What is Responsive Classroom Time-Out?

When used calmly, consistently, and respectfully, Responsive Classroom time-out can be a valuable strategy for helping students develop self-control while keeping the classroom calm, safe, and orderly.

Santiago is at the interactive whiteboard, showing the class his solution to a math problem the teacher challenged them with. Everyone is paying attention except Claire, who repeatedly and loudly bangs her feet together. Her teacher reads confusion and tension in her scrunched-up face.

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

As she and her classmates learned to do in the early weeks of school, Claire gets up and goes to a chair a few feet away but still within earshot of the group. She takes some deep breaths but continues to seem tense. Then she remembers the additional calming techniques her teacher taught the class and picks up a soft ball stored in a small box nearby. As she squeezes the ball, she relaxes and returns her attention to Santiago’s math demonstration. At a nod from the teacher, Claire returns to the circle, in time for questions and comments about Santiago’s solution.

Time-out in a Responsive Classroom is a positive, respectful, and supportive teaching strategy used to help a child who is just beginning to lose self-control to regain it so they can do their best learning. An equally important goal of Responsive Classroom time-out is to allow the group’s work to continue when a student is misbehaving or upset. Giving that child some space from the scene of action where they can regroup while still seeing and hearing what the class is doing accomplishes both of these goals.

Responsive Classroom teachers carefully introduce time-out early in the year. They often call it “Take a Break” (as it’s referred to hereafter in this article), “Rest and Return,” or a similar term that separates it from the negative associations some students may have formed from prior experience. And they use it judiciously, as just one of several strategies that can help children stay focused on learning and working productively with others.

Guidelines for Using Take a Break

The following guidelines will help you use Take a Break as a positive and supportive teaching strategy. At the end of the article, you'll find resources that go into greater depth.

Start by proactively teaching expected behaviors

Rather than only responding when children struggle, it’s important that we first establish with children the expectations for behavior and then take the time to teach them how to translate those expectations into action in different classroom and school situations. Interactive Modeling is one Responsive Classroom practice for teaching such skills.

Explain the purpose of Take a Break

Many children have experienced punitive uses of time-out in the past. It’s important, therefore, to explain clearly that its purpose in your classroom is not to punish anyone but rather to help students restore the mental focus and emotional control needed for efficient learning. Let children know that sometimes they might decide for themselves that they need a break, in which case they can go to the break spot on their own. This can further erase any stigma associated with Take a Break.

Choose a good spot

It’s best to have one or two designated Take a Break places—chairs, cushions, or beanbags that are neither isolated nor in the thick of activity. You want to give children the separation they need to calm and refocus themselves, yet enable them to keep track of what’s going on in the classroom so they can rejoin the work when they return. To keep students safe while they’re in a break, make sure you can see the spot or spots they go to from anywhere in the room.

Explicitly teach Take a Break procedures

Early in the school year is the time to talk about, model, and let students practice how to use Take a Break. Be sure your teaching covers these key points:

  • Going to the break spot promptly, quickly, and calmly
  • How to regain focus and control while at break (teach a repertoire of techniques that you think will work for your class, such as taking deep breaths, doodling, squeezing a stress ball, and visualizing a favorite place—have the needed small supplies in the break area if appropriate)
  • When to come back from break (the ultimate goal is to teach children to know when they’re calm and ready to return, but if you decide that your class isn’t ready for the responsibility, make the decisions yourself)
  • Coming back quietly and rejoining the group’s work
  • Helping a classmate in a break by leaving them alone, going on with classroom activity as usual, and quietly welcoming them back
Use Take a Break earlier rather than later

Don’t wait until a child’s frustration or misbehavior escalates. It’s easier for children to recover from a smaller than a bigger upset or distraction. Using Take a Break early also helps preserve your feelings of empathy toward children. It can be hard to have empathy when, for example, a child has become aggressive.

Of course, to use Take a Break early, we must observe children well so that we catch signals indicating they’re about to lose control. They may make negative remarks, pick and poke, furrow their brows as their faces flush, or crumple up their papers. Learning students’ early signs of losing self-control will help you respond proactively.

Decide if Take a Break is appropriate

Knowing the children you teach will help you decide if Take a Break is the strategy most likely to help a particular child. For instance, using Take a Break for fidgeting may be inappropriate if what a child needs is more physical activity or a different seating arrangement (to sit in a chair instead of on the floor, for example). For other children, a break may be just what’s needed to get the fidgets under control.

Also, a child who has completely lost control is beyond Take a Break. In these cases, you need a strategy that may involve the principal, a guidance counselor, or other support staff.

Finally, if you repeatedly send a child to Take a Break without seeing any improvement in behavior or frustration tolerance, or if a child crumples or becomes extremely distraught at even one use of Take a Break, more than likely the child needs a different strategy. Seek help from colleagues, parents, and counselors, and consider other problem-solving strategies.

Always use a calm, quiet voice and few words

If you’ve taught Take a Break well, saying a simple “Take a break” may be all that’s needed in the moment. Even better, teach and use visual signals for going and coming back. This avoids drawing attention to the child or distracting classmates.

Never negotiate with the student in the moment. Remember that an important purpose of Take a Break is to allow the group’s work to continue when a student is misbehaving or upset. Discussing the situation with the student will only disrupt the group further. Moreover, a student who needs a break may not be in a frame of mind to discuss the situation reasonably. However, when you introduce Take a Break, it’s important to assure students that they can always talk with you about the situation later.

Use Take a Break for all children

Responsive Classroom Take a Break is a broadly useful strategy for helping children collect themselves, whether that takes the form of loudly acting out or silently hitting a personal wall of frustration that’s impeding their learning.

When you teach Take a Break, it’s important to let children know that because it’s useful in so many situations, just about all of them will have the opportunity to experience it at one time or another. Getting that message generally helps children accept using the strategy when they need it.

Use Take a Break to teach self-regulation

In the article “Time-Out & Teaching Self-Regulation,” Responsive Classroom consultant Tracy Mercier tells the story of Martin, an easily frustrated child whose frustration often mushroomed into angry outbursts. Tracy shows how Take a Break can be not only a teacher tool for directing children, but a tool children use themselves to regulate their own emotions and behaviors. With Tracy’s help, Martin eventually learned to monitor his own internal states so that he could, without any intervention from Tracy, productively take a break as soon as he felt himself getting too upset to learn and work well with classmates.

Have a system for taking a break in another room

Many teachers set up a “buddy system” for times when a student refuses to take a break, continues to be disruptive or upset while there, or continues to struggle after coming back. The teacher then has the child take a break in another teacher’s room. This prevents the situation from escalating into a power struggle and enables the teacher to go on teaching the class. See the article “Buddy Teachers: Lending a Hand to Keep Time-out Positive and Productive” to learn about the buddy teacher strategy.

Keeping the Learning Going

Calming oneself, controlling impulses, and consistently following the rules of the group are tough skills to master. But they’re essential for the smooth functioning of a learning community, as well as for each student’s personal growth. Take a Break—Responsive Classroom time-out—is one strategy teachers can use to help children develop these skills while ensuring everyone’s safety and keeping the learning going full steam ahead.

Further Resources
Rules in School: Teaching Discipline in the Responsive Classroom, 2nd edition, by Kathryn Brady, Mary Beth Forton, and Deborah Porter 
File 549
Time-Out in a Responsive Classroom (DVD) File 236

Teasing, Tattling, Defiance and More: Positive Approaches to 10 Common Classroom Behaviors, by Margaret Berry Wilson

 File 1948
Responsive School Discipline: Essentials for Elementary School Leaders, by Chip Wood and Babs Freeman-Loftis File 1177


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: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL7E8FBA22F8C10AA7.

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: http://www.responsiveclassroom.org/research. 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