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When Is a Break More Than a Break?

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When Is a Break More Than a Break?

by Margaret Oliver, MEd
Autism Asperger’s Digest | November/December 2013

Our students need a break to refresh, and our students really need a break to regulate and balance their world.

Breaks come in many forms. Think about yours: coffee and a candy bar; chatting with a coworker; yawning and stretching. No matter how you break, the purpose is refreshment, making you ready to retackle the job at hand.

Our students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have the same need for a break, plus more. We’re asking a lot of them. We want our students to stay on task, yet we know that they are experiencing inefficient sensory systems, executive dysfunction, and learning differences. Our students need a break to refresh, and our students really need a break to regulate and balance their world.

Who Has Time for a Break?

Teachers are occupied with keeping students engaged in rigorous instruction. We consider extending the length of a lesson to cover necessary material, knowing that a bathroom or lunch break is just around the corner. Students with ASD may not benefit from these scheduled breaks. They can get stressed while standing in line, waiting, and socializing. For that matter, their stress level could already be elevated because of the demands of the prior lesson.

A Break or a Meltdown?

I came to realize that my students needed a break when I experienced their distress that resulted when they did not have one soon enough. I learned that my students eventually would get a break, whether I scheduled it or not, and the breaks they initiated were calamitous free falls. In kindness to the students, and in fairness to their classmates, I began to look for ways to avoid sensory overload and fatigue. Dancing to a short song was much more pleasant than guiding a student through a meltdown.

Selecting Tailor-Made Breaks

Most of my students’ sensory breaks are group activities scheduled throughout the day. The movement and change of pace support the students’ steady participation. Individual intervention occurs when I notice a student beginning to struggle. Because I understand the student’s sensory profile, I direct him to take a short break to help reorganize his focus. The student with a low arousal level will run a quick errand for me. The student who is a sensory seeker will stack the books in the reading room. Just as you want the right tool for the job, you want the right break for the stressed student.

Each student benefits from a break activity that fits his profile. To understand your students’ needs, I recommend a resource, Answers to Questions Teachers Ask about Sensory Integration: Forms, Checklists, and Practical Tools for Teachers and Parents (Future Horizons Inc, 2007). This book contains questionnaires to pinpoint hypo- and hypersensitivities for infants through adults. You could copy the forms for the parents’ input, too. This succinct resource offers strategies for the classroom and in general.

Slipping in a Break

A break can be as short as 10 seconds and rarely lasts more than 2 minutes. I plan several group sensory breaks into the school day. I also plan to be spontaneous when the group or individuals lose sustained attention. My distracted and unfocused students suddenly become enthusiastic when my next directive is, “I think we should run around the table!” For the small price of 30 seconds of running, my young students come back to the table, united again as a group, focused and ready to learn.

PreK and Elementary Breaks

Young students respond well to physical movement breaks. What they think of as fun is actually your strategy to maximize learning time. Upon student arrival in the morning, and any time they return to the room from another activity, we unite as a group through movement. Then we are ready to work and learn as a team.

Try some of these activities:

  • Move to a song selected from your movement playlist. My students request “Going on a Bear Hunt” (Eric Litwin and Michael Levine) and “Ants Go Marching” (Robert D. Singleton) as their favorites. If you can’t think of a certain type of movement, march in one direction, and then change directions for the next verse.
  • Make an obstacle course from two chairs and a small trampoline. Have the students walk the figure 8 around two separated chairs, and then jump 10 times.
  • Do wall push-ups while waiting in line for a bathroom break.
  • Play a quick game of musical chairs (without removing a chair each round, so all can participate).
  • Empty a container of small plastic balls (sold in packs of 100) over your head and let the balls spill where they may. Have the students retrieve and toss them back into the container.
  • Crab crawl, bunny hop, or do jumping jacks.

Adolescent Breaks

Middle and high school students are at a stage where they know their need for a break and will independently initiate one without the constant oversight of an adult. Remember to have a plan in place: the teacher and student should be aware of the stressors and the break activities to help regulate the student. At first, the teacher may need to help the student become independent in knowing when a break is necessary.

Here are some suitable activities for the adolescent:

  • Sharpen a pencil.
  • Get a pass to go to the bathroom or locker, or do an errand (a cover for a quick walk in the hall).
  • Work independently on the computer.
  • Have a quiet place to work alone for a few minutes.
  • Assist the teacher in passing out papers or moving objects.

For a little investment of a few minutes sprinkled several times throughout the day, sensory breaks yield big returns! You get the idea. Let’s take a break now.

Join the Education Discussion on Facebook!

Each issue, we’ll moderate a discussion on a different topic. In November 2013, please share how your break strategies match the student’s need for a break, or ask for ideas on how to help your student or child have successful sensory breaks.


Margaret Oliver, MEd, is a teacher for Akron Public Schools (Ohio) with a class of kindergarten through second grade students with autism. She also has been involved with the education of middle and high school students with ASD.

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2013. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print is prohibited without written permission of publisher.

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  1. Lisa says:

    Great information, love the book, Answers to Questions… I can use all the help I can get. Thank you