A flexible sensory strategy

Movement breaks are a frequently suggested sensory tool to help students increase their attention and readiness for learning.  Like all sensory strategies, they should be individualised for each student.  This page will explore

  • Why you might use a movement break

  • Recommendations for best practice

  • Movements you can use in the classroom

A flexible sensory strategy

children doing yoga text sensory movement breaks

Movement breaks are a frequently suggested sensory tool to help students increase their attention and readiness for learning.  Like all sensory strategies, they should be individualised for each student.  This page will explore

  • Why you might use a movement break

  • Recommendations for best practice

  • Movements you can use in the classroom

What are movement breaks?

Movement breaks are essentially a break from seated learning which involves movement.  We will discuss specific ideas below, however movement could include going for a walk, doing some yoga.  Or, a short sequence of exercises to help the student to wake up.

What’s the purpose of movement breaks?

Sitting and learning requires good attention and focus.  This can be difficult to sustain for students with sensory differences.  Sometimes, their alertness (arousal level) will be too low and they will lose focus.  Or, it might be too high, so they can’t pay attention.

Movement breaks are suggested by occupational therapists to help to students to change their alertness.  The purpose is to help students either increase or decrease to a level where they can engage and participate in their learning.

Who might benefit from a movement break?

Movement breaks are typically recommended for students who are seeking out additional movement.  They might be rocking in their chair, or constantly getting up and moving around the class.  This could also include students with ADHD.

Breaks can be very helpful for students who are slower to process information.  These students can often be missed in the classroom as they are often quiet and not-disruptive.  It’s important to look out for them.

Finally, movement can sometimes help students who are overloaded.  This is not always the case and it is very individual.  However, rhythmic moving, like forward and backward swinging, walking, climbing or yoga can help some student to calm down.

You can read more about the different sensory processing types in this post – What is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?

teacher sitting at the front of the class talking

Will they work for everyone?

Of course not!  There is no one size fits all solution for any student or classroom.  Lower arousal (alertness) is not the only reason that students may find it difficult to concentrate.  For example, if the student has language processing difficulties, this will reduce their ability to attend and focus.  And, when a student is unwell it is unlikely movement will help them to attend better.

What might a movement break look like?

This will be different for every student and school or home.  Each student will have their own individual needs.  Every school or house has different space and resources which are available.  Some example movement breaks can include

  • Going for a walk

  • Using playground equipment

  • Yoga

  • On the spot exercise

  • Dance video, or free dance

  • A quick ball game (e.g. football, basketball or just throw and catch)

  • Sensory diet cards also provide different activities

  • Breathing

  • Heavy work

  • Getting a drink

  • Trampoline

  • Swings

  • Therapy ball

  • Climbing frame or hanging bar

  • Cycling or scooters

It’s also useful to consider that some students might use a trip to the toilet as a movement break.  If this is the case, you may wish to consider offering them other options to move during their day.

boy smiling directly at camera sensory strategies in the classroom

Theo uses movement to organise

Theo’s body needs more movement to help him to stay alert and focus.  He already has a wobble cushion on his seat but his teacher uses movement breaks to give him an extra burst of sensory input when she sees he is starting to drift off, or distract others.  She has a movement corner set up with four activities follows in sequence.  Sometimes he might do it twice before he comes back to his desk.

Recommendations for best practice

We have three recommendations for best practice.  Firstly, the movement break should be tailored to the individual’s needs.  Secondly, the movement break must help to support their arousal level.  Finally, ensure there is structure and expectations.

Tailoring the movement for each individual

Each individual is different and will have different needs.  This means that there is no one size fits all movement break solution.  Some students might need a calmer break to help them to lower their alertness.  Others, whilst they need movement to help to become more alert, will also need structure to help them to get organised.

You can watch to see how the individual attends and maintains focus after the break.  If their attention has improved, then the movement was likely the right solution for them.  However, if they are more dysregulated it will need to change.

Movement breaks to support arousal level

Remember, the primary goal of a movement break is to help the individual to be more organised and ready to attend to their task.  At home, this might be sitting and eating dinner or doing homework.  At school, it’s typically being ready to sit and learn.

As a rule, faster and less rhythmic movement is more energising.  Slower, more rhythmic movement is calming.  And, heavy work, or activities with a lot of push and pull can help to both calm and organise.

Some children might just need to calm down, so a yoga session might be helpful.  Others may just need to increase their alertness, so a short burst of running and jumping will work.  However, many students will need a combination of movement and then something to help them to reorganise at the end.  For example, there may be jumping and running to start, but then there is a pushing and breathing activity to end.  We demonstrate this in our first movement break video which you can watch below.

Have structure and expectations during movement breaks

Finally, it’s ok to have structure and expectations with the movement break.  In fact, it is recommended!  Often without this, students become more unsettled and less ready for work.

It could be that students have to run around sports markings on the field, or, around cones or to a specific sequence of landmarks.  Counting is a great way to add structure.  Videos, see below, are a really easy way to do this.

Sometimes it’s hard to send the student outside to complete a sensory circuit or activity, movement minutes have been a great way to keep them moving whilst in the classroom.

Using movement breaks in the classroom

In many cases it’s difficult to have a student leave the class.  This is where smaller and more contained activities are useful.  Sometimes, it can be easier to do the break with the whole class.  Movement videos are a great option here.  Or, the teacher could run through their own sequence of movements and stretches.

Movements that easily fits into a classroom space

  • Jogging on the spot

  • Star jumps

  • Touch your toes and stretch to the ceiling

  • Press down on your desk and hold

  • Press your hands together and hold

  • Marching on the spot

  • Cross march where your left hand touches your right knee then your right hand to left knee

  • Making circles with your arms outstretched

  • Jump to the right then then left

  • Twist to the left and right

To help students to refocus you can also add in a calming activity at the end.  This could include

  • Ten breaths

  • Holding a yoga pose

  • Sitting with eyes closed for a count of ten

Movement corner

Another thing that can work very well is a movement corner.  Here, it is best to have 3-5 activities that the student follows in sequence.  There are many sensory diet cards available with activity suggestions, for example GriffinOT and Twinlk.  Some classrooms make their own cards using pictures of students completing activities.

When creating these it’s always useful to think about the sequence.  As mentioned above it’s helpful to have movement first and a more organising activity to finish.  It is also important to check that the student can do the activities on the cards.  So, you may wish to practise as a whole class first and set up expectations first.

Video Recommendations

GriffinOT is releasing short movement break clips which are designed to be used in the classroom.  Here’s the first one, and if you subscribe to the YouTube channel you will be notified when we release more.

  • GoNoodle have a huge range of videos, including faster fitness ones and slower breathing ones.

  • Cosmic Yoga has many yoga activities; these are helpful for calming and organising students.

  • Joe Wicks also has 5 minute clips, and his longer PE with Joe sessions could be used in short 5 minute bursts through the day.

Movement breaks at home

All of the above suggestions are relevant to support a child’s alertness at home.  The park can also be a great place for movement.  As can cycling, going out on a scooter, skateboard or roller blades.  You can also consider which after school activities will help the child best.  For example, swimming and climbing can be quite organising.  Whereas, a football match might be more alerting.  And, if you’re indoors then fitness consoles (e.g. Wii Fit) can be a great option.

You can also use calmer movement to help to support decreasing alertness at bed time.  This could include heavy work, rhythmic swinging or yoga.  Typically, decreasing light and noises in the environment help as well.

In conclusion

Movement breaks can be a useful solution at both home and school to help individuals to regulate when you’re short of time.  It’s important to make sure they are organised and they activities help to support the individual’s arousal.

Where to next?

For more ideas, you may find these pages helpful

  • GriffinOT’s free sensory diet cards for some activity ideas
  • Heavy work can support organisation
  • Sensory circuits are a useful option if you have more time for the movement break – article coming soon
  • Our free online introduction to help you to further understand the senses and sensory processing

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