Time Out

The Intervention

A time out from positive reinforcement (or time out) is an intervention designed to reduce disruptive student behavior by temporarily removing the student from classroom activities and eliminating positive reinforcement. While in time out, the student can practice self-regulation and be rewarded by rejoining the class once a certain amount of time has passed and appropriate behavior has been demonstrated. Common time out durations are 5 to 10 minutes or the equivalent of 1 minute per age of the student. Time out interventions are best suited for elementary school-age students and are not typically used at the middle or high school level.

  1. Identify a time out area in the classroom. Ideally, this should be an area removed from reinforcing objects or materials, but close enough to the main activity space that the child in time out can hear and see what is going on. This space should be clearly defined (e.g., within these four tiles in the floor; in the blue chair by the window; on this carpet square).
  2. Decide what student behaviors  result in a time out (e.g. physical aggression; repeated non-compliance) and clearly communicate this to all students in the class (e.g., post in the classroom).
  3. Teach time out procedures, expectations for being in a time out, and location of the time out to all students. To maximize success, expectations should include:

    1. Behaving appropriate while in the time out (e.g., keeping hands to self and remaining quiet enough so that the class is not disrupted).
    2. Remaining within the previously agreed upon time out area
    3. Typically, the last minute of the time out should not involve any inappropriate behavior. This is a way for the student to demonstrate that s/he is ready to return to the group activity.

  4. When the student demonstrates one of the behaviors that leads to time out, direct the student to the time out area by stating what behavior they have demonstrated and how long they will be in time out. Let them know that the time out will begin when they are in the time out area. Do not engage in arguing or discussion with the student.

    1. Marco, because you were physically aggressive, you have earned a 5-minute time out. Please go to the time out carpet. I will start your timer once you are there. 

  5. Return to the class activity and set a timer. While the student is in time out, be sure to provide positive reinforcement to students who are behaving appropriately in the class and who are ignoring the student’s behavior. Ignore comments or behavior from the student in time out.
  6. If the student is behaving appropriately, ask if they are ready to rejoin the group once the timer goes off. If so, provide a direction for them to follow and praise them once they have appropriately followed the instruction. If the student is not behaving appropriately in time out, remind them that they must serve the last minute of the time out appropriately.

  • When teaching the time out procedures, consider role playing so that the students observe the expectations. Discuss with students the strategies that can be used to avoid earning a time out (e.g., asking to move away from a provocative peer; use of coping strategies)
  • Talk about time out and assign time outs using a neutral matter-of-fact tone of voice to avoid eliciting further argumentativeness from the student.
  • Make the classroom activity as reinforcing as possible. If the student is happy to be missing out on the activity (e.g., getting to sit rather than participate in read aloud), they will not be motivated to behave appropriately and rejoin the group.
  • Make sure there are not distracting or reinforcing objects in close proximity to the time out area. Similarly, make sure the student does not bring objects with them to the time out area. If they are able to draw or color, for example, the time out may become reinforcing.
  • Time out should not result in the student “getting out of” academic work. If they have classwork to complete, they are still expected to complete the classwork upon exiting the time out. If they are seated in time out within the classroom, they can continue to listen to the academic content being provided.
  • Time out can vary in length and is at the discretion of the teacher. Typically, time outs should be fairly brief (e.g., 3-5 minutes), although they may be lengthened if behavior during time out is inappropriate.
  • To avoid singling out an individual student, it may be best to use this technique across the whole classroom for all students who do not meet a specific expectation.
  • Note that behavior might get worse before it gets better. When time out is first implemented, children (especially young children) may resist. Don’t give up! If the child exhibits an increase in disruptive behavior during time out, continue to remind the child of the rules until appropriate behavior is displayed. With time and consistency, the time out process will get easier and involve less resistance.
  • Monitor students for mild escalating behaviors and attempt to intervene proactively (e.g., offering choices, encouraging use coping strategies) so that the student does not engage in behaviors that warrant a time out
  • If you need help implementing or evaluating this intervention, it may be helpful to seek out consultation from your school mental health professional or intervention team leader.

Time outs are rated as “strong” at the elementary level. At the secondary level, there has not been sufficient research to determine a level of evidence.

Elementary: Research demonstrates that time outs can lead to decreases in non-compliant behavior. The research on time-outs was conducted in the classroom component of the Summer Treatment Program. While this research was not conducted in a typical school setting, the settings are similar suggesting that the benefits of time-out are likely to translate to a general education classroom.

Secondary: Time outs have not been studied at the secondary level; therefore, we are unable to determine its effectiveness. There are likely feasibility obstacles to using time outs in secondary schools as well as reduced effectiveness. Reduced effectiveness is likely as adolescents may not perceive leaving the classroom area as negatively as elementary aged children.

Recommendations: We recommend using time outs for non-compliance at the elementary level. In addition, it is likely that time outs will similarly benefit other disruptive behaviors for elementary school students. However, we do not recommend the use of time-outs for non-compliant or other behaviors at the secondary level as it has not been studied and may not be a developmentally appropriate intervention. Additionally, we caution the use of time-outs for students who have a history of trauma.

Intervention Scorecard

This intervention is recommended for the following presenting problems.

Select an age group:


Other suitable presenting problems