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Using Breaks as a Tool for Self-Regulation and On-Task Behaviour


As our students return to school after the holiday season we may find that they struggle to remain on task and engaged once back in the classroom. Readjusting to school routines and expectations is challenging for all students (and teachers too!), and we may find that regularly scheduled breaks, such as recess and free time, are not enough to help our students reset and get focused.

Class-Wide Breaks

When students are having difficulty paying attention or becoming fatigued or overwhelmed by seatwork, it is important to provide them with an energizing movement break to get the blood flowing to their brain. Movement breaks don’t have to involve going outside or even leaving the classroom; exercises, such as those detailed in the Brain Break resources, can be performed within the classroom, or even at students’ desks!

If students need to calm down and get ready to learn, walk them through calm-down routines, such as deep breathing, to calm their minds and relax their bodies. To help students engage in calm down routines, use visualization. For example, when guiding your students through deep breathing, instruct them to close their eyes and visualize “smelling a flower” as they inhale and “blowing out the candle” as they exhale.

Break Systems for Individual Students

For some students with ASD, class-wide breaks might be all they need. However, most need more breaks throughout their day than do peers.

For students who get upset, frustrated, or aggressive, use a break card system. Even if your student is highly verbal, it is more difficult for students with ASD to find the words they need to express themselves when feeling upset. Teach your student to show you the break card whenever he or she is feeling upset; you might notice frequent use of this card when introduced as your students tries out this new system. Be sure that breaks are limited in duration and that students always return to the work activity from which they took the break to avoid breaks becoming a means of task avoidance. For break activities, these students benefit from calm down routines (e.g., deep breathing).

For students who tend to wander around or leave the classroom, engage them in big body movements to help them release some of that extra energy. Wall push-ups or jumping jacks are activities they can do within or just outside of the classroom. These students should have scheduled breaks or a limited number of break cards to use throughout the day so that they begin to self-monitor how often they are getting up out of their desk.

Finally, for students who struggle with particular activities like circle time, set an achievable time limit for their participation in the activity and provide a scheduled break to follow.