classroom culture

Giving Students Breaks in Class to Increase Engagement

One of the biggest struggles in the classroom is keeping the attention of the students.  With social media and modern technology students are accustomed to being entertained and everything moving quickly. I am not against technology by any means, but I do believe that student’s “needs” to feel connected through technology greats a great challenge in the classroom.  There are some people that strongly believe that we need to teach bell to bell.  I agree with this sentiment, however, to keep the attention and focus of a high school student for 90 minutes is a daunting task.  I know for myself as an adult that I struggle to pay attention for that amount of time.

A mathematical argument for break

Just humor me for a second with this reasoning: we can all agree that we want to have 100% engagement for 100% of the time, but we can also agree that this does not happen often. So let’s say you never give your students breaks in class and that they are actively engaged and paying attention for 75% of the class.  For a 90 minute class that means you have 67.5 minutes of student engagement.  Now lets say that you get 100% engagement, but you give 3, 5-minute breaks, for a total of 15 minutes of no teaching.  If you have 100% engagement for the 75 minutes you now have a more productive class.  Just a little food for thought to get people thinking.


One thing that I have done with success in my classroom is what I call HIIT work. I adapted this from HIIT (high intensity interval training) from many different workouts (life of a retired collegiate athlete). I have primarily used this for individual work time as many students are very tempted to talk and socialize during this time.  I used an online interval timer  to help my student manage their time and focus. I started by having my students work at a high intensity for 10 minutes and then they would get a 2 minute break to socialize, get up, stretch, etc.  I eventually extended this to 15 min work/4 minute socialize and 20 min work/5 min socialize.  My student prefer the 15 and 20 min work cycles.  I find they get more work done and are motivated for having a larger chunk of social time.  The timer has a buzzer so it runs on its on so that I can be  free to help and I do not have to pay attention to the timer.

*The time let’s you use color for each interval.  I recommend using red for work and green for socialize.  In my experience red means stop getting up, stop socialize, stop doing the distracting behavior. My students were very confused the first time I did this and used green for work.

*If students do not get to work during the work time, I simply pause the timer and do not start it until they are working.

Time Outs

This is from a good friend of mine, Loren Scarborough.  In basketball you get 5 timeouts, 3 fulls and 2 thirties. Each full timeout is 1 minute and each thirty is 30 seconds.  To use this in the classroom students can call a timeout when they feel that they need a break. The student that calls the timeout must signal for a timeout by making a T with their hands and then after the teacher acknowledges that timeout the student signals for a full or thirty.




Just like basketball, when I timeout is called it is applied to everyone. Each student does not get 5 timeouts for the whole class, but the whole class gets a total of 5 timeouts. In basketball the team calling the timeout must have possession of the ball, so as the teacher if I need to finish a slide or a problem I will do that before giving students the timeout. Sometimes class will try to save their timeouts for the end of class or use them in the beginning on test test.  Over time using timeouts helps students to think of other and put the class as a whole as the priority instead of the individual.

What are ways that you help give your students breaks in class!?


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