autism · behavior · parent training · tantrums · Uncategorized

Think Time In, Not Time Out.

time-outMany of us can reflect back to our childhood and remember a time when we did that thing which resulted in us hearing, “timeout”. As adults, many of us use this common punishment strategy when we see a child act out inappropriately. The question is, are we using it effectively? The article in review provides an overview and insight; supported by data, of effective ways we should be thinking about, and using not only timeout, but also most importantly time-in.

Defining timeout

Timeout is when someone is removed from something rewarding for a period of time due to the occurrence of a problem or inappropriate behavior. Furthermore, when in timeout there are no opportunities to engage in the rewarding activity. For example, a child is watching their favorite cartoon and hits their sibling. The caregiver comes in, removes the child who hit their sibling, and removes them from watching TV. The caregiver has removed the rewarding TV time and placed the child on a timeout. So again, timeout is removal from something rewarding.

In this example the caregiver has used exclusionary time out because the child is completely excluded from the environment, where watching TV is rewarding. There is also inclusionary timeout, which results in the child staying in the same environment, but cannot have access to the activity. For example, a child is playing baseball, which he loves, and throws the bat when he misses the ball, out of anger. The coach immediately benches the player so he can see the other players, but cannot participate or play in the game which is rewarding, as he enjoys baseball. In summary, there are two types of timeout, inclusionary and exclusionary as defined above.

What’s in review?

As defined in the article under review, timeout is a procedure involving a relationship of 2 states occurring before and after an inappropriate behavior in which: 1. The time-in environment is enriching and rewarding to be in, and 2. timeout actually results in a decrease in the inappropriate behavior which resulted in the implementation of the timeout procedure; putting a child in timeout and removing them from access to the reward.

When parents, teachers, grandparents, behavior analysts, nanny’s, babysitters, etc., can identify the things in the child’s environment that make time-in enjoyable and rewarding, and maximize on those things, then being in timeout will be effective due to the lack of enjoyment found in the time-in setting. Therefore, enriching your child’s time-in environment is the key to success when using a timeout procedure.

For this article in review I am going to discuss 2 separate experiments. 1. The results of the research that demonstrated the elimination of tantrums, through the use of a timeout procedure; discussing how timeout can maintain problem behavior or effectively decrease it. 2. I will discuss how an impoverished time-in environment, one lacking exciting and novel items, can make timeout ineffective

Study 1. Who participated?

A 6-year-old girl with autism who had frequent tantrums was the participant in this study. Although this study involves a participant with autism, it can be used on any child with or without a diagnosis or disability.

What was the method used?

The therapist in this study was training the child to make a correct choice between colors. Candy was provided when a correct color choice was made. To eliminate tantrums, which occurred during this training, the therapist would implement a timeout procedure, removing the candy and leave the room, assuming the timeout strategy to be effective. When this occurred the therapist observed the child engaging in self-stimulatory behavior (behavior that one does because it feels good). It was concluded that the timeout procedure was not effective and that the child continued to tantrum in order to have access to the self-stimulation time, which occurred when the therapist removed the candy and left the room. Therefore, the timeout method used did not reduce tantrums and was not an appropriate procedure in this case. Furthermore, the tantrums increased and it was hypothesized that this was so the child could engage in the self-stimulatory behavior.

Keeping this in mind, it is important to observe the child while in timeout to identify whether timeout does in fact have punishing effects (reduce problem behavior). Furthermore, observe if the child is engaging in the undesirable behavior to escape/avoid a task, having access to something else, as identified in the description above.

What was measured/observed?

As in previous blogs, this section is always added for industry experts, but will be explained in simple terms for everyone to understand. Two procedures were measured and examined to identify factors surrounding the child’s tantrums. 1. Did tantrums increase in order to have access to self-stimulatory behaviors (engaging in a behavior because it feels good)? 2. If the parts of the body that were used to produce self-stimulatory were restrained, and the child was unable to engage in the behavior, would it decrease?

There were two opportunities presented during the occurrence of tantrums; 1. an opportunity to engage in self-stimulatory behavior, and 2. a restraint of body parts that were used in the self-stimulatory responses (holding hands and fingers in the child’s lap).

Results of study 1.

When the opportunity to engage in self-stimulatory behavior was provided by the occurrence of tantrums, tantrums increased. Restraining the parts of the body that the child used to produce the self-stimulatory behavior resulted in an elimination of tantrums. Thus, it is advised to observe the child in the timeout setting to identify if they are engaging in preferred behavior which results in an ineffective use of timeout.

Study 2. Who participated?

A 16-year-old boy with a severe intellectual disability (new term to replace mentally retarded), whose behaviors consisted of spitting and self-injury, participated in the next timeout study. As stated above, although this child has a severe diagnosis, these procedures can be implemented on anybody, with or without a disability.

What was the method used?

In this experiment the therapist was also teaching the child to identify colors when presented with two color options, and when in session, the child would exhibit self-injurious behavior and spitting. When these problem behaviors occurred during session, the therapist removed the reward that the child was going to earn for making a correct choice, and moved away from the child to the corner of the classroom for a 90 second period, placing the child on timeout from the reward; therapist attention and earning rewards.

During the timeout period, the data show an increase in both self-injurious behavior and spitting when compared to the time-in setting. It was hypothesized that the child engaged in these behaviors to escape the task to have access to the problem behaviors. Therefore, it was concluded that the time-in environment was impoverished, unrewarding, and needed more enrichment.

What was measured/observed?

As in previous blogs, and stated above, this section is always added for industry experts, but will be explained in simple terms for everyone to understand. The self-injurious behavior and the spitting would be observed during the experimentation phase involving the manipulation of either: 1. Time-in with an enriching environment or a lack of, and 2. A time-out that the child had to take when he was observed spitting, or both spitting and self-injurious behavior.

The impoverished time-in (lacking enrichment)

The impoverished time-in environment was the same as the session with the therapist. The child would have to identify between colors and a correct response would result in food, praise, and a choice of 1 out of 6 simple toys (rubber ball, toy truck, two dolls, a plastic block and foam block.

The enriching time-in environment

Along with all the items from the impoverished time-in setting described above, additions were made such as: a music box, tambourine, a toy piano, xylophone, and jack-in-the-box. The boy was verbally praised for playing with toys and provided prompted assistance to play, providing him with a lot of social interaction and sensory stimulation.

Time out environment

When timeout was in effect the therapist would turn off any music and remove his attention, moving away from the child, but left the toys.

Results of study 2.

The results of this study comparing an enriched time-in to timeout setting and an impoverished time-in to timeout setting, show that both spitting and self-injurious behavior are greatly reduced when time-in was enriched with toys, or activities that the child found highly preferred and rewarding. Furthermore, in order for timeout to be effective; being a form of punishment for the child, and reducing problem behaviors, the time-in setting must be enriching.


There are a few things to keep in mind when using timeout.

  1. Make sure the time- in environment is enriching and filled with fun activities and toys.
  2. Timeout is not a standard procedure. All time-in environments will be enriched differently according to a child’s preferences.
  3. Time-in enrichment could be determined off of the identification of preferred items.
  4. Observe the child in timeout. Are they engaging in more behavior that is resulting in an ineffective timeout, relating to an impoverished time-in setting?

In conclusion, time-out is a system and is the functioning relationship between 2 environments; the time-in setting and the timeout setting occurring before and after the behavior. So make time-in the place to be!

Solnick, J., Rincover, A., & Peterson, C. (1977). Some determinants f the

reinforcing and punishing effects of timeout. Journal of Applied Behavior

Analysis, 10(3), 415-424.

*The principles and procedures for the above example do not ensure treatment effectiveness as no direct observation, assessment, or implementation by a board certified behavior analyst (BCBA) has taken place, nor do they enter BCBA Behavior Buzz Blogger and public into a binding contract. The procedures are strategies used in the field of applied behavior analysis, and are only offered as strategies and examples for analysis, articulation and an understanding of evidence based practices and procedures. Please reference article citation for further analysis.

Sarah Conklin, MS BCBA





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