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A time-out is a procedure where positive reinforcement is removed from an individual for a specified period of time. The goal of implementing a time-out procedure is to decrease the future occurrence of a specific behaviour.

What is a Time-out?

Cooper, Heron and Heward (2007, p.357) state that time-out 'is defined as the withdrawal of the opportunity to earn positive reinforcement, or the loss of access to positive reinforcers for a specified period of time, contingent on the occurence of a behaviour'.

The goal of implementing a time-out procedure is to decrease the future occurrence of a target behaviour, and there are two types of time-out: “exclusionary” and “non-exclusionary”.

Exclusionary Time-out

An exclusionary time-out is in place when a person is removed from a reinforcing environment for a pre-specified period of time. Cooper et al (2007, p.360) list three different methods of implementing an exclusionary time-out and these are:

  • Time-Out Room: timeout within a room created specifically for a time-out.
  • Partition Time-Out: timeout behind a partition.
  • Hallway Time-Out: student stands outside the classroom.

Non-Exclusionary Time-Out

A non-exclusionary time-out is in place when the person is allowed to remain within the reinforcing environment but is not permitted to engage in any reinforcing activities for a pre-specified period of time; this form of time-out removes reinforcers from the individual.

Cooper et al (2007, p.358-9) list four different methods for implementing a non-exclusionary time-out and these are:

  • Time-Out Ribbon: each child wears a ribbon that can be taken off them to implement a time-out.
  • Planned Ignoring: a time-out where social attention is removed.
  • Contingent Observation: the child has to sit and watch others engage in reinforcing activities.
  • Withdrawing a Specific Reinforcer: removing a positive reinforcer (e.g. a toy) from a child for engaging in a target behaviour.

Examples of Exclusionary & Non-Exclusionary Time-Out

Example One: Everyone in Tom’s class has free-time and they are playing with toys of their choice. During this free-time, Tom punches one of his classmates.

Exclusionary Time-Out: The teacher guides Tom to a separate partitioned room in the corner of the main classroom where he cannot see or engage with the rest of the class. He has to remain behind the partition for 2 minutes.

Non-Exclusionary Time-Out: The teacher guides Tom to the time-out chair within the classroom where he has to sit and watch as his classmates enjoy free-time. He must sit there for 2 minutes.

Example Two: Brian was enjoying playing with a soccer ball in the playground but then kicks it at another student to hurt them.

Exclusionary Time-Out: If the teacher told Brian that he had to go into the library detention room for 10 minutes this would be an exclusionary time-out as he has lost access to the reinforcing environment (playground).

Non-Exclusionary Example: If the teacher took the ball off Brian for 10 minutes but let him remain in the playground this would be a non-exclusionary time-out as he has lost access to the soccer ball (reinforcer) but remains within the environment (playground).

Exclusionary vs. Non-Exclusionary Time-out

Exclusionary time-out involves removing the child from the reinforcers or reinforcing environment while non-exclusionary time-out removes the reinforcers from the child.

Basically, the difference between these two forms of time-out is down to whether the person remains in the environment the behaviour occurred in but loses access to reinforcers (Brian stays in the playground but loses access to the soccer ball) or are completely removed from the environment itself (Brian has to leave the playground and go inside to the detention room).

Decision to Use Time-Out

There is a large body of evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of time-out procedures (Miltenberger, 2008), however, time-out ‘should not be the method of first choice’ (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007, p. 363).

When making decisions about interventions, behaviour analysts are guided by functional assessments that identify the “cause” of the target behaviour (Iwata, Dorsey, Slifer, Bauman, & Richman, 1994).

From there, the least restrictive procedure would be implemented in an effort to reduce the target behaviours. If these procedures are ineffective then a different procedure regarded as more restrictive may be used (Hastings & Noone, 2005).

This use of less restrictive procedures before moving onto other more restrictive procedures is called the “least restrictive treatment model” (Foxx, 1982) or “least restrictive alternative” (Cooper et al. 2007). Basically, before attempting to implement a time-out procedure, less intrusive procedures using positive reinforcement may be used first.

In some cases, an intrusive procedure (e.g. restraint or time-out) may be implemented before attempting less intrusive procedures because a target behaviour may be immediately life threatening or threaten the safety of staff members (Hastings & Noone, 2005).


  • Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied Behaviour Analysis. New Jersey: Pearson Education.
  • Foxx, R. M. (1982). Decreasing behaviours of severely retarded and autistic persons. Champaign, IL: Research Press.
  • Hastings, R. P., & Noone, S. J. (2005). Self-injurious Behaviour and Functional Analysis: Ethics and Evidence. Education and Training in Developmental Disabilities, 40, 335–342.
  • Iwata, B. A., Dorsey, M. F., Slifer, K. J., Bauman, K. E., & Richman, G. S. (1994). Toward a Functional Analysis of Self-injury. Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, 27, 197-209.
  • Miltenberger, R. (2008). Behaviour Modification. Belmont, CA. Wadsworth Publishing.
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