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Time out: what is this behavior modification technique?

Time out: what is this behavior modification technique?

September 28, 2022

At some point in our childhood we have probably seen a kind of punishment that consists of looking at the wall or being expelled out of class. It is about a form of punishment very common in schools and even institutes , as well as in some homes in the form of "the corner or the chair of thinking".

This type of actions are part of a strategy with which it is intended that the subject, usually a minor, reflect and modify a behavior. In fact, it is properly a behavior modification technique that can be applied even at the clinical level, which is called time out .

  • Related article: "Educational psychology: definition, concepts and theories"

Time out as a behavior modification technique

Time out is a behavior modification technique through which it is intended decrease in frequency or eliminate the performance of one or several behaviors .


This technique it is part of the behavioral repertoire , having origin in operant conditioning. Specifically, it is based on negative punishment, in which, when the conduct to be modified is issued, a positive stimulus is withdrawn or considered as desirable by the person who carries it out.

The operation of time out or time out it's simple : it is about extracting the subject who makes the behavior from the situation in which he can obtain reinforcers, so that he modifies or eliminates the conduct that leads him to said situation in order not to be withdrawn again. For example, the student is sent out of class or to a corner where they can not participate in what happens in it.


This technique is usually used with the premise that the time the subject is expelled is approximately one minute per year of individual's age .

It is usually applied in cases where it is required to eliminate a problem behavior of a subject, generally a boy or girl , although it can be applied in any type of age, be it in clinical practice or in the educational field.

Variants of this technique

Time out is a technique that can be applied in various ways. Specifically we can find the following variants or types of time out .

1. Time out of non-exclusion

In this time-out mode, the subject of the place where the reinforcers are located is not expelled, but simply it prevents you from accessing it . However, you can observe your peers doing it. In this way, the changes are minimal, but often enough to reduce the chances of the appearance of a behavior.


2. Exclusion

The individual remains in the situation where the reinforcers are, but can not access them or observe others do so. A typical example is the be punished face to the wall .

3. Insulation

The individual who commits the action that is intended to eliminate is expelled from the stimulating site . It is the type of time out that is applied when a student is expelled from class or sent to a separate room.

4. Self-imposed

The individual whose behavior you want to decrease proceeds by itself to withdraw from the situation in order to avoid conflicts. It is used in couples therapies.

How to use

For this technique to be effective It is advisable to use a series of steps that allow the person whose behavior you want to modify understand the operation of the technique, why it is applied and what it means for him.

1. Knowledge of the technique

First of all it is necessary that the subject knows what time out means , something for which it is necessary to explain the operation of the technique. Likewise, it is necessary to be clear about what behavior is to be eliminated and reduced, as well as to show the subject in question that this behavior is not adaptive and why. Once all this is known, it is possible to start applying it.

2. Warning

At the time the person begins to carry out the unwanted conduct, a warning will be given in which they will be told what behavior is unwanted, why they are warned and the possible consequences of their act (being sent to meet the time out). ). It is possible to make several warnings , but it is recommended that there are not many in order that the subject learns and associates the consequence with the act and the situation does not continue.

This element is important for several reasons. In the first place, with very little effort it allows to evoke the idea of ​​the undesired consequence of behaving badly, which is in itself something unpleasant, so it can be an aversive factor that can appear in those "feints" of bad behavior.

Secondly, in the event that expulsion occurs, it allows a quicker understanding of what is understood, which is why this type of punishment will hardly be decontextualized .

3. Expulsion or cessation of reinforcement

In the event that the behavior persists or is repeated, it proceeds to the temporary expulsion of the individual or the cessation of reinforcement. It must be avoided as much as possible that the moment in which the technique is applied is reinforcing (that is, it does not feel more attended to by the fact of being punished, which can cause the target behavior to increase). The reason for the punishment is explained and the time that must remain outside is indicated.

Once the timeout time has elapsed, proceed to ask the subject if he understands why he has been expelled and the child is told that he can return to the stimulating situation. Alternative strategies may be offered in the event that the unwanted behavior had some kind of motivation behind it.

It is possible to implement a differential reinforcement of behaviors, congratulating and praising the behaviors that are incompatible with the one that is to be eliminated. It is important to be consistent and consistent in its application, otherwise the time out it can cause confusion .

Risks and disadvantages of time out

Time out is a technique that can sometimes be useful for modifying behavior, but its application has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, it is a behavior modification technique that allows to inhibit unwanted behavior in situations in which the subject can be reinforced by a large number of possible elements, such as classmates. However, the application of this type of techniques is controversial and not very recommendable, since in certain situations it can generate different damages in the person to whom it is applied.

In the first place, it is a technique that works only at a behavioral level, with which Cognitive aspects may not be treated that are behind the emission of the behavior. There is a modification of the behavior, but not of the values, and it is difficult to produce an internalized learning. The answer is learned as avoidance of punishment, but internally it can be considered positive.

Another of the great disadvantages of this technique is that the subject is conditioned through fear , fear may appear to the subject who applies the punishment. In addition, the subject may perceive that it is not appreciated when the situation occurs, which will tend not to share the factors that have motivated the undesired behavior.

In the same way, suffering is generated due to the withdrawal of attention and this can suppose a loss of self-esteem as well as confidence in the environment. It also harms the relationship with those who apply the punishment, to be able to provoke resentment. However, it can be argued that the suffering that this generates more than compensates for the suffering that would occur if he did not stop behaving in a certain way.

Therefore, it is recommended that, if this technique is used, combine with other that allow the individual to understand and be educated in the why of things, how the behavior to eliminate is harmful, different ways of acting are modeled and positive behaviors are reinforced.

Bibliographic references:

  • Almond, M.T .; Díaz, M. & Jiménez, G. (2012). Psychotherapies CEDE Preparation Manual PIR, 06. CEDE: Madrid.
  • Horse, V. (1991). Manual of therapy techniques and behavior modification. 21st Century: Madrid.
  • Labrador F.J, Crusader F. J & López M (2005). Manual of behavior modification and therapy techniques. Pyramid: Madrid.
  • Pierce, W. David & Cheney, Carl D. (2013). "Behavior Analysis and Learning: Fifth Edition". Psychology Press.
  • Skinner, B.F. (1969). Contingencies of reinforcement: a theoretical analysis. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Using Time-Out (September 2022).


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