Classroom management: the use of time-out in schools

In this week’s blog I am going to expand on the topic of classroom management that I introduced in my first blog.

I have previously discussed classroom management and the fact that the education system is currently using positive and negative reinforcement and punishment in the classroom in an arguably damaging way. Additionally, I noted the importance of using positive reinforcement, such as token economy, in the classroom to reinforce good behavior. I also gave a presentation highlighting the need for positive reinforcement in class; this video can be seen below:

As I noted in my first blog and presentation, positive reinforcement is being used badly in schools. Poorly behaved students are given attention, which acts as a reward for bad behavior so the behavior is reinforced. Instead, rewards should be given for good behavior so that good behavior is reinforced. But what should a teacher do when bad behavior is exhibited? It is this fundamental question that will be considered in this week’s blog and I will argue for the effective use of time-out combined with consistent administration of positive reinforcement.

Arguably the most common method of coping with troublesome students in the classroom is the use of time-out, for example sending the students outside the classroom to calm down. The popularity of this method has been demonstrated in a survey, whereby 86% of teachers surveyed stated that they use time-out (Zabel, 1986). Time-out is a complex method of behavior management mainly due to the different definitions by different professionals. Some researchers, particularly those who are practitioners in the field, view time-out as negative reinforcement, as the removal of attention results in the good behavior being reinforced. However, some view time-out as negative punishment, whereby the removal of attention results in the bad behavior being less likely to occur (Sterling-Turner & Watson, 1999).

Time-out has been found to be effective in a vast array of settings, including homes (Hawkins, Peterson, Schweid, & Bijou, 1966), psychiatric hospitals (Bowers et al., 2010), and nurseries (Firestone, 1976). Additionally time-out is also successful for behavior management of children and adults with aggressive behavior problems (Dodge, 1993; Wahler & Fox, 1980), noncompliant behavior (Rortvedt & Miltenberger, 1994) and self-injurious behavior (Vollmer, Iwata, Zarcone, Smith, & Mazaleski, 1993).

In school settings, the effectiveness of time-out has been demonstrated through research finding that when time-out was used for three emotionally disturbed children in the classroom, undesirable behaviors were reduced (Sachs, 1973). Additionally, Miller and Kratochwill (1979) employed the method of time-out on a 10-year-old girl who was disruptive in the classroom by repeatedly reporting false stomach complaints. Through the time-out methods of removing the girl from adult attention and classroom activities, complaints rapidly decreased. A one-year follow-up study demonstrated no further complaints.

Harris (1985) claims that there are three main types of time-out:

  1. Exclusion – the child is removed for a certain amount of time from the area of reinforcement. For example, if the child is behaving badly in the playground, he or she should be removed immediately from the activity. During exclusion, the child should not be able to witness the activities that the rest of the class are engaging in, for example they will be stood in a corner facing the other way.
  1. Nonexclusion – the child is removed for a certain amount of time from the area of reinforcement. Again, if the child is behaving badly in the playground, then he or she should be removed immediately from the activity. However, during nonexclusion, the child will still observe the activities that the rest of the class are engaging in.
  1. Isolation – the child is removed from the reinforcing environment to an environment where there are no reinforcers. Normally the child will be placed in a room that is completely separate from the rest of the class. However, isolation is often difficult to implement in classroom settings due to the fact that additional supervision is required.

Harris (1985) noted that exclusion and nonexclusion tend to be more effective in classroom settings and that isolation should only be implemented as a last resort. Additionally, Kazin (1980) found that exclusion and nonexclusion are more acceptable forms of time-out than isolation.

Clearly, time-out is an effective tool for managing classroom behavior however, there are some noteworthy issues that should be considered. In the case of the study by Miller and Kratochwill (1979), can we really be entirely sure that the stomach complaints were not real? Although medical examinations concluded that there was nothing wrong with her, hospitals can miss things, or it could have been psychological pain. In this case, in using time-out on the child, she could have just been demonstrating learned helplessness (Seligman, 1972). This is an important ethical consideration that teachers need to take into account when implementing the time-out procedure in the classroom.

Additionally, Zabel (1986) states that there is a lack of information given to teachers on how to implement time-out effectively and that they see it as a restrictive form of behavior management (Barton, Brulle, & Repp, 1987). It has also been argued that it requires supervision of individuals in time-out, which schools may not have the time or resources to implement (Cuenin & Harris, 1986).

Moreover, time-out needs to be implemented carefully due to the fact that it could become negative reinforcement for bad behavior. For example, if a student was demonstrating challenging behavior because they do not want to complete their work, sending them into time-out results in the avoidance of work, thus reinforcing bad behavior. Instead, the child should be taken to a different room to complete the work.

Additionally, often time-out serves as a positive reinforcement for behavior due to the fact that many schools make the error of sending the students into the corridor for time-out. This gives the student the chance to communicate with passersby in the hallway, thus resulting in positive punishment. Instead, the child should be taken into a different room away from potential reinforcers.

In spite of these criticisms, time-out can be extremely effective in classrooms as a way of promoting good behavior (Sterling-Turner & Watson, 1999). An additional point to note is the research investigating the use of time-out and token economy (a form of positive reinforcement that I spoke about in my last blog) together for classroom behavior management. Boone Von Brook and Elliot (1987) found that the implementation of token economy for good behavior and time-out for bad behavior resulted in significantly improved classroom behavior in comparison to just one method.

Overall, I feel that time-out does have a place in classrooms however, it should be combined with positive reinforcement methods such as token economy. Time-out is not currently implemented effectively in schools, for example the negative reinforcement that students get from avoiding work and the positive reinforcement that students get from attention from others passing in the hall. As a result, educators need further training in how to implement time-out effectively in the classroom. If educators use time-out appropriately, classroom behavior will be improved, thus resulting in increased academic achievement, learning, and wellbeing of all of the students in the class.


Barton, L. E., Brulle, A. R., & Repp, A. C (1987). Effects of differential scheduling of timeout to reduce maladaptive responding. Exceptional Children, 53(4), 351-356.

Boone Von Brock, M., & Ellior, S. N. (1987). Influence of treatment effectiveness information on the acceptability of classroom interventions. Journal of School Psychology, 25(2), 131-144. doi: 10.1016/0022-4405(87)90022-7

Bowers, L., Van Der Merwe, M., Nijman, H., Hamilton, B., Noorthorn, E., Stewart, D., & Muir-Cochrane, E. (2010). The practice of seclusion and time-out on English acute psychiatric wards: The city-128 study. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 24(4), 275-286. doi: 10.1016/j.apnu.2009.09.003

Cuenin, L. H., & Harris, K. R. (1986). Planning, implementing, and evaluating timeout interventions with exceptional students. Teaching Exceptional Children, 18, 272-276

Dodge, K. A. (1993). The future of research on the treatment of conduct disorder. Development and Psychopathology, 5, 311-319

Firestone, P. (1976). The effects and side effects of timeout on an aggressive nursery school child. Journal of Behavior Therapy, 7(1), 79-81. doi: 10.1016/0005-7916(76)90050-1

Harris, K. R. (1985). Definitional, parametric, and procedural considerations in timeout interventions and research. Exceptional Children, 51(4), 279-288.

Hawkins, R. P., Peterson, R. F., Schweid, E., & Bijou, S. W. (1966). Behavior therapy in the home: Amelioration of problem parent-child relations with the parent in a therapeutic role. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 4(1), 99-107.

doi: 10.1016/0022-0965(66)90054-3

Kazdin, A. E. (1980). Acceptability of time out from reinforcement procedures for disruptive child behavior. Behavior Therapy, 11(3), 329-344. doi: 10.1016/S0005-7894(80)80050-5

Miller, A. J., & Kratochwill, T. R. (1979). Reduction of frequent stomachache complaints by time out. Behavior Therapy, 10(2), 211-218. doi: 10.1016/S0005-7894(79)80038-6

Rortvedt, A. K., & Miltenberger, R. G. (1994). Analysis of a high-probability instructional sequence and time-out in the treatment of child noncompliance. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 27(2), 327-330. doi: 10.1901/jaba.1994.27-327

Sachs, D. A. (1973). The efficacy of time-out procedures in a variety of behavior problems. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 4(3), 237-242. doi: 10.1016/0005-7916(73)90080-3

Seligman, M. E. P. (1972). Learned Helplessness. Annual Review of Medicine, 23, 407-412. doi: 10.1146/

Sterling-Turner, H., & Watson, T. S. (1999). Consultant’s guide for the use of time-out in the preschool and elementary classroom. Psychology in the Schools, 36(2),   135-148.

Vollmer, T. R., Iwata, B. A., Zarcone, J. R., Smith, R. G., & Mazaleski, J. L. (1993). The role of attention in the treatment of attention-maintained self-injurious behavior: Noncontingent reinforcement and differential reinforcement of other behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 26(1), 9-21. doi: 10.1901/jaba.1993.26-9

Wahler, R. G., & Fox, J. J. (1980). Solitary toy play and time: A family treatment package for children with aggressive and oppositional behavior, Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 13(1), 23-39. doi: 10.1901/jaba.1980.13-23

Zabel, M. K. (1986). Time out use with behaviorally disordered students. Behavioral Disorders, 12(1), 15-21.

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12 Responses to Classroom management: the use of time-out in schools

  1. You make some really valid points here and of course Time-out does have its place, however as you highlighted sometimes it can be used at the wrong moments, which causes reinforcement rather than punishment of the bad behaviour. To determine when it is appropriate,a teacher must analyse the function behind the behaviour, in other words- its purpose. Within the classroom situation, where life is busy this can arguably be difficult for a teacher! Perhaps the key for improving inappropriate behaviour in a school setting is to change the antecedent triggering such bad behaviour, rather than having sole focus upon the consequence. Kennedy (1994) found when a teacher reduced the demands of a task and increased the positive comments given to students prior to work, problem behaviours reduced. Teachers then began to reintroduce the difficulty of tasks and interestingly, misbehaviour remained low. Therefore perhaps greater focus should be given to antecedent manipulation, rather than consequences, in reducing problem behaviours.

    Kennedy, C.H. (1994). Manipulating antecedent conditions to alter the stimulus control of problem behavior.Journal of Applied Behavioural Analysis, 27(1), 161-170. doi: 10.1901/jaba.1994.27-161

  2. alecdes says:

    Although I think time-out has a potential to be damaging morally, I always feel it’s important not to underestimate how difficult it can be for the teachers, and I agree it does generally have a place in classrooms. It can be very hard to control a bunch of unruly children in a classroom and teachers need to do everything they can to create the best possible atmosphere for the children who want to learn, which may mean removing disruptive children. As for the impact on the children who are experiencing the timeout, studies have suggested that as long as positive programming and appropriate procedural safeguards, timeouts are not a threat to instruction of students with the behaviour difficulties (Rusell & Jeffrey, 1990). However it must also be noted the timeouts should not be excessive, as not only does it pose an ethical dilemma, it is also important to keep all students in the classroom environment. Behavioural interventions should be used wherever appropriate if this becomes a severe problem.


  3. jmssol says:

    Betz (1994) has argued that there are effective and ineffective ways to enforce time outs in the classroom. Betz suggests that teachers should physically approach the student when they are behaving inappropriately rather than broadcasting their disapproval over the classroom. Additionally, the pupil should be placed in the time out area for a short amount of time; a minute for each year of their age. Betz also emphasises that the child should not be forgot about whilst they are in the time out area as the effectiveness of the time out would face serious jeopardy.

    Gartrell (2001) argues that the use of time out is not appropriate for young students in the early years of school. If a child is placed in a time out environment then they are not benefiting from being taught alternative desirable methods of strategies of how to behave. Placing a young pupil in time out has also been found to lower the level of their confidence and self-worth. Additionally, other pupils may not want to associate with the child in time out as they are considered trouble. Placing the child in isolation does not teach them any alternative desirable forms of behaviour that achieve the same response.

    Furthermore, for older students especially, time out can be viewed as an escape procedure. If a student does not want to complete class work, they behave in an inappropriate manner and as a result are placed outside of the classroom and do not have to continue with their work. In this sense, the time out is actually a form of negative reinforcement rather than punishment (Harris, 1985).

  4. jmssol says:

    References (I forgot to put them in my comment)
    Betz, C. (1994). Beyond time-out: Tips from a teacher. Young children, 49, 10.
    Gartrell, D. (2001). Replacing time-out: part one—Using guidance to build an encouraging classroom. Young Children, 56, 8-16.
    Harris, K. R. (1985). Definitional, parametric, and procedural considerations in timeout interventions and research. Exceptional Children, 51, 279-288.

  5. natberry2013 says:

    Hey guys a quick note that I reported Zabel’s findings wrong – its actually 70% of teachers (a lot less than I would have thought based on the fact that every single teacher I have ever had has used time-out in class. (NM)

  6. psuc93 says:

    I think the most important point you highlight in this blog is ensuring that teachers use time out under the correct circumstances. I found an article supporting the use of time-out with a blind seven year old (Simpson, 1982). The case study showed a child who was acting out by gouging the eye and demonstrating severe head movements. Results for the study indicated that these behaviours were reduced after the implementation of the time out procedure, these findings were supported by reports provided by both the staff and parents. Indicating that time outs can also be beneficial in special education. However there does appear to be negatives with the use of time out in special education, with a few papers suggesting there are ethical and legal considerations to be made (Gast & Nelson, 1977). This doesn’t however mean it is a negative thing to use, but rather that teacher should ensure correct application (whilst also assessing the situation as within all educational settings). The use of actual removal for time out in special education has been criticised (Foxx & Shapiro, 1978). It is suggested instead that the student should have attention, praise and participation in activities ceased for three minutes, whilst remaining in the room (Foxx & Shapiro, 1978). Results indicated that misbehaviour in the classroom substantially decreased going from 42% and 32% to 6%, indicating that actual removal from the classroom may not always be necessary. Finally I believe time out can be an effective method, but it must be applied correctly otherwise (like you stated in your blog) you could end up reinforcing an undesirable behaviour.


    Foxx, R. M., & Shapiro, S. T. (1978). The timeout ribbon: a nonexclusionary timeout procedure. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 11(1), 125.

    Gast, D. L., & Nelson, C. M. (1977). Legal and ethical considerations for the use of timeout in special education settings. The Journal of Special Education,11(4), 457-467.

    Simpson, R. L. (1982). Modification of Manneristic Behavior in a Blind Child via a Time-Out Procedure. Education of the Visually Handicapped, 14(2), 50-55.

  7. psuc18 says:

    I have never questioned the effectiveness of time-out before. Every time I have seen it been used, it has been effective therefore learning that it can actually encourage bad behaviour has astonished me! As you have pointed out, I don’t think time-out should be completely eliminated from schools because as you have demonstrated in your blog, there is evidence to suggest that it is an effective method of reducing bad behaviour and a way of showing young children that the behaviour that they have performed is not appropriate. I remember when I used to get sent out of classrooms I would be absolutely mortified and would ensure that I would not get on the wrong side of that particular teacher again in order for me to avoid getting sent out into the cold corridor! However, I also knew a few pupils that would thrive on telling others that they were sent out of a classroom for bad behaviour because that would attract attention by their peers and therefore the bad behaviour was more than likely to occur again. Therefore I agree that it is essential that teachers know when to assign this treatment to the child especially now that I have learned the negative effects it can have on behaviour.
    I believe that time-out should remain to be used as an effective tool in primary and secondary schools however as you have pointed out in your blog I believe it is essential that it is only used in the appropriate circumstances.

  8. Maria says:

    A very interesting thread and I agree with using time out for disruptive behaviour.

    However, a teacher at our school sends the child who has not done their homework into the corridor to do it alone at a desk while the class continues without the child. I disagree that this is effective, in that the child can spend the entire class outside if he so chooses by doing the work slowly (the kids are 7-8 year olds, so the homework is 15-20 min max). This seems most likely if the child is embarassed and doesnt want to return in front of classmates.

    I’m suggesting that undone homework be completed during breaktime and that no play be allowed until the work is finished. Also, as a further sanction (if necessary) extra work can be added to the next homework. Regardless of the further sanction or not, I am also suggesting that a standard note is sent home to parents for example : ” Dear parent, Today your child was punished because she had not done her homework despite it being clearly noted in her homework journal. To avoid a repeat of the situation, we kindly ask you to keep up to date with the homework requirements (noted in her homework journal) and to ensure that it is completed on time.
    By ensuring that your child does her homework, you not only improve her chances of success in school and in life in general, but you are also helping to develop her confidence, self-discipline and sense of responsibility. Do not hesitate to contact us if we can clarify the situation.”

    I also want to add a communication on “homework helpful hints”.

    I’d be interested in your comments – how do you deal with this issue in your school?

    For information, this is a school with a number of parents who are poorly educated and who do not master the local language. However, not doing homework is an uncommon problem which is one reason why i think that exclusion from the class is more damaging than useful.
    What do you think???
    thanks in advance

    • natberry2013 says:

      Many thanks for taking the time to read my blog. Apologies for not replying sooner – I have been snowed under with exams and assignments. I am actually not a teacher, I am a psychology student at Bangor University. I wrote this blog as part of my third year Science of Education module, where we applied psychological principles to the education system today.

      From a psychology student’s viewpoint, I think your suggested implementation of time out is fantastic. Far too often pupils are sent to the corridor, thus avoiding having to participate in class work. With your suggestion, students would still have to do the work required, whilst ensuring that they are not disrupting the learning of others. I also agree with your view on advising the parents on “homework” hints and informing them if their child is behind with their homework. Ultimately, it is difficult as different parents will respond to these letters in different ways – with a few probably ignoring it completely, however, it is definitely worth a try. When it comes to homework, I feel pupils need to be intrinsically motivated to do their work – that is they do it for enjoyment as opposed to merely getting grades or not getting into trouble. This can be acquired through creating engaging and interesting homework (I once had a history teacher who asked us to write a creative love story whilst still accurately recounting the historical events that happened during that period). This is obviously difficult for certain subjects, but a bit of thought goes a long way – I hated maths until I got a teacher who made it interactive and fun.

      In essence I agree with your view that time out can be effective to a certain degree, however, the student should still be required to do the given work (if not more) so it does not become an avoidance technique.

      Thanks again for your comment!

  9. Before I decided to fully accept that I would never go back to corporate America to work, I decided to become a Substitute Teacher. I saw some of the most horrendous time-out tactics that elementary students were subjected to by vindictive teachers, who were usually angry with supervisors because they were so overwhelmed in the classroom. I saw so many students sitting in the hallway, missing valuable work because they were either board, hungry, or sleep-deprived.
    Because I thought it was important for the student to remain in the classroom, I created a portable timeout tool for teachers. It is simply a privacy screen that can isolate the student who is acting out. The screen can be positioned near the teacher’s desk so the child can be monitored, but not allowed to be embarrassed by fellow classmates. Check it out at
    Peggy in Memphis
    Creator of

  10. Sorry, that should have been “bored”. . .

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