giving student breaks

Break Ideas to Increase Student Motivation & Participation

In Behavior Strategies, Educational Strategies & Tips, Educators, Fun Ideas, Special Education by Rachel Wise

Preface: When I was in college majoring in psychology, I learned that the famous actor and comedian, Jim Carrey, had behavior problems in Junior High School. One of his teachers told him that he could do a comedy routine for a few minutes at the end of class for following the rules and completing work. This had a huge positive impact on Jim’s in class behavior.

We want students to complete their work because “it is the right thing to do,” “it’s part of life,” “they have to learn in order to be successful,” etc. I want you to take a second to think about the things you do in your own life. Most things you do have some intrinsic value to you. You go to work because you really enjoy it and/or you earn a paycheck and are able to take care of yourself and your family, which is very important to you. You mow your lawn because you don’t want your yard to look disgusting and be out of control. You clean your floor so you don’t get bugs or have your guests think you are dirty. Whatever the reason you do things, it has some value to you.
Unfortunately, many kids don’t find intrinsic value in school. I know for me, I didn’t actually care about doing well in school until I realized at 18 that I wasn’t going to graduate if I didn’t get my act together. I had to be scared for my own future before I acted. All kids are different…some find the value in school because they genuinely want to learn and know more, others do worry about their future, others want to please their parents and teachers, the list goes on. Then we have our students who do not feel an internal connection to school. It is hard to put effort into something you don’t care about. No matter how much we tell them that they have to listen, have to stop talking, have to complete their work, they continue the same behaviors. It kind of reminds me of when my husband talks to me about football. No matter how many times he tells me to pay attention, I still miss half of what he said because the truth is, I am just not interested and don’t see the value in learning about it. I think we all hope that over time these students will find something about school that is internally motivating, but for now they just might need us to give them a reason to care.

Teachers know that there are many ways to get kids motivated to learn. Examples include giving them choices, tapping into different learning styles, incorporating their interests, making the lesson fun through a game, using encouraging words and having a positive attitude, etc. Another effective strategy to motivate students, is to allow them the opportunity to earn breaks to do an activity they enjoy, by following class rules and putting forth sincere effort. Not only is this motivating because they get to work towards something fun, but breaks are beneficial to work production as well. Research shows that adults are much more productive when they work in 52 minute increments with 17 minute breaks in between. Imagine how long a seven-year-old should work for before needing a break.

I have done a lot of thinking over the years about what kind of breaks are best for the whole class. What makes sense to me is to give the students time to do the exact things we keep telling them not to do. The most common things I hear in classrooms related to behavior include: stop talking, stop doodling, stop sleeping, stop day dreaming, stop humming, put that book away (we are not doing that right now), and stop getting out of your seat. The most common negative things I hear from kids are “This is boring,” “What does this have to do with my life?” “I don’t care about this.”  So…why not let students have time to do the things that we keep telling them to stop doing and give them time to do things that they feel connected to? This will make learning time more productive because 1-it gives them a mental break, which has a positive effect on work production, 2-it gives them something to care about, and 3-it shows them that you care about their interests and their desire to make the day more relevant to their own lives. When students know you care about and respect their thoughts and feelings, they are more motivated to do the right thing, just like you want them to. You might think that breaks will take away from class time, but there will actually be more time for learning because you won’t have to stop to reprimand or redirect as much and students will be more productive during learning time.

You may need to try different work times and break times to see what works best with your class. For example, you could take a 5 to 10 minute break between each lesson, a before lunch and before going home break, or you can have your students work for a predetermined amount of time and then take a break, following this pattern until the end of the day. You have to decide what works best for your class taking into account your students’ ages, academic levels, attention spans, and interests.

You might think that students already get a break with lunch, but that is not something they have to work for and for many students it is just not enough. Some teachers take away recess when students don’t complete work or follow rules; however, this is not recommended because children are actually more productive when they have the opportunity to burn off energy. Additionally, it is highly beneficial to remind children of what the are working towards, rather than to threaten that you will take something away. When you threaten to take something away from a student you open up the door for them to talk back and shut down (e.g., Take recess away! I don’t care!). In addition, some students (such as those with ADHD or autism) may need more breaks or different kinds of breaks than the whole class. Keep in mind that it is useful to use a timer for your breaks and remind students of how much time is left a few minutes before break time is coming to an end.

In this article you will find several suggestions for whole class and individual breaks/fun activities to let your students work towards. Some of these ideas are more practical for elementary school students, but many can be used for all students from preschool to high school.

Incorporate your students likes, interests, and desires into these break times.

Whole Class Break Ideas

1. General free time-allow students to talk, draw, read a book of choice, hum, get up and stretch, pick a game to play with a peer, rest at their desk, etc. (this would be similar to indoor recess which many teachers do on rainy or cold days)

2. Talk-to-peers time

3. Draw at your desk

4. Get up, stretch, move around (may or may not be teacher led)

5. Watch a non-academic video

6. Read a book of choice

7. Play games

8. Use the computer

9. Go outside on a nice day

10. Play sports in the gym

11. Dance to music

Research indicates that short bouts of physical activity throughout the school day lead to a 20 percent improvement in on-task behavior even for the least on-task students.

Related Article: How to Use Exercise to Support Students with Autism and ADHD

If you want, you can give two options on a break. For example, “You can either draw at your desk or read a book of your choice.” Also, because this is a break, students should have the option to sit quietly if they do not want to participate.

Individual Student Break Ideas

For individual students, you can utilize some of the ideas above such as read a book of choice, go on the computer, get up and stretch, and draw at your desk. Here are more suggestions for breaks for individual students. Keep the students preferences in mind and give choices.

1. Take a walk in the hall-(can be with or without a peer or staff member) (some schools may not allow students to walk alone in the hall, so you need to find out your school’s policy on this)

student reward ideas

2. Read to a younger class

3. Help a younger class

4. Run an errand to the office

5. Perform for the class or share something with the class (remember the Jim Carrey story?)

Check out the article “Want to Take Over My Class? Be My Guest!” for a related idea.

6. Help out in the office (again, check on school policy)

helping in office

7. Do an activity (play game, draw, talk, etc.) with the guidance counselor

Please share your own ideas for break times in the comments section below.

Additional Information

For information, such as what do when a few students do not earn their break because they did not put forth effort, follow class rules, etc. check out How to Motivate Your Students and Get them to Listen to You (39 Strategies for Classroom Management).

A visitor to my site asked this question after reading this article:

“Is it really a good idea to restrict students from break time because they refused assignments?” I thought this was a GREAT question and wanted to include my response in the article:
I think it depends on the student, his individual needs, the reason for the refusal, if it is an on going problem, etc. There is also a difference between outright refusal and not completing work due to talking, doodling, etc. It is important for the teacher to do what he/she is comfortable with while weighing students’ needs. If it works for the teacher to give all students breaks, regardless of behavior, I think that is fine. It is not a black and white situation. However, positive behavior support, which I advocate, is partially founded on the principal of students being rewarded for a job well done. On the other hand, it is also very important to get to the bottom of work refusal. For example, if the student experienced trauma, has trouble learning, or is suffering from anxiety, restricting breaks probably would not be the best idea. That student would likely need more support or a different kind of support than this type of system offers. Just to give an example, I worked with a student with sensory needs who had three breaks a day, regardless of performance. The breaks themselves enabled him to focus better during class time.

Please share this information to make things a bit easier on students and teachers!

For more behavior strategies check out:

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