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How to Use Breaks to Teach Self-Regulation

Everyone needs to take breaks throughout the day to help them refocus on tasks and prevent them from getting too overwhelmed by demands. Breaks are one way that we, as adults, regulate ourselves.

For us, that may be taking a walk, or a coffee break after a stressful meeting at work. For a child, it’s a little different. But, you can use breaks to teach self-regulation to your child.

How to Use Breaks to Teach Self-Regulation

For me, a break means sitting quietly and drinking a coffee without any interruptions. If there’s one thing that will bring me back from overwhelm, that’s it.

What does taking a break look like to you?

For your child, taking a break should be about allowing your child to step away from their current environment and its demands to do something they enjoy for a few minutes without any expectations.

The purpose of breaks is to relieve some anxiety and stress. 

Disclaimer: this post contains affiliate links.


This post is part of a 13 part series. Each post in the series will explain an evidence-based strategy used by professionals for managing behavior with children on the autism spectrum. Each part of this series will contain a table of contents so you can easily navigate to the different strategies.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction 
  2. Build a Relationship
  3. Individualize Motivation
  4. Observe, Listen, then Join
  5. Optimize Language
  6. The Premack Principal
  7. Basic Redirect 
  8. Breaks
  9. Picture Rehearsal
  10. Add Structure at Home
  11. Teach Independence with Prompting
  12. Transactional Supports
  13. Add Structure to the Learning Environment 

How to Use Breaks to Teach Self-regulation / #ParentingAdvice #EmotionalRegulation #SelfRegulation #BreakBoxIdeas #ADHDKids #Autism #SPD

Why You Should Use Breaks

Different environments are demanding and challenging for kids. Depending on where you are, your child faces social demands, language demands, expectations in the environment, information processing and sensory processing from all channels.

It’s easy to understand why your child may become overwhelmed. Being overwhelmed can lead to anxiety reactions. Have you ever felt that way at work, or even home where there’s a lot going on? 

Having a break lets you re-enter the environment with a new perspective and less stress. Using breaks at the earliest sign of anxiety or stress can help prevent behaviors escalating into meltdowns.

Recognizing Early Anxiety Reactions

Anxiety looks different for everyone.  But some common signs that your child is experiencing anxiety can include:

  • Pacing
  • Stimming
  • Change in tone of voice or language
  • Echolalia
  • Change in body language
  • Physiological response such as redness in the face
  • Clenching the upper body

Noticing these cues and intervening early can significantly reduce the chance of your child having a meltdown.

How Will Breaks Help With Anxiety Reactions?

When an environment is overwhelming, one way to help your child is to modify the environment.

However, that won’t always be possible. You just cannot make changes to every scenario in order to make them suit your child’s needs.

In these circumstances, breaks can also help because you can expose your child to a situation very gradually – easing them into it and allowing them to take breaks to help avoid the overwhelm. Some professionals refer to this as developing stress tolerance.

This can help your child build up to being more comfortable in particular environments over time.

In school, breaks are a useful tool to help children self-regulate and return to the regular classroom to complete their tasks.

What Type of Break Should You Give?

The type of break you should offer your child depends on their own preferences, the environment and the reason why they need to take a break.

There’s two basic types of breaks – movement breaks and claiming breaks.

Movement Break

If your child is struggling to sit still, or focus, they could benefit from a movement break.

A  movement break involves physical activity that provides a big dose of sensory input. This can calm sensory seekers down allowing them to focus better.

The following resources provide you with some movement break ideas:

Vestibular Input Activities
Proprioceptive Input Activities
Kids 7 Minute HIIT Workout+

Calming Break

If your child is overstimulated, or very visibly upset about something, or shutting down – a movement break is probably not your best choice.

In this circumstance you should offer a break that is calming. Some people refer to this as a time-in.

  • Either allow them to leave the room/environment momentarily for their break or have a quiet and comfortable space set up in their environment where they can take a break. A calm down corner works perfectly for this.
  • Keep in mind, especially in school, this calming area should be away from their work area.
  • Give an allotted amount of time to do a calming activity, or offer different calming tools in the form of a “break box”.
  • You may need to help your child co-regulate by taking these breaks with them.
  • Never offer the same activity that you offer as a reward/reinforcer for breaks because you want that reinforcer to only be earned by doing what’s expected.

Why You Need A Calm Down Kit

A calm down kit is an excellent way to help your child calm down during a break with quiet independent activities. They can help kids self-regulate – so they can calm down on their own.

Since a calm down kit can be portable, they’re a great tool to use at home, school, and on the go.

You can create them yourself and many items are available at Dollar Tree and other discount stores.

Get 27 ideas for your calm down kit here.

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