Welcome!! Find amazing teaching resources! CLICK HERE to Shop Now!

Breaks and Reinforcement in the Classroom

I use so many strategies and procedures in my classroom. Some of them I don’t even realize I am using because they are part of my instructional routines. I feel Breaks & Reinforcement, are just crucial when I am working with students with intellectual disabilities.

Two that I find many people using but, also getting confused, is breaks and reinforcement. So let’s talk more about both and why they should be a part of your classroom. I will also share why they are not the same thing.

What is a break?

Breaks provide an opportunity for the student to take a moment to calm down. I often teach students to use break cards which can help children remain calm and avoid outbursts or anxiety. Teaching this takes time and I plan to write a blog post about this in the future!

It’s important to provide students a moment to collect themselves, do something to distract themselves, or relax (e.g., deep breathing, taking a walk, talking it out with an adult) children can return to a stressful situation without further issues.

We all need an opportunity to walk away sometimes.

“Being able to take a break when they are overwhelmed, angry, or overstimulated allows children to learn relaxation techniques and appropriate ways to handle stressful or uncomfortable situations. “

What is reinforcement?

Reinforcement involves consequences that strengthen a behavior. To strengthen a behavior means to increase the likelihood that it will occur again in the future. Here are a couple of examples to help explain it further.

I woke up with a headache so I took some medicine. Shortly afterwards my headache is gone. In the future, when I get a headache I take the medicine right away.

My phone beeps and I see it’s a message from a friend. I tap the message and it’s a funny video that makes me laugh. In the future when the same friend contacts me, I tap to open their message.

Both these examples demonstrate reinforcement as they resulted in an increase of the behaviors reoccurring. I liked the results that they created, so I want them to happen again.

These examples also show us two different types of reinforcement: positive and negative.

When it comes to behavior, positive and negative do not mean good and bad. They simply mean to add and take away. The example of my headache is negative reinforcement as it removed or stopped something I didn’t want to happen. The example of the phone is an example of positive reinforcement as it added or presented something that I liked into my environment.

Both positive and negative reinforcement increase the likelihood of the same response in the future. Through a combination of learning and contact with reinforcement, we have all learned to do things that allow us to contact the things we like and also, to avoid things we dislike.

“Reinforcement shapes how we all behave.”

Why is breaks and reinforcement different from one another?

Hopefully the explanations above have helped you to understand them and when they are appropriate to use. There have been many times when I have worked with people that will feel as though giving the student a “break” is the same as giving a student “reinforcement” and this is simply not the same if you use them as they are defined.

Here are some examples for each in a classroom setting.


Jackson has been presented with work to complete at a station with a paraprofessional. When the para asks him to put his name on his paper he begins to whine, puts his head down on the able. The paraprofessional senses Jackson’s frustration and provides him with two controlled choices to either “do his work or take a break”. Jackson asks for a break and the paraprofessional guides him to the calm down area in the classroom.


Jackson has been presented with work to complete at a station with a paraprofessional. When the para asks him to put his name on his paper he picks up his pencil and writes his name. The paraprofessional provides Jackson with his preferred edible item immediately after writing his name which is goldfish crackers.

Something that I like to use in my classroom to help with taking a break is a visual with choices that students can do to help them calm down like this:

This is meant for a student that may feel under or overstimulated and need different types of options.

Some Final Thoughts on Breaks and Reinforcement

Making sure that the breaks and reinforcement that you provide in the classroom are meaningful, taught to the students, and different for the scenarios as needed is very important. It is very important to not confuse the two in instructional settings in the classroom.

I have created a freebie in my store that you can access here to provide the choices you’d like, and it’s editable!