Hi and welcome to Ask Missy Mondays where I respond to email questions from readers who have questions about behavior. Today’s question comes from two reporters who interviewed me for follow-up articles they were writing about the Scream Rooms (also known as Timeout Rooms) here in Connecticut.
One reporter asked, “Is there any research to support the use of timeout rooms?”
Sadly, I was not able to cite any research supporting the use of timeout rooms so I told the reporter that I would look in to it and get back to him.
Exclusionary Versus Non-Exclusionary Timeout
We have already discussed the research on the timeout procedure, as well as one alternative that may be used instead of timeout (there are many others). Most of the recent research on timeout involves non-exclusionary uses of the method. Specifically, rather than excluding a child and isolating her in a room alone, other ways of implementing a time out include:
- Having the child sit and watch recess rather than participate in it
- Preventing a child from earning tokens when the rest of the class is earning tokens
- Briefly turning your back to the child to remove adult attention
I conducted a cursory review of the literature in search of research to support the use of timeout rooms and I will briefly review what I found.
Timeout for Inappropriate Mealtime Behavior
In 1970, Barton, Guess, Garcia, and Baer published a study about the use of timeout rooms for various inappropriate mealtime behavior of individuals with intellectual disabilities. Inappropriate mealtime behaviors included eating with fingers, stealing food, and “pigging” (e.g., eating off the floor). The authors noted that some participants were called to an isolated room whereas others experienced non-exclusionary timeout in that their tray was removed for 15 seconds. The authors noted that the 15-second non-exclusionary timeout was just as effective as the more lengthy timeout room.
Length of Timeout
By 1972, substantial research on timeout had been conducted such that researchers had already learned that the use of timeout for challenging behaviors combined with the use of reinforcement for appropriate behaviors was superior to either of the interventions alone. Also by 1972, researchers knew that timeout was effective but they were interested in learning the effects of varying lengths of timeout. Thus, White, Neilsen, and Johnson (1972) sought to compare the effects of 1-minute timeouts, 15-minute timeouts, and 30-minute timeouts for “deviant children”. The authors found that 1-minute timeouts were effective when they were presented first. Thus, longer periods of timeout were not required.
Timeout for Selective Mutism
In 1973, Wulbert, Nyman, Snow, and Owen published a study on an intervention package for a young girl with selective mutism. The authors provided the young girl with candy when she spoke. They slowly faded new people in to the treatment room and continued to reinforce the girl when she spoke in front of strangers. After a few weeks of treatment, the authors added a 1-minute timeout in a timeout room. The young girl learned to talk with new peers, a new teacher, and the researchers. However, this was not achieved unless novel people were carefully faded in to the treatment.
Timeout for Aggression
In 1973, Clark, Rowbury, Baer, and Baer published a study showing the effectiveness of a 3-minute timeout room immediately following aggressive behavior. The timeout procedure worked, but note that it was very brief in duration.
Timeout Not Always Effective
White and colleagues (1972) pointed out that timeout was not always effective. They noted that the timeout procedure must match the reason or purpose (also known as function) of the behavior. Specifically, if a child engaged in challenging behavior to obtain attention, then timeout from attention or people would be effective. If a child engaged in challenging behavior to gain access to a preferred item or activity, then timeout from that item or activity would also be effective. However, if a child engaged in challenging behavior to avoid a person or to avoid work, then the use of timeout from a person or work would be ineffective for that child.
In 1977, Solnick, Rincover, and Peterson described the results of a timeout procedure for a little girl with autism who was learning her colors. If the child engaged in challenging behavior, the teacher picked up the candy (reinforcer for learning) and briefly left the room. (Note, the timeout room was not used here.) The authors noted that this procedure actually resulted in an increase in challenging behaviors rather than a decrease. Essentially, the little girl did not want to work and when the teacher left the room (i.e., removed attention), work stopped briefly. They replicated the study with a little boy diagnosed with intellectual disability. Again, when the child did not want to work, the timeout procedure was ineffective. However, when the researchers improved the quality of the instructional time (e.g., made it more fun), then the timeout procedure became effective. In summary, if instruction is of high quality, children will want to participate. If children enjoy the instructional time, the timeout procedure will be effective.
Move from Exclusionary to Non-Exclusionary
By the late 1970’s researchers learned that exlusionary timeout was not the only way of effectively addressing behavior. Researchers also began recognizing that timeout rooms required additional space, highly trained staff, and that timeout was not always effective. Thus, researchers sought to demonstrate that non-exclusionary timeout procedures could be used effectively.
In 1978 Foxx and Shaprio published a study describing the effects of a non-exlusionary timeout wherein the child wore a timeout ribbon and was not allowed to receive reinforcers that other children in the classroom were receiving.
In 1980, Wahler and Fox published a study describing the results of teaching parents to use timeout at home with their children. Children spent 5 minutes alone in their rooms when they misbehaved. Please note that in 1980 children did not have televisions, gameboys, and computers in their rooms. Thus, 5 minutes in the room with no adult or sibling attention proved effective.
In summary, a number of research studies exist demonstrating the effectiveness of timeout rooms. It should be noted that these studies were published in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s and are now considered out-of-date. While those studies helped better our understanding of behavioral techniques, research since then has shown us that:
- Timeout is only effective when used for attention-seeking behavior
- Timeout is most effective when used in combination with reinforcement for appropriate behavior
- Non-exclusionary timeout is equally effective at reducing behaviors
- Timeout should be part of a carefully monitored plan
Finally, timeout does not teach children new, appropriate or replacement behaviors. Thus, the child is not learning what to do, instead they are only learning what not to do. As teachers, we must teach children and that includes teaching them what to do instead of acting out.