by NEFC staff

Responsive Classroom Newsletter: 
February 2004
Used in a consistent, calm, and non-punitive way, time-out can be a valuable strategy for helping students develop self-control while preserving the smooth flow of the classroom.

Fabio is reading to the class the story that he just finished in writers’ workshop. Everyone is listening with interest except Ashley, who fidgets and whispers in her neighbor’s ear.

“Time-out,” the teacher says quietly to Ashley.

Ashley gets up and goes to a chair at a table a few feet away but still within earshot of the group. At first she scowls and mumbles angrily to herself. But after a while, she appears to relax, and her attention returns to Fabio’s reading. At a nod from the teacher, Ashley returns to the circle, in time for questions and comments about Fabio’s story.

Time-out is a strategy used in many classrooms for helping children learn and practice self-control. Used consistently and calmly—and in a non-punitive way—it can be highly effective in maintaining clear limits for behavior while preserving the integrity of the individual and the smooth functioning of the group.

Used in a non-punitive way, time-out allows children to make mistakes within the guardrails of adult controls. Most importantly, it contributes to creating an environment that is safe and orderly, one that is conducive to learning.

Ruth Charney, author of Teaching Children to Care, emphasizes:

For time-out to work, it is vital for teachers to believe in and feel capable of implementing it as a strategy that enhances autonomy and classroom participation. At best, time-out is a useful way to teach children to refocus and return to successful participation in class activity . . . At worst, when it is seen as simply punitive, time-out kindles resentment and can escalate disruptive or defiant behavior.

Guidelines for positive use of time-out

Below are general guidelines for how to introduce and use time-out effectively. These guidelines reflect how this strategy is used in the Responsive Classroom approach to teaching. At the end of the article, you'll find resources that address this topic in much greater depth, including information on what to do when time-out is not working.

Explain the purpose to children

Because many children may have experienced punitive uses of time-out in the past, it’s important to explain clearly that the purpose of time-out in this classroom is to give students a chance to calm down and regain self-control, not to punish them.

“Time-out is for someone who has made a mistake or broken a rule. It lets that person regain control. Time-out is not a punishment,” a teacher might say. It’s important to let children know that after they have gathered themselves, they will be welcomed back into the group.

To further distance this use of time-out from the negative connotations often associated with the term “time-out,” many teachers prefer to call it “take a break,” “rest stop,” “rest and return,” or “take a vacation.” Many teachers, especially in the older grades, invite students to help decide on a name.

Establish one or two specific places

It’s usually most effective to designate one or two places in the room for time-out—perhaps a chair, a cushion, or a beanbag. The spot should be neither isolated nor in the thick of activity. This gives children the separation they need in order to refocus, yet allows them to keep track of what’s going on in the classroom so that they can join in the work when they come back. For safety reasons, the time-out area needs to be visible to the teacher from anywhere in the room.

In older grades, students may no longer require a designated time-out place. They may be able to choose an appropriate spot themselves and may appreciate being given the choice.

Teach time-out procedures

The first week of school is the time to introduce time-out. This introduction should involve talking about, modeling, and letting students practice how to use time-out.

Modeling lets all students, regardless of how they’ve seen time-out used before, see how it will be used in this classroom. “What did you notice about how I moved to the time-out chair?” the teacher might ask during the modeling.

Students might respond, “You walked,” “You didn’t stop along the way to fool around with something” and so forth. Similarly, the teacher can ask students what they noticed about how s/he sat in the time-out spot and how s/he walked back.

Key points to cover in teaching time-out procedures are:
  • Going to the time-out spot quickly without saying anything, making gestures, or stopping along the way
  • Doing whatever it takes to refocus or regain self-control as long as it's quiet and doesn't distract the class
  • Coming back from time-out quietly and rejoining the work of the group
  • Ways to be helpful to a classmate in time-out, such as leaving that person alone, going on with the classroom activity as usual, and welcoming the classmate back when s/he returns

Use time-out for small disturbances, before a situation gets worse

Children frequently give signals when they’re about to lose control. They fidget, make negative remarks, pick and poke, whisper to a friend while a classmate is speaking. These are the times to use time-out, not after these small disturbances have escalated to major disruptions.

Using time-out early means the child will have an easier time pulling him/herself back together and rejoining the group with dignity. It also helps preserve the child’s relationships with classmates and the teacher’s own feelings of empathy toward the student. It can be tough, for example, to feel empathy when a child has become verbally abusive or is punching a classmate.

Keep time-out brief and clarify who decides when it’s over

Time-outs are generally just a few minutes long, though the duration depends greatly on the individual child’s ability to regain control and return to the group. Some children might need thirty seconds; others might need five minutes.

Although the ultimate goal is for children to be able to decide for themselves when they’re ready to return, the teacher, especially in younger grades, holds on to the decision until the children show that they can decide responsibly. To tell the student to come back, the teacher might say, “Tanya, you may come back now, and remember meeting rules” or simply give a signal such as a nod or a hand gesture.

In older grades, teachers are more likely to let the student decide when to return. However, if the student comes back before having regained control or lingers in time-out longer than necessary, the teacher takes over the decision making.

Whatever the case, it’s important to make clear to children from the start who will be deciding when time-out is over.

Use a calm voice and few words

When telling a child to go to time-out, the fewer words used, the better. A simple “Time-out” or a visual signal such as a making a capital T with the hands or handing the student a card is often enough.

An important purpose of time-out is to allow the work of the group to go on when a student is acting out. Lengthy explanations or negotiations will only disrupt the group further. Moreover, the student is usually not in a frame of mind at the moment to discuss the situation reasonably.

Using a calm voice further minimizes the disruption to the group. It also avoids drawing attention to the child.

When introducing time-out, explain that while you won’t stop to discuss your reasons for telling a child to go to time-out in the moment, you will always be willing to talk about the situation later. A check-in later in the day might help the child sort out feelings, air any misunderstandings, and, if necessary, talk about how to avoid the same problem next time. It can also help to reestablish the rapport between the teacher and student.

Use time-out democratically

It’s important for students to see that time-out is used for everyone, not just the same two or three children over and over, and for the subtle acting out, not just the obvious misbehaviors. Indeed, at one point or another almost all children, even the “model” students, forget the rules or lose their cool.

Some children will struggle more with self-control than others and therefore have more time-outs. But even those who struggle only rarely or in subtle ways need a method for collecting themselves. Using time-out for these students shows them and the class that anyone can make a mistake, and that anyone can and needs to fix their mistake.

Remember that time-out doesn’t work for all children

Finally, no matter how carefully teachers introduce time-out and how skillfully they use it, there will always be some children for whom it simply doesn’t work. Time-out is not working, for example, when a child goes to time-out over and over without making any improvement in behavior, becomes extremely distraught at even one use of time-out, or has lingering signs of resentment, withdrawal, or insecurity. These are all signals that another strategy is needed for that particular child. In these cases, it may be wisest for teachers to seek help from colleagues, parents, and counselors, and consider other problem-solving strategies.

A gentle nudge to get back on track

Many years ago, philosopher and educator John Dewey wisely stated that in a democracy, where group participation is critical, “The ideal aim of education is the creation of the power of self-control.” While it’s no easy feat to learn to control one’s impulses to follow the rules of the group, it’s an essential skill for the smooth functioning of a learning community.

Time-out is one strategy that teachers can use to help children learn this skill while keeping the children and the class safe. As primary teacher Deborah Porter puts it, “Like those small grooves on the side of the highway, time-out is a gentle nudge that helps us get back on track so we don’t barrel off the road.”



I'm entirely new to "Responsive Classroom," which is being used in my daughter's first grade classroom, and I'm seeking to better understand it. Professionally, I work as a speech language pathologist, oftentimes with children with severe behavioral challenges.

The article "Time-Out" written by NEFC staff in February 2004 raises a question in my mind. In "Responsive Classroom" why is time-out used as a consequence for subtle acting out? I'm unsure of how sending a child to time-out for fidgeting contributes to safety in the classroom. What calming strategies, if any, are students typically offered in "Responsive Classroom"?

My other questions are research related. Has research on "Responsive Classroom" and time-out used specifically as a consequence for subtle acting out been conducted? Has research been conducted on use of "Responsive Classroom" for children younger than the spring of 2nd grade? Has research been conducted on use of "Responsive Classroom" for children in special education?

I will continue to read more about "Responsive Classroom." Thanks for any information.


Miriam, thank you for your thoughtful questions about the use of time-out in the Responsive Classroom approach. The way time-out is used in the Responsive Classroom approach is quite different from how it is used in many schools. When used as intended in the Responsive Classroom approach, it is carefully introduced by the teacher in the early weeks of school as a strategy for regaining self-control rather than a punishment and students perceive it as such. This is key to its success and something I realize we did not emphasize enough in the article you read.

Also, in the Responsive Classroom approach, we emphasize the importance of the teacher knowing the students well and making important judgment calls about when to use time-out and when another strategy would be more effective. For instance, for some children who struggle with controlling their bodies, using time-out in the case of fidgeting may be inappropriate and a better approach would be to offer accommodations and strategies specific to the child’s needs. In other cases, time-out may be just what a child needs to get his or her fidgets under control before the situation escalates to a public meltdown and causes embarrassment for the child as well as a significant disruption in learning for the entire class. Knowing each student well is key to the effective use of time-out. Another point that the article you read didn’t clarify enough is that the Responsive Classroom approach emphasizes taking the time to proactively teach students the skills they need to be successful in school, rather than only responding when they don’t conduct themselves skillfully. You can find many examples of Responsive Classroom teachers using a strategy we call Interactive Modeling to teach students important social, emotional, and academic skills on our channel on YouTube:

Regarding your question about the explicit teaching of calming strategies, Responsive Classroom teachers often teach students deep breathing techniques, the use of squeeze balls or putty, visualizing, choosing a different spot in the room to work in, getting up to do some wall pushups, and other strategies depending on the situation.

Finally, the two major research studies conducted by the University of Virginia on the Responsive Classroom approach looked at students in grades 2–5, largely because of the standardized tests that are available for students in the upper elementary grades. You can read about the two studies on our website: There have not been any studies to date conducted specifically on the use of time-out or specifically with students with special needs.

I hope you find the resources available on our website helpful in learning more about the Responsive Classroom approach. If you have any further questions or would like more info about the wide array of resources available, please feel free to contact me.

Best wishes,
Mary Beth Forton
Director of Publications & Communications