Why Timeouts Don’t Work and Alternatives You Can Use Instead

Discipline means by definition, training people to obey rules or a code of behavior by using punishment to correct disobedience. Anybody who has studied the science of this can tell you, positive reinforcement is going to lead to much better outcomes than punishment. For over 5 years now I have stopped all use and recommendation of timeouts, punishment, and threats of punishment. On this episode, I give you reasons why timeouts don’t work and what you can do instead!

Are Timeouts Effective

Timeouts are not going to work for the majority, if not all of your children or clients. There is so much complication and fidelity required for this to be an effective behavior change strategy that is just short of impossible in a typical classroom or even an ABA school. Many times timeouts can even reinforce behavior, especially escape behavior. If a child is refusing to do something and they are sent to timeout, any removal or delay of this task is a reinforcement of their behavior. Timeouts are also ineffective for children with any delays present because they are often lacking the language and understanding of why they are in timeout and what it means.

Alternatives to Timeouts

So what can you do instead of timeouts? It is important first to understand that problem behavior occurs when the demands are too high and the reinforcement is too low. Many behaviors can be controlled preventatively by managing demands and expectations and creating powerful reinforcements. Additionally, positive reinforcement is going to get the best results. Build 8 positives for every negative in your environment. Children whether in school, at home, or in therapy should be provided a positive structure that will promote good behavior and reduce problems.

why time outs don't work

Dr. Barbera On The Turn Autism Around Podcast

You can find a variety of Mary Barbera’s free information on this topic and many others at MaryBarbera.com by searching your concerns. If you want to save time and content consumption on this topic, check out her newest mini course, No More Time Out. You can also purchase any of Dr. Barbera’s larger courses, such as the VB Bundle or the Toddler Course, and gain free access to the mini courses as well!


  • What does discipline mean?
  • Why is punishment ineffective?
  • Should timeouts ever be used?
  • What are alternatives to timeouts?
  • What happens when demands are too high and reinforcements are too low?
  • How can 8 positives to every negative change behavior?
  • Where can you learn more about eliminating time out?
Want to get started on the right path and start making a difference for your child or client with autism?

Transcript for Podcast Episode: 169
Why Timeouts Don't Work and Alternatives You Can Use Instead
Hosted by: Dr. Mary Barbera

Mary: You're listening to the turn autism around podcast episode number one hundred and sixty nine. Today, I'm giving you a very quick summary of three reasons why we should not be using timeout or punishment or even threats of punishment with kids with autism. Toddlers with signs or a diagnosis of autism. ADHD or speech delays. This is oral summary. Actually, of a mini course I just created and is available for purchase at a very, very low price. And I'm really proud of it. It really breaks down just the need to know. And we are going to give contact hours and to EACB CEU's as well. For those of you that are in the ABA field, so this podcast is just three reasons why we should not be using time out. And even if you're not using time out, you probably are using some punisher's or threats of punishment. Whether you're a parent or professional, I think it's an important lesson. So hope you enjoy this quick episode called no more timeout or punishment. Three reasons we should be avoiding both.

Welcome to the Turn Autism Around podcast for both parents and professionals in the autism world who want to turn things around, be less stressed and lead happier lives. And now your host. Autism mom, Behavior Analyst, and bestselling author Dr. Mary Barbera.

Introducing the New Mini Course, No More Time Out

Mary: Welcome back to another episode of the Turn Autism Around podcast. I am thrilled that you're here today. We are talking all about why timeout and punishment and even threats of punishment should not be used really for any child. And this is all based on the fact that I just created a mini course called No More Time Out. And it is for parents and professionals mostly working with young children ages one to five with signs of or diagnoses of autism, ADHD or speech delay. This was really meant as a training for laypeople and for early intervention practitioners to really look at a much more positive approach so you can get all the details we are going to include to EACB CEUs. So even if you are a seasoned behavior analyst, if you want to get training for at a very, very low cost, you can just go to nomoretimeout.Com And that will take you to the page where I will explain all about that course. But since this is a free podcast, I just want to go over three reasons why I believe that time out in almost every case can be eliminated and not used. I have seen time out be one of the most overused and correctly incorrectly used strategies in the whole world in terms of parenting and just even schools and arms and residential placements. And I've seen it being very, very widely used still. So let's just now that you know how to get to the mini course, what's really going to go into much more details. We're going to show you some videos and really talk through some positive strategies. They're just kind of give you a synopsis of the basics of that mini course. So if you think about discipline and I looked up discipline for this podcast, also for another blog I did years ago, what discipline means training people, which is good training people, we should really leave discipline out, like totally just training people. But the definition in the dictionary goes on to say that discipline is training people to obey rules or a code of behavior. So that's still OK. Discipline, meaning training people to obey rules or a code of behavior. But then it also adds up using punishment to correct disobedience. And for everybody out there, especially for behavioral analysts who have studied this is that we know that a positive reinforcement and having positive environments will. Lead to better outcomes than relying on punishment to there's a great book out called Coercion and its fallout by Dr Sid Murray and not so awesome book. I wish I had it here to hold it up, but it basically says that all of our institutions over the past decades have relied on a very punishing system. If you think about schools in general. You know there's the clip system of you're all on green now, Johnny's on yellow and red, and now he's got to go to the principal's office. You're going to lose your recess. All of those Punisher's potential Punisher's are in place, both for large scale classroom management as as well as for individuals. If you think about the criminal justice system, it's very much a punishing, aversive system. Again, though, we all all humans and actually all animals learn best. Absolutely. Studies have have absolutely proven this that all animals, including humans, learn best with a positive reinforcement system so that all that punishment. I know, you know, when I was a kid, even in Catholic school, you know, some of the boys would get hit. You know, it's very common for parents to spank their children or for there to be grounding. And Punisher's going all the time for every family. So I did do a podcast interview with Amy Sutherland, who wrote the book What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love and Marriage, or some combination of like that. We can link that in the shownotes. It's a great episode with with Amy Sutherland, who really explains how all animals learn best with positive reinforcement, and some of that left over things like time out are really not the best way to manage behavior in situations involving kids with autism or any typically developing kid or typical adult event. And I do also want to say about I want to talk a little bit about threats so you might think, Well, I don't really use I don't use timeout or I don't really follow through with actual punishment procedures like that. But a lot of our institutions and a lot of our families are involving a lot of threats. So if Johnny won't clean up his toys, you told them to clean up and, you know, get a bath or whatever. If he's not cleaning up his toys, you could start threatening and well, if you don't clean up your toys or not going to go to. A restaurant or a park or we're not, you know, some people will even say we're not going to go to Disney next fall and like those kind of threats, you get to a party and there's some misbehavior and then we're going to leave even though you and the child know that you're not leaving. And so threats of punishment or actual punishment all go hand in hand. And I did a podcast interview with the three podcast host from Abba Inside Track, and we talked about the work, the very important work of Glenn Dr. Glenn Latham. And he wrote two books which we talk about on this podcast week can Link in the show notes. The two books are positive parenting, the power of positive parenting and behind the schoolhouse door eight skills every teacher needs. That second book is available for free download. We can link that in the show notes as well, so we need to turn the tables on Punisher's, including time out. And I also want to say the time out is not always a Punisher, so a Punisher means that the behavior that you're treating with timeout, we're going to talk about that too. If time out is actually a Punisher, that behavior that biting the hitting the swearing, whatever you're putting your child or clients in time out about should be going down. And in a lot of cases, time, but time out backfires and it is actually serving as a reinforcer. I've done a lot of video blogs and podcasts on problem behavior. I did blogs on fighting, for instance, and hitting. I've done podcasts, actually. I think that number one download the podcast is a Problem Behavior podcast. We can link those in the show notes as well, and we're not really going to get heavily. We're not. I don't even think we're going to cover the functions of behavior. If we do, it's going to be a very light covering of that. But I also have a podcast or two on the functions of behavior and how it is complicated. And a lot of times we have what is known as a mixed function. So before I go on and tell you the three reasons you should not be using timeout, let's talk about what timeout is. So timeout is when you have a problem behavior of some sort and you remove the child or tell verbally, tell the child to move to another area of the rule, to a special naughty chair, to a special desk, to a it might not be called to their bedroom, it might not be called a timeout area. It might be called the calm down area. It might be called a sensory room. But you have problem behaviors and the child is taken to or sent to a room that is not supposed to be reinforcing. So I did do a video blog on sensory rooms, and that is one very inappropriate way to use a sensory room is to send them there for punishment, which I'm not going to agree with. But it turns into a really bad cycle of treating behavior how I call willy nilly, quote unquote. So the child is, is has a problem behavior is taken or sent to a different area of the room or different part of the house or school for a period of time. But that doesn't always work. A lot of times there's no timer set. And then some experts who have created time out decades ago recommend a minute per age. So her two year old, you'd send them there for a timed amount of two minutes for an eight year old. They would get eight minute time out. They could go to the step or a staircase. There's so many problems with this, and I do get a lot more into the problems with time out in the. No More Time Out mini course. But you know, it could be that you told your child to do something and they don't want to do it. I have an example where, you know, I was in a classroom seven years ago and I walked in and I'm like, Where's Johnny? And they said, Oh, he's in. I think it was a sensory room to calm down. I'm like, Oh, OK, what's he calming down about? Well, we had him do a Math sheet, Double addition, double digit addition. I think they just said a math sheet and I said, Well, what kind of math? And they said double digit addition. And he swiped the materials or overturn the das or yelled, I don't know what exactly he did. I can't remember. But that prompted them to set send him to the calmed down area. And I said I wasn't going to get into functions, but he basically was escaping a hard task, right? And then he got to go and calm down, which for escape related behaviors actually time out, totally based on science based on all the literature we know time out is contraindicated. It is not indicated. Not appropriate for escape related behavior. So I said, well, he escaped. And now he's getting reinforcement. And they said, Oh no, no, he's not getting reinforcement because when he gets out of the calmed down area, we're going to make him do that math again. But any delay help or getting rid of the work is reinforcing. And I am not here to say that Johnny should have been kept the demand on using escape extinction. I am very much against escape extinction for many of the same reasons that I'm against time out and we can link in the show notes a really good podcast interview we might even have two with Dr. Megan Miller, who is on a crusade really to have behavior analyst stop using, keep the demand on situation and the whole problem with Johnny and his math sheet and his calm down area is that Johnny wasn't fluent with single digit addition. So if you are having major major problem behaviors, then the demands are most likely too high, which means the child doesn't have needed prerequisite skills. So demands are too high and or reinforcement is too low. I have used timeouts in the past. I've used timeout a few times for my typically developing son Spencer, but that was before I was behavior analyst. I also used timeout a few times, probably more than a few times with clients, but I haven't used timeout and I don't recommend timeout for over five years now, because it almost always backfires, and unless you have a very, very positive structured program in place and you have a very seasoned behavior analyst there with you while you're using time out, it's probably going to backfire and just not reduce any problem behaviors. Instead, it's going to increase problem behaviors.

All Humans and Animals Learn Best in the Absence of Punishment

Mary: So let's get to the three reasons why we should not be using time out, as I said. All humans and animals learn best in the absence of punishment. If you think of of dog training, for instance, or dolphin training, I mean you with a dolphin. You know, it's not going to work to put them in the cage and punish them for not jumping up and hitting the cue or whatever you call it, at the top of the mark. We have to use a positive approach. And many, many dog trainers are still using punishment and negative approaches, but as I said, Amy Sutherland, we're going to link in the show notes here, anything I say we're going to link in the show notes this is going to be episode number one hundred and sixty nine. Can't believe that we're that far along. So anything, if you want to look at the links that I'm mentioning, just go to MaryBarbera.com/169. And if you're out exercising or in a car and you can't remember, you can always search mary autism plus whatever topic, no more time out, for instance, or potty or sleep or eating or talking. I have lots of free resources and now more paid resources to find out, you know, find the episode to find the mini course. And you might maybe, maybe I'll talk about this for one second while we're still at point number one. You might think, Well, I don't. There is so much free information about this and you're providing this free. Why would I pay for the mini course or why would I pay for your full toddler course or your full verbal behavior bundle? And it's a good question. You know, you can certainly keep watching, keep listening, read my books, download my blogs. But I've been at this for more than two decades, and I've been in the online marketing space for since 2015. So over seven years now, and I can tell you that if you don't pay for information to be curated and broken down and given to you all in one chunk in the mini course, it's less than two hours. The toddler course is about 10 hours. The VB bundle is thirty two hours and more than that, but it's all broken down, so you don't have to just spend your time consuming free content that is on a variety of topics variety of ages. You know, I learned so much from online courses. I learned how to play the piano in 21 days, but it actually took a lot longer than 21 days, but I was committed for 21 days. I joined weight loss programs where it's six weeks or 10 weeks or exercise programs that are, you know, two months or three months in length for, like a bootcamp or something like that. I've taken a podcast, how to do a podcast course with Pat Flynn, and I was able to consume that in really a week. You know, I set out a schedule and I consumed it and I started the podcast. So yes, can you learn how to play the piano online for free? Yes. But very few people can commit to something like that and really get all the rationale. See the videos, get a plan. So I'm not sure exactly how I got on that on the Soapbox, but the number one reason you should not be using timeout or punishment is because we are even animals, dolphins, dogs and all humans learn best with a positive approach. It is never OK for physical spanking, even though decades ago when I was a kid, it wasn't a big deal. It's never OK for spanking or hitting a child back or and then threats and timeout and all of those things are are really aversive. It can cause kids like if you even if you have typically developing kids and you use threats and punishment and you're grounded. And and if I hear that one more time. And the typical kids will start to just lie, they'll sneak around and do things if you freak out and ground them as soon as they do something wrong. So having a positive approach is really key. So what can you do instead of using punishment? Is Glenn Latham's formula using eight positives to every negative across the board with your spouse, with your coworkers, with your clients, with your kids, and when you're creating. If you're a professional, if you're creating a clinic or school or your classroom for the year, or if you are selecting a classroom, a school or building a program at home. If you're selecting or creating a program, make sure that you're creating a positive environment. It includes 8 positives to, every negative to everyone in the room and then learning as much as you can about how to create the positive environment and keep it positive. It's more that bar is constantly being raised and needs to be high so that we don't just create a positive program or approach. We actually continue it even if we get some new problem behaviors, some more alarming problem behaviors. And even as kids get older, it's more important than ever not to be punitive. But the bigger they get, the more they can hurt themselves. Others they can hurt the environment. If you put them in your in their room for a time out, for instance, that could destroy the environment. They could, God forbid, put their head through the window. All kinds of things can happen, especially as a child ages, and that which is one of the other reasons that there's no more time out. Course is really made for kids ages one to five and the parents and professionals who work with them. Same principals happen all along, but the earlier we can start putting these positive preventative strategies in place, the better.

Do Not Use Punishment When Delays are Present

Mary: OK, so the number two reason we should not be using timeout or punishment for our children with autism or young younger children with signs of autism, ADHD or speech delays, is that because they are delayed? It's even more reason not to use timeout and punishment. If you don't understand the language and you have cognitive abilities that are not up to where they need to be. You are not going to be able to understand the rules, understand the language to understand the rules. Remember my definition of discipline, which I got online, is training people to obey the rules or code of behavior. If you have a four year old who is functioning at a two year old level, you're not going to be able to just put that four year old child in a four year old preschool class. They're functioning like a two year old. They don't know how to share. They don't know how to stand in line for five minutes. They don't know what you mean by get out your red folder and go sit on the carpet square and don't talk to your neighbor and sit criss cross applesauce. All of those norms and rules, if be like us, me being in a foreign country and not knowing the language and not knowing any language and all of this language coming out and being presented. So we really have to consider especially kids with delays. We need to handhold more. We need to coddle them more. We need to prompt them more. We need to make sure protect them more from environments that are going to have high expectations. I remember when Lucas was really little before he was diagnosed with autism, or maybe right when he was diagnosed. I was like, You know, I can't imagine Lucas growing up in a household where there was abuse because you'd be like, you know, put your cup on the table and he would just ignore you, throw the cup like he didn't understand language. So if you have punisher's and abusive people around your child, they're going to have their expectations way too high. So what can you do instead for point number two or reason number two, you shouldn't use timeout. You're going to want to make sure that for each child, each client that you work with or for your own child, make sure that you do the one page assessment and the one page plan. You can get that all by reading my book. Turn autism around, but you can also we walk you through and we give you videos of exactly how to fill out the one page assessment and plan in the no more timeout mini course. And you can also just jump right in to our full courses, where the mini courses will be available at no additional cost. OK, so get all the information at nomoretimeout.com for the mini course.

Problem Behavior Occurs When Demands are Too High and Reinforcements are Too Low

Mary: OK. And the third reason that we should not be using time out for our kids is most probable behavior occurs. Like I said, because the demands are too high and or reinforcements too low, and the child usually doesn't have the prerequisites or the language to understand the skills that you're going after. And a lot of times for those of you that do know about functions of behavior, a lot of times it is a mixed function. And so it's time out is actually contraindicated for at least part of the reason that they are having problem behaviors. So we it's by nature, going to backfire. And a lot of people who are using time out, especially in preschools and typically developing situations, you know, and in a daycare situation, if they're using time out, they're probably not using it. I tell a story in the mini course where, you know, all of a sudden a new client that I was just observing for the very first time, he ended up in timeout. I was like, What did he do? I asked the teacher later, and she's like, You know, if we just put him in timeout when we've had enough? And I'm like, Well, what does he get out of timeout when we're ready for him? And so a lot of times, in addition to the demands, are too high reinforcements too low. It's contraindicated a lot of times. Time out is also not used in any kind of way to know you don't know if it's going to work because you don't even know if you are using timeout or plan to use timeout. It's got to be if he says this or if he does this, if he bites, then he goes to timeout. If he swears, he goes to timeout. And then you also have to know how long timeout is going to be. And then you have to keep data so that you know that five minute timeout is reducing the biting or whatever is going to lead to timeout. So it's so complicated that. It really has no chance of working unless you're doing it with a lot of fidelity. And that just never happens in regular classrooms and daycares, preschools and homes. But even if you are working in a residential treatment or ABA school, I still would challenge you to say that there are better or more positive ways. And if you take my full courses, you will definitely learn the ways where you can eventually eliminate time out for almost all of your clients.

Alternatives for Time Out and Punishment

Mary: OK, so what should we do? Instead, we need to focus 95 percent of our time preventing problem behaviors and teaching prerequisite skills based on the one page assessment and the one page plan that are in my book, in my mini course, in my full courses. We really need to learn how to prevent and undue problem behavior without punishment. So in summary? We need to stop using timeout and punishment. I know I feel like I've said that a zillion times now, but it is being overused and incorrectly used in so many situations. We want to get 8 positives to every negative in place. We want to create and select environments that are positive, not punishing. We want to complete the one page assessment and one page plan, which is part of the turn autism around approach. And if a child has language abilities of a much younger child than our expectations have to be different and that child may need a different environment, they may need more one to one support, and they probably need a lot more dense reinforcement than they are getting. And this is not about just helping children with autism or toddlers showing signs. This is about being positive and making our institutions. The education system, the criminal justice system. Your work place is a positive environment as much as possible, so the more we can learn, the better that will do. So I hope you enjoyed this. I would really urge you to go check out the the page for NoMoreTimeOut.com To think about. Taking that course is only an hour and a half two hours long, and it will most likely really change the way you think about behavior and language and creating a positive environment. So thanks so much for joining me today. I'll see you next week for another episode of Turn Autism Around. Next time we have a very special guest. Kate Swenson from Finding Cooper's Voice is coming back on the show to talk about her new book, and I'm super excited to share that with you as well. Thanks so much.

Mary: If you're a parent or an autism professional and enjoy listening to this podcast, you have to come check out my online course and community where we take all of this material and we apply it. You'll learn life changing strategies to get your child or clients to reach their fullest potential. Join me for a free online workshop at Mary Barbera.com/workshop, where you can learn how to avoid common mistakes. You can see videos of me working with kids with and without autism. And you can learn more about joining my online course and community at a very special discount. Once again, go to MaryBarbera.com/workshop for all the details. I hope to see you there.