stack your book, etc.)

5.  Request should be simple. The child should be intellectually and physically capable of doing what you are requesting. Too difficult:
"Draw a hexagon."  (If the child does not know what a hexagon is.)

After an effective request has been given, the teacher should expect compliance to begin within a reasonable time.  This is called the "5 second rule."  If compliance is begun within 5 seconds of an effective request, wait until the request is completed and give an enthusiastic praise.  If compliance has not been initiated within 5 seconds of an effective request, a warning should be given.  a warning is an "if-then" statement which connects the consequence with the behavior.  Once the warning is given, the 5 second rule goes into effect again.  Compliance to the warning should be rewarded with an enthusiastic praise.  Noncompliance to the warning should result in immediate tine-out. Once it is decided to send a child to time-out, communication should be brief, clear, and direct.  See the charts below for examples of effective communication.

Classroom rules should be clearly understood prior to sending a child to time-out for violating a rule.

This sequence will allow children to predict the consequenses of their behavior, thereby, allowing them to excercise self-control.  Children will likele need to experience this sequence several times before they learn that the consequences to their behavior (positive and negative) will be consistent.

Step 4:  Explain the time-out proceedure to the children prior to

At a neutral time, explain the time-out rules and what behaviors will result in time-out.  Be sure to also communicate the rewards that can be earned for compliance to rules and requests.


Abramowitz, A., & O'Leary, S. (1991).  Behavioral interventions in the classroom:  Implications for students with ADHD.   School Psychology Review, 20(2), 231-234.
Barkley, R.A. (1990).  Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder:  A Handbook for Diagnosis and Treatment.  New York:  Guilford.
Kendall, P.C., Nay, W.R., & Jeffers, J. (1975).  Time out duration and contrast effects:  A systematic evaluation of a successive treatment design.  Behavior Therapy, 6, 609-615
White, G.D., Neilson, G., & Johnson, S.M. (1972).  Time-out duration and the suppression of defiant behavior in children.  Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 5, 111-120

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