10 Questions to Ask Yourself When Time Outs Aren’t Working

Time outs can be a key component to implementing the ABCs of ABA at home – Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence.

What better consequence could there be than a time out to offer a child an opportunity to calm themselves and reflect? …  The fact is, there aren’t many better options in your toolkit of consequences. This has made the classic time out the go to option for ABAs and parents alike, both when working with children on the spectrum and when addressing behavioral issues with neurotypical kids.

Some people ask if time outs can work with non-verbal children or those not considered “high functioning.” Because time outs provide a very black and white system of responses for specific behaviors, when executed properly (and as one part of a larger behavioral plan) time outs are actually especially effective for these children.

It seems easy enough, right?  Your child misbehaves. You institute a time out. Eventually the child learns to avoid the problem behavior…

Unfortunately, as any parent with a child on the spectrum will quickly admit, it’s rarely that simple. So what’s the problem? It’s possible that somewhere along the way things got off track. Before you give up and on this tried and tested system, ask yourself a few questions…

  1. Have I communicated the rules in advance, clearly and concisely?

    Trying to talk out the issue of minding household rules with a child in the moment will usually backfire.

    Instead, set aside time to clearly and concisely set the ground rules, whatever those might be for your household… using inside voices, no roughhousing inside, handing things not throwing them, taking turns…

    Communicating doesn’t always need to be a lecture. It could be an easy process, made fun by browsing through images that help make things crystal clear.

    Visual charts are immensely helpful to this end. Posting a chart near the time out corner and also in the child’s play or living area gives you the opportunity to review the rules before a new activity that you perceive may trigger problem behavior.

    Autism Speaks offers a list of great resources for printing already prepared images that you can use in your chart.

    Avoid too many rules, or too many words. Focus on the “big rocks” or most important issues for now, and review the rules daily if needed.

  1. Did I give my child a clear verbal warning so that they had a chance to make the right choice?

    Sometimes in the heat of the moment we argue with the child and then jump right to discipline, or we warn them but don’t provide time to respond before sending them to time out.

    Make sure to give a brief, clear warning and allow time for a response.

  1. Is time out the best response to this situation?

    Some children actually want to get out of something… homework, interacting with visitors, house chores, whatever.

    In this case, time out won’t be the most effective response. It will actually be counterproductive by reinforcing the behavior by giving the child exactly what they want: an opportunity to escape a situation they may not want to be in.

    This is an easy way out and one that far too many parents cave on. For the long term benefit of the child, it’s important to foster an appropriate level of responsibility and duty and to guide them through learning to deal with challenging situations, not cower from them.

    The Autism Helper gives some great ideas for responding to these escape behaviors with alternatives to implementing a time out (aka an escape plan for the avoidant child) … teach your child to ask for a break from a task when they start feeling overwhelmed … make the task period shorter and the task itself easier and more manageable … offer breaks or a reduction in the amount of total work they need to do when they complete smaller tasks.

  1. Do I follow through each time, no matter what?

    Any time you begin a new behavioral intervention, you need to be prepared for two things: to give up a large amount of time on the front end, and to follow through no matter how frustrating or exhausting it seems.

    Any inconsistency tells your child that sometimes you won’t hold them to the time out, increasing the likelihood for push back in the future.

    The reality is that in the beginning this may be very hard. Some children will fight time outs for hours on end.

    But don’t be discouraged…this is temporary. In the long run your child will know what you expect and time outs will become increasingly effective.

  1. Am I requiring my child to initiate the clock?

    The child needs to stay seated quietly in time out for a preset time, and then ask politely for the timer to start.

    Place an easy to read timer near the time out area. Ideally your child should be able to see the time ticking down.

    Remind your child that first they must ask politely to start the time, then you will begin the clock, and after completing the time out they will be free to go. Having a clear 3-step visual chart that outlines this process can be really helpful.

    Then, you wait. The child may jump up from their chair. They may cry. They may yell at you. But, using as few words as possible, you insist that first they must complete the time out, and only then can they gain access to other privileges.

  1. Is my child able to access other things they want if they leave before they have completed their time out?

    Are you finding that your child just won’t stay in time out? Time out only works if they can’t find something else to do.

    That means that if they refuse to stay in time out, they lose access to everything else they may want. No toys. No screens. No snacks. If they haven’t completed time out before bed, it starts again when they get up in the morning.

    Eventually they will want access to something badly enough that they will usually complete the time out.  See #3 on consistency and #5 on timers for more help on this.

  1. Is my expectation for the length of the time out age appropriate?

    Generally one minute per year of age (once the clock is started) is the standard rule, so if you’ve been in the habit of long time outs it might take a few times before your child realizes how quickly they can move on and have the time out behind them if they settle in and just do it.

  1. Am I talking too much?

    Give the child one warning. If the behavior continues it’s time to stop talking.

    More talk when a child is already worked up actually ignites brain circuitry that can overwhelm them and send them into shut down mode.

    After the time out is finished, explain in a short sentence or two why they were there, but then circle back to the issue later in the day and go through expectations when the child is in a better place.

  1. Am I giving enough positive feedback and affection during the day?

    As in any relationship, if there are more negatives than positives on a regular basis throughout the day, the relationship will become increasingly strained and difficult.

    Just as you are more able to respond well to a disagreement with your spouse when there has been regular affection and mutual acts of kindness, your child will respond better to discipline when their day is peppered with moments of affection, positive reinforcement and lots of loving language.

  1. Is the overall environment of our home one of proactivity?

    Sometimes we as the parents unknowingly set our children up for behavior failures…if you find yourself using time out too much, you might be stuck in a cycle of not only using it ineffectively, but also not taking proactive steps to address your child’s triggers before a time out even become necessary.

    In time, the time out system is intended to be a deterrent and something that ultimately allows you to effectively nip the problem behavior in the bud before it escalates.

    An “ideal” time out system might look something like this…

    • Before the event that generally triggers the problem behavior (maybe eating dinner or playing with a sibling), Mom reminds Emily of the rules related to the problematic behavior that is being addressed, and the rules of the time out process.
    • When Emily acts out, Mom gives a concise verbal warning.
    • If the behavior continues, Mom asks Emily to go to time out, walking her there if necessary.
    • Mom reminds Emily that she will start the clock once Emily politely asks her to do so.
    • Once Emily asks politely, Mom starts the clock. The clock is in a place where Emily can clearly see it.
    • Mom does not talk or interact with Emily during the time out.
    • Emily must sit quietly until the allotted time is up. (For some children with sensory issues, you might try a Gymnic Disc on the chair. Amazon reviews indicate that this suggestion is spot on!)
    • If Emily tries to get up before her time, Mom uses a prearranged gesture to remind her to stay seated.
    • When Emily’s time is up, Mom asks her if she knows why she was in time out.
    • Once they have briefly discussed this, Emily is free to go.
    • At other times Mom plans proactive teaching moments where she can teach Emily more appropriate ways to ask for her needs or wants, or accept the consequences of her behavior.