How To Handle Students Who Complain And Talk Back When Sent To Time-Out

So a student, let’s call her Karla, pushes another student while rushing to enter the classroom after recess. You see the incident and quickly realize that, because it’s her second rule violation of the day, a time-out is in order.

As soon as Karla sits down, you calmly approach, inform her of what rule was broken, and then ask her to take herself to time-out. Karla, in response, is furious. She glares at you and yells, “But I didn’t do anything wrong! This is so unfair!”

She stands abruptly and stomps off to time-out, while muttering under her breath. She slams her books down and drops dramatically into her new seat. After one last insolent glance in your direction, she crosses her arms and sulks into the chair.

Now for most teachers, their first inclination is to follow Karla to time-out to either try to talk things out, explain how she should respond, or cut loose with a well-deserved, how-dare-you lecture.

But doing so would be a mistake. It’s far better to ignore the incident and get back to the business of your classroom.

Here’s why:

It can ruin the relationship.

Any effort to discuss with Karla her angry reaction to being placed in time-out will only cause an increase in friction between you. Either you’ll be fired up and looking for a confrontation or she will.

Either way, you risk sullying the relationship. In order to preserve good rapport, open communication, and the leverage you need to positively affect her behavior, it’s best to let Karla stew and not take it personally.

It interferes with accountability.

As long as you’re clear with Karla about why she must to go to time-out, deep down she’ll get it. In other words, although she may be angry—and express that anger toward you—in her heart she’ll know that she’s in time-out because of her behavior.

Attempting to talk with her, or “put her in her place,” will interfere with the purpose of the consequence—which is to hold her accountable for misbehavior. It will relegate her culpability and personal reflection to the background, and place you and your prideful feelings in the spotlight.

It spoils the lesson.

It’s normal to want to spell out for students how they should feel and what they should be learning from their misbehavior and subsequent consequence. But doing so spoils the lesson, with the student leaving time-out having not learned a thing.

You must give your students an opportunity to think for themselves, to accept the consequences for their behavior and learn from them on their own terms—even if that means a show of anger. If you insert yourself into this important time of reflection, then the very reason they’ve been sent to time-out will become lost in the mire.

Now, What To Do

Despite keeping a cool head, when you send students to time-out, there is always a chance that they won’t take it well—even if, as in this case, the student is clearly guilty of breaking a rule.

And that’s okay.

If a student like Karla reacts angrily or immaturely to being sent to time-out, so be it. It’s not your issue. She can be angry all she wants. It doesn’t affect you.

If, however, her anger crosses the line into disrespect, either of you or her classmates, then continue to leave her alone and let her cool down. Let the time-out play out—and then some.

Later in the day, after the incident is long forgotten, approach her with a behavior letter to take home (the third consequence). Simply hand it to her and say, “I want this signed and returned tomorrow.”

And then turn on your heel and get on with the day.

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35 Responses to How To Handle Students Who Complain And Talk Back When Sent To Time-Out

  1. Claudia April 13, 2013 at 6:04 pm #

    Hi Michael, What you’re saying sound so right and appropriate, and I totally agree and appreciate your philosophy. At what point would a teacher suspend a student though? For example, multiple letters have gone home, and the parents sign and return them. But nothing seems to be changing. Time out during a fun activity has made the student act out more. What next?

    • Michael Linsin April 14, 2013 at 7:12 am #

      Hi Claudia,

      Please read through the article series, How To Turn Around A Difficult Student. You can find it in the Difficult Student category of the archive. If that doesn’t answer your question, please email me. I’m happy to help!


  2. Heather April 14, 2013 at 5:04 am #

    Great information for parents too!

  3. Deborah April 14, 2013 at 10:41 am #

    Hi Michael,
    I am in the situation of teaching students for only 40 minutes per week. Often, students refuse to even go to time out. What do you do in that case?

  4. Chelsea April 15, 2013 at 6:54 pm #

    I am a new teacher and i came across your tips while searching on ways to solve some of my classroom problems. It has helped me so much and I feel happier as a teacher now that I have a better idea of what to do.

    Thank you so much!

    • Michael Linsin April 16, 2013 at 3:16 pm #

      You’re welcome, Chelsea!


  5. Itzy April 18, 2013 at 7:27 am #

    Hi Michael,

    What would you recommend to do when a child refuses to go to time out, for example they ignore you or put their head down on their desk?

    Currently, if that happens I whisper in the child’s ear that I’m not going to force him to go to time out, I am just going to keep track of how long it takes him to get there, then I walk away and give him no more attention. After class I will likely give him a letter home for breaking rule #1 by not going to time out and if necessary hold him accountable for the amount of time it took him to get to time out with a detention. Usually the student picks himself up and complies after a minute or two. what do you think?

  6. Itzy April 18, 2013 at 7:32 am #

    I just found the Article: What To Do When A Student Refuses To Go To Time-Out, it deals with what I asked

    • Michael Linsin April 18, 2013 at 12:20 pm #

      Great, glad you found it, Itzy!


  7. Rebecca April 18, 2013 at 12:02 pm #

    I have a 6th grade student that is constantly defiant. He leaves his seat, pokes and prods other students and tries to argue with me. I have sent him to timeout in the office a couple of times. He comes back and continues on like nothing has happened. He makes it hard to teach the other 33 kids I have. I have tried many strategies, but nothing seems to work more than a day. Help please!

    • Michael Linsin April 18, 2013 at 12:21 pm #

      Hi Rebecca,

      Please read through the Difficult Student category of the archive. If you still have questions, email me. I’m happy to help!


  8. Lindsay April 18, 2013 at 11:29 pm #


    I’m not sure if you posted on this or not, but what is your opinion of behavior clip charts? At our school, everyone starts on green, then first yellow is a warning, second yellow is time out and red is home contact. However, the students are supposed to have the opportunity to “move back up” to green. So, say a student moves to first yellow, gets a warning, then begjns exhibiting the right behavior and goes back to green. What happens if they stop following directions again? Do they go back to first yellow which is a warning again? I like your idea and order of consequences, but dont know how to incorporate it with a flip chart. I feel as if they are getting too many chances. Thanks in advance!

    • Michael Linsin April 19, 2013 at 9:57 am #

      Hi Lindsey,

      I think using a clip chart is fine. I just don’t recommend reversing the colors. So, for example, if a student gets a warning, the color stays yellow for the rest of the day. That is, until or unless he or she breaks another class rule.


  9. Lindsay April 19, 2013 at 11:09 am #

    My only concern with that is that they’ll shut down because they know they’re going home on yellow anyway (we have calendars in their folders that show their color for the day)

  10. Joan April 27, 2013 at 9:54 pm #

    I totally agree with Lindsay-if they know that they have an opportunity to redeem themselves, most of the time their behavior improves.

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  15. Tanya February 19, 2014 at 6:58 pm #

    Hello Michael–

    Thank you for the helpful tips provided here and throughout your website. I wonder if I could ask you to provide some specific ideas for substitute teachers who may work with a class of students for one brief period. Modelling is helpful. The time out approach can be beneficial when working with students for a longer segment of the day, but less effective when a teacher is considered somewhat transient. Do you have some ideas for those who are not in a position to work with students over the long term to reinforce positive habits and ongoing, repetitive routines?

    With Appreciation,

    • Michael Linsin February 19, 2014 at 8:38 pm #

      Hi Tanya,

      I’m not sure whether classroom management articles specific to substitute teaching would fit on this website, but I’m considering a book on the topic. Stay tuned!


  16. Briana November 21, 2014 at 11:30 am #

    I think you’re missing a step on how to handle the situation. See right after the child says, “But I didn’t do anything wrong! This is so unfair!”, you should consider their opinion. Ask the child why did she do it. Yes, she broke a rule, but keep in mind why she did it. Then you can send “Karla” to time out. Maybe next time, you can resolve the issue so it won’t happen again.

    Think about it.

  17. Timerie July 22, 2016 at 7:35 pm #

    Hi Michael,
    After reading about your experience as a physical education teacher, it seems to me like your approach is a blend of loving coach and unemotional referee. Have you ever thought of it that way? If so, it might help others understand that consequences are really just penalties for breaking the rules of the game. Would you recommend explaining it to the students with this analogy?

  18. Timerie July 25, 2016 at 12:17 pm #

    Excellent article! I would add the loving coach to your article. The team coach knows each player, their strengths and weaknesses, their home situations and their personalities. During practice the coach models procedures that lead the whole team to success. The coach doesn’t play the game, but rather watches the players from the sidelines and reviews the procedures in between plays. Sound familiar? 🙂

  19. Timerie July 25, 2016 at 1:54 pm #

    Hi Michael,
    I’m writing down the routines I’d like to teach my Orchestra classes. A lot needs to happen between walking into school and playing a note- this first routine is 1 1/2 pages long! Do you recommend posting the routines or giving students a written copy to save time?

    • Michael Linsin July 25, 2016 at 3:20 pm #

      Hi Timerie,

      I haven’t personally found it something I needed. However, I’m not opposed to the idea. It may very well be worth the time, depending on you, your instincts, and your experience with your students.


  20. Heather October 17, 2016 at 4:42 am #

    Hi Michael,

    I have one student in particular who has a major distraction and disruption every single day. Do you recommend a time they are in time out? or just let them ask for when they want to return? I can see this student immediately just asking to return. Also do they get the letter home since they have been in time out- or only if they break a rule the third time? I’m confused on that based on this example.

    I teach middle school for the record. I want to implement your classroom management plan, but feel students will know why I am implementing it at this point in the year because it’s due to that one student.

    What do you recommend if a student has broken a rule more than 3x in one class? They have had their time out, and given the letter. Is there a potential 4th consequence? Thank you!!

    • Michael Linsin October 17, 2016 at 7:54 am #

      Hi Heather,

      I wish I had the time and space to answer your questions, but they have all been covered extensively here on the website. I recommend spending time in our archive, beginning in the Classroom management Plan and Difficult Student categories and going from there. You may also want to check out The Smart Classroom Management Plan for High School Teachers. Finally, if you’re interested in one-on-one help, we do offer personal coaching.