Kernel Factsheet — Reinforcement Kernel

Beat the Timer


  • Education
  • Workplace
  • Community
  • Family

Developmental Phases

  • Early Childhood
  • Childhood
  • Early Adolescence
  • Adolescence
  • Emerging Adulthood


Minimal cost

Impacted Behaviors

+ Homework done
+ More engaged learning
+ Chores done
+ More fun in afterschool programs
+ Ready for bed
+ Fun way to learn new things
+ More work completed well
Less fighting
Fewer hurts
Less wasted time in meetings
Less noise
Fewer tantrums
Less fighting and trouble at afterschool programs
Reduce ADHD
Less disruption
Less TV

How It Works

Have you ever noticed how well children and teens play computer and video games? Those who normally dawdle, fidget, delay, or even fail to participate in other activities pay riveting attention to a computer game. Why is that? One reason is the use of reduced allocated time: “beat the timer” in street language. In multiple studies, researchers have found that reducing the amount of time available to complete a task increases attention, reduces disruption, and increases accuracy and quality of response.

Master teachers know that Beat the Timer is a lifesaver in the classroom. It even helps students overcome their fears of standardized achievement tests, which often have reduced time allocations. In Beat the Timer, someone sets a timer and challenges students to complete transitions, tasks, quizzes, or even seatwork before the timer goes off. Using the timer helps students monitor their own behavior and stay focused on the task at hand. Because the timer is set for short amounts of time, the students succeed and are thus motivated to use it more often. Beat the Timer reduces accidental attention to negative behavior by the adults and children. It dramatically reduces angry faces and voices that can trigger negative behavior or withdrawal among those who have been exposed to trauma and trouble.


For Beat the Timer to be effective, the person leading an activity must project 1) a desire to participate in the challenge, 2) the idea that the time is fun, and 3) a belief in the young people’s ability to rise to the challenge. In maintaining the playful atmosphere, the adult can challenge young people by saying, “No, this is too hard; you won’t be able to do it,” while using body language and tone suggesting positive belief and respect for the young people. As with any challenge, it must be hard enough to engage the student’s brain for participation and learning, but not so difficult that it turns off the brain with an unreachable goal. If the children are not set up to succeed, if they are criticized for their efforts, or if the game is played in a punitive way, Beat the Timer will not produce the desired benefits.

Extended Recipe

Here are the basic steps for this evidence-based kernel:

  • Select an activity that often promotes dawdling, stragglers, or nagging.

  • Let the children know you will time how long it takes them to complete the activity.

  • Set the timer when the activity begins and note the time it ends. Do this a couple of times to learn how long the activity normally takes; this is your baseline.

  • In a playful, “shocked” way, let the students know how long this activity normally takes and engage them in the challenge: “Wow, it takes us seven minutes to put our papers away and get ready for recess. No wonder we are always late for recess. I don’t know, getting everything done is hard, but I wonder if we could finish in five minutes and get to recess on time.”

  • Students are likely to reply, “Yes, yes we can.”

  • Continue the challenge with a playful, doubting response, such as “No, no, I don’t think we can. That is too much to do so quickly.”

  • As they again reply that they can, say, “Okay, I will set the timer for five minutes. Ready? Go.”

  • As the students are engaged in the activity, make comments that imply amazement at how quickly and efficiently they are completing tasks.

  • The students are likely to reach the challenge.

  • Celebrate and provide occasional surprise rewards for the group (e.g., go to recess early)

A Note on Timers

Timers vary considerably—ease of use, sound, cost, etc. You may need to try a couple to find one just right for you. Electronic ones offer more flexibility than wind-up ones. The Triple Bel Timer, which vibrates, flashes, or dings, for use by students with hearing loss, is available at Harris Communications. A visual timer for students who need a tangible image of time passing is available at Time Timer.

Performance and Impact

Effective in improving positive family attention to child, social competence, school adjustment and engagement, academic achievement, work performance, and reducing problem behaviors, aggression and negative/harsh interactions; unites adults; protection against substance abuse and related antisocial behaviors. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6


  1. Adams, C.D. & Drabman, R.S. (1995). Improving morning interactions: Beat-the-Buzzer with a boy having multiple handicaps.. Child and Family Behavior Therapy, 17(3), 13–26  

  2. Ball, T.S. & Irwin, A.E. (1976). A portable, automated device applied to training a hyperactive child.. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 7(2), 185–187  

  3. Creedon, D.L. & Drabman, R.S. (1979). Beat the buzzer.. Child Behavior Therapy, 295–296  

  4. Drabman, R.S., Hudson, A., Vincent, J. & Wilks, R. (1987). ‘‘Beat the buzzer’’ for early morning dawdling: Two case illustrations.. Behaviour Change, 2(2), 136–142.  

  5. Drabman, R.S., Kelly, J.A. & Wolfe, D.A. (1981). ‘‘Beat the buzzer’’: A method for training an abusive mother to decrease recurrent child conflicts.. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 10(2), 114–116.  

  6. Drabman, R.S. & Wurtele, S.K. (1984). ‘‘Beat the buzzer’’ for classroom dawdling: A one-year trial.. Behavior Therapy, 15(4), 403–409.