Attention Behaviors {Time Out}

I want you to put all of your preconceived, old-school perceptions of time out to the side for a few minutes. When I say time out – I don’t mean toddler style, minute for their age, sitting in the corner with a dunce cap on. I mean a “time out” from reinforcement aka attention. Time out can be extremely effective for attention behaviors. The behaviors occur so your little kiddo can be the center of attention with all eyes on him but providing a time out for an inappropriate response provides the exact opposite consequence. He is removed from all sources of attention and the limelight. Suddenly it makes that inappropriate not only unsuccessful but downright aversive and counterproductive. He is no longer attention and now he is even being removed from attention. Double whammy. When combined with an effective teaching of an appropriate behavior to get attention (as you should in combo with ALL interventions), this double trouble combination will have problem behaviors out the door in record time. 
Some notes and considerations:
  • Time Length: It can be brief. If attention is a powerful reinforcer, this intervention can work quickly. For extreme behaviors, some school use a time out room (mine does not).
  • Time In: When you use time out – make sure that the reinforcing aspect of attention are actually removed! The ‘time-in’ environment should be pretty awesome and it should be a not fun experience to have to miss out on it. Maybe you want to pour salt on a wound and make time in even a more amazing while the kiddo is in time out. Maybe everyone gets to play a game or have an unscheduled, surprise pretzel snack. If you can increase the reinforcing nature of time in – it will make time out more aversive and hence more effective! Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 9.03.32 AM
  • Criteria for Leaving Time out: Figure out if you will have criteria for leaving time out – ie. once the student calms down, stops crying etc. Time out should not be ended while the inappropriate behavior is still occurring. Will you start time out immediately or will you start once disruptive behaviors has ended? I have used contingent exercise as a criteria for leaving time out for certain students. The student will have to do 5 jumping jacks before exiting time out. This can add to the aversive nature of the time out and add a little compliance training to it all. Time Out Visuals
    • You can use a visual timer to show how long the time out will occur for:
  • How Many Behaviors = Timeout: When you start this intervention maybe every behavior results in a time out. However if that is crazy time consuming or way to hard to implement; you can use time outs on a schedule. Every 3 responses results in a time out. I LOVE this visual time out strike system. Every 3 behaviors (strikes) results in a time out and students have a visual way to see this. timeout

Don’t be afraid of time out! When you used appropriately – this can be immensely effective!


This post is part of Summer Series: Reducing Problem Behavior. Click here to see more in this series!

The Autism Helper - Summer Series



  1. Do you use time out on a student you have to physically block to remain in time out area?

  2. You could try it out – but be sure that when you are blocking you are doing so while providing minimal attention (no eye contact, back towards student). But it may not be a good intervention choice because too much attention will be provided.

  3. I had a student who we needed to physically block to remain in the time out area. She was very strong for her age, so when she hit staff it actually did some damage. When we figured out that her behavior was to get attention, we would have her go to the time out area which had a door with a window on it, let her know what she was expected to do to come out, and close the door. The staff would remain outside, hand on the handle, back towards the student. One of us would carefully look back every couple of minutes to see if she was doing what we asked. The first time, it was about an hour and a half later. Once she was doing it, she was allowed to come back and join the group. Luckily, we were able to replace the negative attention seeking behavior with positive attention seeking behavior after only 2 trips like that to the time out area. It can certainly be done, just with clear expectations, and a whole lot of patience.

  4. Your three strikes time out visual is one of my favorite tools. With some students all I have to do is pick up the visual and they know what’s coming and hey, no more behavior!

  5. Sasha, I have a student who seeks attention via aggressive behaviors (hitting, kicking, tearing papers, spitting). The intervention used before I came was time out, but I don’t feel it reduces the behaviors at all. (She actually sometimes asks for time out). I have attempted to give her ways to ask for breaks and to meet her sensory needs (because that seems to be the problem as far as I can tell)…. It works most of the time, but I’m not sure what to do when it doesn’t- In other words, when time out seems to give too much attention the behaviors, what else would you try? I appreciate your help.

  6. If I understand this correctly, the 3 X system is for Attention seeking behaviors ONLY correct? I started to use it last year, for any non-compliant behaviors, (ie: attention, avoidance), but after doing more research on it, I read it should be used for attention seeking behaviors only. True? Also, I tend to give a direction, if it is ignore, I will give a verbal prompt/gestural prompt, if that doesnt work I use a full physical prompt. Is that the best way to handle those avoidance/selective hearing situations? Thanks!

  7. Great questions, Darcy. The idea behind a time out is that it removes attention – so for attention behaviors this could be effective at adding a consequence that removes what the student wants. However, if there is an escape component to a behavior – a time out will provide that escape. The time out could potentially be reinforcing the inappropriate behavior by giving the student exactly what they want. When a student is not following through on a verbal direction, analyze the function. Is it for attention? Is to escape the direction? The function will determine your intervention. If it is to escape the direction – providing prompts may be effective because the student will need to comply with the direction. Take data and let your data tell you the answer – if the behaviors are not decreasing and positive behaviors (completing tasks, making requesting, etc.) are not increasing – then you will know to change your intervention. Hope this helps!

  8. I am having issues with a parent not wanting to follow my schools rules and my classroom expectations with her student with ASD. The student is non compliant and the mother feels she should just be ignored. The issue is that the student is falling out in front of a door that opens in and disrupts the rest of my class during her non compliance. This parent states I am not respecting her child’s boundaries. The student is 3 years 10 months. I have created a safe space for her, I have multiple visuals about the reason she is in time out (hitting, screaming, saying no), and I give her multiple opportunities. I have implemented this strategy for 3 days, and the parent deemed me ineffective. I am using all of my tools in my teacher box, but with no parent support it makes it difficult at school to have a productive day. I cannot test the student on any IEP goals, and I feel I am not able to meet my other students’ needs because of my constant involvement with her.

  9. Hi Sasha ,What do I do when the student will not stay in a time out area. The area in my school is called calming area and there are pillows, blankets, etc. however, some children will not stay in that area and try to run out, crawl on the floor in what results as a game of catch me. The child does not like to be removed away from the action in the class and not receiving attention, which is great, but what do I do about the back and forth out of the time out area? Thanks

    • If the timeout area and going to the time out area becomes an issue, don’t use it. You’ll typically see behaviors escalate and get stuck in a power struggle. Time out just really means time away from reinforcement and can occur anywhere. So you can remove your attention from the behavior which can provide a more functional version of this strategy.


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