When to Use Time Out for Kids With and Without Autism

Today, I’m talking all about the use of time out for children with and without autism and why I rarely recommend using time out for parents or professionals. If you are using time out or have used it in the past, you don’t want to miss today’s episode.

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As a behavior analyst, I have lots of video blogs that cover a range of problem behaviors and also discipline topics. I have a blog on how to discipline children with autism. I have a blog on what to do when your child gets kicked out or held back in preschool or daycare. I have lots of video blogs on problem behavior and hitting and those sorts of things. But today I wanted to talk about time out since it is a very common procedure used by both parents and professionals with typically developing kids as well as kids with autism.

I think it’s almost always a bad idea. I know with my two sons, I never used an official timeout procedure for Lucas and only less than a handful of times have I ever used time out for Spencer. Back when they were little I wasn’t a behavior analyst, but now that I am and have been a behavior analyst since 2003, I have used time out very, very rarely because time out, in my opinion, is very overused. It’s a very reactive procedure. It’s a punishment procedure and punishment is not usually allowed within public school settings, unless you have a full positive behavior support plan in place and someone highly skilled at the use of things like time out. I think the prevalent use of time out is because people just don’t think that it is such a big deal, but it really is.

I remember being in a preschool or daycare classroom with a little boy, I’ll call him Tommy. He was 3 years old. I was paid to go out to do a 1-day evaluation and they were having trouble with him at preschool and he was about to be kicked out. He did not have a diagnosis of autism yet and he had some language, but he just got into a lot of trouble in his preschool class where the teachers had 15 other kids in the class. So I was observing for the day and saw him touching kids in line when they were in line for recess and those sorts of minor problem behaviors. I’m not even sure what he did, it wasn’t anything really aggressive or anything. But he did something and one of the teachers said, “Tommy, you’re going to time out.”

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I’m just observing and I’m doing my evaluation and she takes him by the hand and leads him to a desk in the classroom right in the middle of the room and he proceeds to kick at the desk. I think he was trying to like push at the desk, and he caused some noise to try to get some more attention which I think he did intermittently throughout the 5 or 10 minute period. At some point, the teacher said “Tommy, you’re all done with time out. You can get out.” And he resumed the class in the classroom. So at the end of the day or when we had a free moment, free from Tommy, I asked the teacher, how many times a day or a week is Tommy in time out? “Oh, it depends, sometimes 3 times a day, sometimes 3 times a week,” they explained.

I asked what leads to timeout? I was sitting there and I don’t even remember why you put him in timeout. She goes, “well when we’ve just had enough of him.” Well as a behavior analyst using a punishment procedure when you’ve just had enough is not a good reason to use time out. Then I asked when is timeout done because I couldn’t really tell if it was 5 or 10 minutes or if there was any timer going off.  “Well, when we just are in the mood to bring him back.” So you could see how treating problem behaviors like this and using time out, what I call “willy nilly”, is going to almost always lead to more problem behaviors and ineffective use of time out.

Some kids could benefit from time out, but if you are a parent or you’re a professional without a ton of experience in this, it almost will always backfire. So I would encourage you instead to spend 95% of your time preventing problem behaviors, to use 8 positives to every negative, and to consider the appropriateness of Tommy being in that preschool class. He would have probably done fine if he would have gotten more of the positive attention when he was doing the right thing. So maybe he could have a 1-to-1 therapist or an aid or just more support, more positive attention when he is doing the right thing. So those are some of my techniques. If you are using time out, I would say really take a second look, and make sure if you’re a professional, you have standard procedures of what leads to timeout, what leads to getting out of time out and also make sure your data is clear and showing a reduction of problem behaviors.

If you’re using time out for weeks or months or years for the same behaviors, then obviously you need to take a really hard look at what you’re doing and redesign that intervention. If you enjoyed this video/article, I would love it if you would leave me a thumbs up, comment,  and share the video with someone that can benefit. Hopefully, it gave you some ideas about the use of time out and maybe curtailing that. For more information and to get more guidance related to positive strategies to teach language and learning skills and prevent problem behavior to help each child reach his or her fullest potential, you can go online to a free online workshop at marybarbera.com/workshop and I hope to see you right here next week.

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