Time-Outs and Applied Behavior Analysis

In the classrooms of today, teachers are faced with many problems that stand in the way of pedagogical effectiveness, including inappropriate behavior from the children that they are charged to teach. These teachers can use many techniques in order to deal with these situations, including behavior modification techniques such as time-outs.

This paper begins with an overview of applied behavioral analysis and its main components. It then delves into a form of attempted behavior modification known as the time-out. The effectiveness of time-outs is investigated and their applications to applied behavioral analysis are referenced. The problems that can occur when the time-outs are too intrusive on the child are described and the various forms of time-outs that can be used by the teacher are examined. The variables that can affect the effectiveness of timeouts in particular situations are examined, such as non-reinforcing classrooms and the behavioral characteristics of the children to which the time-outs are applied.

An Overview of Applied Behavioral Analysis
Applied behavior analysis was originally referred to as behavior modification and utilizes procedures that are based upon behavioral principles that are established in clinical settings and laboratories (Bakke, 1997). As Cooper (1982) pointed out, this science has several dimensions. It needs to be applied, analytical, technological, behavioral, and conceptually systematic. In addition to this, it needs to be effective and it needs to exhibit some generality (Baer, Wolf, & Risley, 1968). Cooper (1982) explained the various components as follows.

– Applied refers to the fact that the research involves behaviors and/or stimuli that are of immediate consequence to the individuals and to society. This includes behavioral disorders, education, crime, and so forth. Environmental stimuli are manipulated so that individuals can be helped on an individual basis to effectively emit important and specific responses. These will help the individual or people in this individual’s society. For this reason, the researcher is more concerned with what the individual does than with what this person says, unless it is a verbal response that is under investigation. In this type of analysis, it is important to precisely and reliably specify physical events that are of importance to the applied behavioral analysis.

– To be analytic in nature, the researcher must be able to decelerate or accelerate the behavior at will.

The behavior needs to be controlled. It must be able to be demonstrated that the events under control are responsible for the occurrence or the non-occurrence of the event. The analytic control of behavior is often demonstrated by single case experimental designs such as changing criterion, reversal, multiple baseline, and alternating conditions.

– Technological descriptions are those that have been completely described and identified. Thus, it is necessary for all the components of social reinforcement to be identified in order for this type of reinforcement to be a technological description. This includes the stimuli, the contingency, and the reinforcement schedule. Also, the exact verbal responses that will be provided must be clearly stated (such as, “Wonderful!”). In essence, a technological procedure is one that the reader is able to replicate by merely following the description of the procedure

– Effective refers to a change in the client’s behavior that is significant enough that it can be of practical value. It is important to determine whether or not the behavior has been changed to a socially significant degree. Generality in behavior contains all of those changes that occur in a broad range of settings, such as the classroom, home, or playground; in related behaviors, such as reading comprehension, spelling, and reading fluency; in various clients; and in its durability over time.

The best practice illustrations of applied behavior analysis use non-aversive interventions that are derived from functional assessments of the factors that cause the problem behavior in the individual. The functional assessment that is used in applied behavior analysis provides a description of the process used to identify those factors such as environmental events that have an influence on the problem behavior of the individual. The purpose or function of the problem behavior for the individual is important and is linked to the behavioral treatment (Bakke, 1997).

Applied Behavior Analysis and the Use of Time-Outs in the Classroom
As Ward (1991) pointed out, Applied Behavior Analysis can be appropriately used with all children ranging in age from nursery level to high school. It can be used in both regular classrooms and in special education programs. However, the specific applications that are used may vary in small ways depending upon the children who are involved.

What Time-Outs Are
In the classroom, time-outs are a form of manipulation in the individuals’ environment with the intention of reducing this person’s behaviors by denying the student access to all of the opportunities that might reinforce this behavior. It is a form of punishment that is contingent upon the display of inappropriate behavior (Ryan, Sanders, Katsiyannis, & Yell, 2007). The intention is for the behavior’s occurrence to be reduced by withdrawing opportunities for reinforcement for a certain period of time after the behavior occurs (Ryan et al., 2007). In today’s schools however, teachers usually consider time-outs to be procedures that are used to enable the student to calm down, generally by quieting down and becoming disengaged from current stressors (Ryan et al., 2007).

Time-outs can be considered from a theoretical perspective. It is important to contemplate why time-outs reduce the frequency of occurrence of negative behaviors. At first, the time-out was considered to be a procedure for behavior modification that was expected to decrease aggressive and non-compliant behaviors. This is because the child is socially isolated or withdrawn from an activity during the time-out (Delaney, 1999). The underlying premise was that through time-outs, the child was not able to have access to his or her immediate environment that in some ways provided positive reinforcement for negative behavior. For example, the teacher pays special attention to the child when he or she tells the wandering child to return to his or her chair. Thus the negative behavior of wandering is reinforced through the attention that is provided or the child. In these cases, the time-outs can be effective because the child is immediately removed from interaction with his or her teacher, thereby terminating the positive reinforcement for the behavior (Delaney, 1999).

The Potentially Aversive and Ineffective Nature of Time-Outs
It is important to note that the time-out is a behavioral intervention that is often misunderstood. According to Werry and Wollersheim (1989), even though the time-out is often seen as a way to restrict the achievement of rewards by the child, these time-outs often involve placing the child into an undesirable environment and thus become strong forms of punishment. The effectiveness of the time-out and its precise method of employment, as well as its ability to be generalized can be affected when the adult attempts to intensify efforts to remove persistent undesirable efforts by increasing the length of the time-out (Delaney, 1999). The time-out can take on a very aversive nature due to increased lengths of duration or due to placements in undesirable locations. Although the negative behaviors of the child may decrease and temporarily fade due to the application of aversive techniques, the intervention’s mechanism will no longer be based on the withdrawal of reinforcement.

Instead, in these cases, the time-out may operate as severe punishment and, although the negative behaviors may be suppressed, they may very well recur once the punishment is removed or withdrawn. The intended mechanism (a disconnection to reinforcement) is no longer operating (Delaney, 1999). Even when time-outs are used for punishment purposes, they may lose their punishing features and become reinforcing for both the teacher and the students (Ryan et al., 2007). A large factor that can make the effectiveness of time-outs unreliable and the study of them less analytic and less technological in nature is the fact that students will not always want to participate in the ongoing activities of the classroom. They may very well prefer the setting that they are placed in during the time-out, rather than the “time-in” environment of the classroom. When the time-in environment is not reinforcing and the student does not prefer to stay in this setting, the time-out loses its effectiveness (Ryan et al., 2007).

As Harris (1985) pointed out, there needs to be a meaningful difference in the level of reinforcement that is provided during time-out and time-in. Otherwise, the student may even prefer the time-out to the time-in! Another reason that the effectiveness of the time-out may vary in its ability to reduce maladaptive behavior is that both the student and the teacher may be inadvertently reinforced when the time-out is implemented in the classroom (Ryan et al., 2007). For instance, the student may begin to misbehave when he or she is given a difficult and daunting task. This will allow the student to at least temporarily avoid the task and the unpleasant classroom situation as he or she is sent out to the hallway. The student has thus been reinforced inadvertently for his or her misbehavior through the removal of this unpleasant task. Even worse, the teacher may welcome the removal of the disruption when the student with the aversive behavior is removed from the classroom and may have very little incentive to call the student back into the classroom. Thus, for both the student and the teacher the time-out may become less effective as it loses its punishing qualities. In fact, according to research, the duration and frequency of time-outs can increase every time the incident occurs. The time-out may in itself reinforce maladaptive behavior (Nelson ; Rutherford, 1983).

Using Time-Outs Effectively and Types of Time-Outs
Ryan et al. (2007) pointed out that an effective time-out does not consist of a single strategy. In fact, it encompasses a variety of related procedures that are intended to decrease the inappropriate behavior of students through a removal of the student from his or her reinforcing environment. Four types of time-out range from being the least obtrusive to being the most restrictive. These are the inclusion time-out (remaining in the classroom), the exclusion time-out (being removed from the classroom), the seclusion time-out (being kept in the other room), and the restrained time-out (in extreme cases, being restrained by physical restraints in the other room). It is hoped that through these techniques the teacher will be able to gain control of the child’s behavior and the child will terminate his or her show negative behaviors. The teacher will attempt to gain control of this behavior by reducing the access of the student to reinforcement for a certain period of time when the child exhibits the behavior but will use a certain amount of intrusiveness on the child (Ryan et al., 2007).

The inclusion time-out is not as intrusive on the child as the other three methods are that remove the child to another room (and possibly keep the child in this room with or without restraints). In this case, the reinforcement is removed from the student rather than having the student removed from the reinforcing environment (for example, Wolery, Bailey, & Sugai, 1988). Even though the student is allowed to continue to watch classroom instruction, he or she is not allowed to participate in the activities or to receive reinforcement from either the teacher or the peers. Various types of inclusion time-out have been identified in the literature. These include planned ignoring, the withdrawal of materials, a process called contingent observation, and the wearing of a time-out ribbon by the student (Ryan et al., 2007). In the planned ignoring process, social attention is systematically withdrawn for a predetermined period of time as soon as mild levels of the problem behavior occurs (Knoster, Wells, & McDowell, 2005).  The teacher withdraws his or her attention from the student for a brief time period and then returns his or her attention to the student after this period of time (Wolery et al., 1988).

While planned ignoring is taking place, the student’s appropriate behavior must be praised while the inappropriate behaviors are ignored. Research findings on its effectiveness have been mixed (Ryan et al., 2007).  When withdrawal of materials is used as the time-out procedure, reinforcing materials are removed from the student for a specified time period when this student displays inappropriate behavior. For instance, if the student throws a crayon at another student during the class, the teacher will remove the crayons from the student for a predetermined time frame. Usually, adult attention is also withdrawn during this period of time (Ryan et al., 2007).  During contingent observation, the student (contingent upon the engagement of inappropriate behavior) is moved to another classroom location from which to observe the class while being denied the privilege of participating in this class. This occurs for a predetermined period of time. As the student watches the class, he or she is able to watch appropriate behaviors and may possibly learn them through imitation. This is the time-out technique that is often the least restrictive (Ryan et al., 2007).

Fee, Matson, and Manikam (1990) studied four general education elementary school classrooms and discovered that the wearing of a time-out ribbon decreased out-of-seat behaviors and talking out of turn in these classrooms. In this procedure, the student wears a ribbon or another object for as long as he or she demonstrates appropriate behavior. This ribbon is removed for a brief period of time when the student engages in inappropriate behavior. Along with this comes a denial of reinforcement. The effectiveness of this technique in changing behaviors is promising because it has several main advantages. According to Ryan et al. (2007), four of these are as follows: a) It is not necessary for the teacher to remove the student from classroom instruction, b) When the student is in time-out, he or she can observe the more appropriate behavior of other students, c) It is very obvious to the teacher and other adults which of the students qualify for reinforcement (the ones wearing the ribbons).

Time-out techniques rely on manipulations in the environment in order to modify the behavior of students. Their effectiveness can vary due to several factors such as the insufficiently reinforcing classrooms that were mentioned earlier. In fact, many variables impact the effectiveness of time-outs to modify behavior and these can have an impact on the consistency and the reliability of time-outs, thereby affecting the analytic and technological nature of studies involving this technique. For instance, in an investigation of twenty-one pre-school aged children in a pre-school partial hospitalization program, Macina (2001) discovered that children who are rated higher in terms of impulsive control problems have a tendency to display more behaviors that are related to social issues and they tend to receive more time-outs than do other children. Redirection seems to be more effective with them than it does with other children.

In this paper, time outs were investigated as behavioral interventions that can be used by teachers in an effort to manipulate the environment in which their students function, according to Applied Behavior Analysis. Various types of time-outs can be used and variables must be accounted for such as the personalities of the students who are receiving the time-out, as well as the reinforcing nature of the classroom. Students must have a desire to be in the classroom for the time-out to be effective. Under the right conditions, time-outs can serve to modify appropriate behaviors and make the classrooms better places for learning to occur.


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