When an athlete wants to improve their performance, one of the areas a trainer will often target is strength training. You might think of it as weight lifting. Strength is developed when muscles are stressed to the point of slight tearing followed by a period of rest. The break from lifting usually lasts a day, during which time the muscles heal. These healed muscles are stronger than they were before.
To much stress to muscles or not allowing muscles to heal in between stress can cause injury. The rest is as important to developing strength as the actual lifting of weights.
Unique learners need a similar kind of work-rest cycle to stay focused on completing tasks.
A Break Can Be Just What Is Needed
Before eight-year-old Jacob’s parents and teachers knew what was happening in his body, there was often a big battle to try to get Jacob to sit still and do his work.
When we implemented an intentional work-break cycle into both homework and classroom time, everyone’s frustrations levels went down. Most importantly, Jacob began finishing his work more successfully and his chaotic behaviors lessened.
Typically, on those occasions when a unique learner requires more than two verbal or physical cues to focus on the task at hand, it is usually best to transition them to a sensory-motor or preferred activity.
I recommend setting up scheduled breaks throughout the unique learner’s day. Three scheduled sensory motor breaks during the school day and at least one during homework time is a good place to start.
However, the key to using work-break (or rest) cycles successfully is in the hands of the adult. Whether in the classroom or at home, the adults caring for the unique learner must be very tuned in to early warning signs of the child becoming less productive and more chaotic in behavior.
It is at this early warning stage that an additional break should be taken, even if it isn’t at the “scheduled break” time. Over time, less additional breaks will be needed. Just remember that the point is not to follow more rules but rather to “reboot” the child’s sensory system leading to positive learning behaviors.
(Learn more about the sensory system HERE.)
Work- Rest- Work
In the beginning, the best results will be had by taking the sensory-motor breaks away from the usual workspace. When at school, this will initially mean the break happens outside the classroom. At home, it may mean the child will go outside or just to another room.
Part of successfully using these breaks involves training the child how to re-enter the classroom quietly so as not to interrupt the other students. Additionally, the child will need practice to re-engage with his work.
(Click Transitioning back into the classroom to get my quick tips to teach your child this skill.)
Transitioning the student back to the academic task after a sensory-motor break has been more successful than repeatedly encouraging continued participation when two attempts by an adult to re-engage the child in the academic task have failed. Ultimately, the use of a timer can be employed to identify work cycles and the need for a sensory-motor break.
Eventually, in classroom sensory motor breaks can occur and then desktop breaks. The long-term goal is for the child to be able to identify for themselves when their mind and body are moving toward a nonproductive and chaotic mode of operating. They will also need to have age appropriate methods to calm, soothe, and “reboot”. This is not unlike methods used by typical adults, such as listening to music, taking a walk, exercising, or participating in an artistic endeavor in order to manage day-to-day stress.
Here are four sensory-motor strategies to try for successful work-break cycles.
The primary indicator that a shift in activity is required is when two or three encouragements to continue participation are met with resistance. Try these activities:
Assemble and stack items and then spontaneously disassemble [or crash] the stacked items.
Developmentally, children frequently enjoy creating and disassembling or destroying the creation of stacked items as a way of affirming their impact on the world around them. Of course, assembling and knocking over assembled items can be a noisy and rambunctious activity requiring close supervision as to not distract other students.
Have your child position their body in a variety of postures. This can include:
These kinetic/sensory motor activities appear to be necessary to assist children in maintaining their “engine running” for full participation in a long school day.
Allow your unique learner to engage in preferred activities. This could be anything that the child enjoys doing. Most unique learners have activities that they enjoy and are therefore calming. Painting, drawing, playing a game on the computer, using clay or Play Dough and playing with favorite toys or figurines are examples of preferred activities.
Frequently, unique learners will benefit from going outside for brief sensory motor kinetic experiences. Those are fancy words for simple activities such as walking along the sidewalk or on a track. Allow time for the child to enjoy the fresh air and anything that attracts their interest.
It is important that both classroom staff and parents have a system in place with everything they need to make a quick exit with their child. I recommend using an apron that has pockets for keys and a phone or radio. Use of the apron is essential so that hands can be free to assist your child should physical cueing become necessary. I strongly encourage classroom staff to wear the apron on an all day and every day basis. That way spontaneous out of door kinetic sensory motor breaks can be enjoyed seamlessly.