Many students with behavior disorders have sensory issues and don’t realize when they are overstimulated. Those who have not mastered self-regulation strategies to cope with excess stimulation require periodic breaks during the day to regroup. Sometimes we call these sensory breaks, check-and-connect sessions, zen time, etc. These moments are great in theory, but in the teaching world, it can be difficult to find time for them.
Often, gen-ed teachers can’t squeeze time into their busy days to schedule these breaks, so it might be best to hand off this responsibility to resource teachers, counselors, or behavior coaches who can host the breaks in their rooms.
Some of us might see this time as an extra recess for the students, while others may see it as a way to get a break from the students, since they will be in a different part of the building. But the reality is that these breaks are necessary for some students to be able to function at their best during the school day.
When done correctly, time away like this can be efficient and highly impactful in our students’ day. To create effective breaks, we need to follow three main guidelines:
- They need to happen consistently.
- They need to follow a routine.
- They need to end with some debriefing.
When we can follow these guidelines, we can create easily added support for these students.
These breaks must happen every day and, if possible, at the same time each day. They should be part of the students’ daily schedule. When planning breaks, we should place them after times when the students are more active or overstimulated (i.e., after lunch or recess). These are generally times when the students can have trouble transitioning, so this becomes an added support in that area. One effective option is to schedule breaks as the students are transferring between their classes.
The break should occur whether they are having a great day or greatly struggling. The students need the break to keep the consistent routine and as a way to check in. The break should last for about the same time each day; once our students were used to their breaks, they would take about five to seven minutes. The idea is that this becomes a part of the day that is a constant for the students and helps them regulate themselves.
It’s important to follow and stick with a routine for each break. These routines are adapted and changed based on the student. When starting a break schedule with a student, teaching them how the break should work is essential. They need to practice walking into the break area and working with the different tools they can use during this break. Students need to know that this is not playtime or punishment. It’s a time for them to step away from everyone and have a few minutes to regulate themselves.
When the routine is practiced enough, it can happen without much instruction. As my students mastered their break routines, they could come in and get started using nonverbal cues to check in with me. I would set a timer to start the break, and then we would check in at the end. The break could even be done while I worked with other students. I use the following routine with my students:
- 9:20 a.m. Student comes in from electives and uses the Zones of Regulation color chart, which helps them sort through their emotions.
- 9:20 a.m. Three-minute timer is started.
- 9:22 a.m. One-minute warning is issued.
- 9:23 a.m. Student comes to check out.
- 9:25 a.m. Student heads back to class.
At the end of the break, there should always be a time for you to check in with the student individually. This timing gets tricky when you have multiple students coming in and out for breaks around the same time as each other. Still, when it’s built into their routine that this will happen, they tend to look forward to some one-on-one time with you. The idea is to see how the student’s mood has changed at the end of the break. By the time they see you, they will have had some time to themselves to reflect on the day or to become more regulated.
When they come to you, they should be able to tell you how they are feeling. I use the Zones of Regulation color chart, so they can tell me a color and then a mood. After this check-in, we have one of two outcomes: Either I can praise them for having a great day and give them reinforcement to keep it going, or they can use this time to plan how to turn their day around. This can entail deciding to work in a specific area in the classroom or checking in with their teacher about the expectations for the rest of the day.
The critical part here is that if any of the student’s answers are “I don’t know,” they have time to rethink how their day is going or how they can turn it around. These debriefs also give you as a teacher time to see how their day is going so far, so that you can help make adjustments with their gen-ed teacher.
These breaks can be the difference between success and struggle for our students who are still learning how to self-monitor and self-regulate. When they cannot do this and are not given tools to help them, challenging behaviors start to show, derailing learning for the whole classroom. It’s essential to support our students with these needs. These breaks teach them to be self-sufficient and give them the tools necessary to succeed in their education.
Don’t expect a magical transformation overnight; it takes trial and error to find the right time for student breaks. Still, when done correctly, these moments can help students regulate themselves and find school a more inviting learning environment.