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  4. Therapeutic schools: Rethinking lunch and break times

Therapeutic schools: Rethinking lunch and break times

Therapeutic schools lunch and break time

Shahana Knight advises schools on supporting the emotional and mental health of children and staff, offering easy-to-implement and cost-effective activities. Here she focuses on rethinking lunch times and your outdoor spaces

Dinner time and break time can often be overlooked in a busy school environment, where staff have a few precious moments to grab a cup of tea before the kids come back in.

However this is often the most difficult time of day for those children struggling with adverse life experiences and childhood trauma. It is important to remember that these children already have high levels of stress hormones. They are also more likely to feel threatened and will be working from an instinctive part of their brain, focused on survival, rather than the rational regulated parts of the brain that we might expect.

This means that they are more likely to respond to small triggers (such as loud noises and big feelings) with big behaviours such as fighting, getting into arguments and running away.

If when at home a child spends most of their time trying to process how best to keep safe from threat, their brain is likely to become faulty and over-react to small triggers in other situations too. Think of a child living with domestic violence, for example. Their internal processes are more concerned with staying safe and therefore their body will spring in to action when they feel threatened.

This “threat” might be a loud noise by parents or the feeling of anxiousness and being overwhelmed when seeing parents hurt. Their brain will be on high alert and will tell them to run away, or fight back, which works well in that context. However, this response does not work well in a school context. Imagine the same child feeling overwhelmed, anxious and hearing loud noises on the playground – running away and fighting are not acceptable responses. There are many children stuck in this survival mode at school. As a result, break time is often the hardest part of the day for them and you are more likely to see behavioural issues that arise because of this. Instead of break time being fun, it is a time of heightened stress.

The purpose of break times in the day are so that the children can have some down time to get ready to begin to learn again. I want us to think about how we can use break time to help these children learn to regulate and get a real break from their internal stressors before they are expected to come back to class.

Introduce calming zones

Set up two or three zones on the playground where children can go if running around isn’t something they want to do or can manage. This can be two or three areas marked out by soft interlocking foam pads or blankets. Try to pick somewhere at the side of the playground or in a little nook if you have one. Zones can include:

  • Calming colouring sheets/books and some crayons ( all year groups).
  • Lego (years 4, 5 and 6).
  • Jigsaw puzzles (difficulty can increase with the age of the children).

These areas will help focus and calm the children’s internal states. They will reduce their heart rate and help regulate their breathing, reducing anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed. Choose activities the children can do by themselves that encourage concentration and little physical exertion.

However, don’t forget to set your rules. No more than five children at each zone. And two helping monitors per zone, who help to set up the zone at the beginning of break and clear it away after. Resources must stay on the mats, otherwise the zone doesn’t come out the following day. As ever, make sure any new initiatives are fully explained the day before they are introduced. Go over the rules and expectations and explain what happens if they are not followed. Implement this idea in all year groups including years 5 and 6.

Play calming music

The transition from playtime to lesson time can be hard for some children. To suddenly be expected to sit and concentrate when their heart rate and energy is so high from running around can be a big ask. Introducing relaxing music five minutes before playtime is over can help to bring energy levels down and refocus minds. Try a stereo player or portable speaker.

Explain to the children that when they hear the music it means that there are just five minutes of the break left. Ask them to make their way to the line up area and sit down in their lines to listen to the final two minutes of the music. This will help with the transition back to the classroom and could be a brilliant routine for each day.

Relaxation drop-ins

In today’s society, it is unlikely that children are getting much time to just be still and content with quiet time. In fact they have so many fast pace, instantly gratifying devices at their disposal that often the concept of resting, thinking and reflecting are lost. This is a disadvantage for any child, but even more so for those already struggling with their internal states.

Consider asking teachers or support staff to volunteer 10 minutes at dinner time to lead some relaxation sessions a few times a week. Children can sign up/be chosen to visit the relaxation room during break or dinner. Or maybe you prefer to run a drop-in session where children can decide whether they want to come by themselves. Choose a calm quiet space in school, play some relaxing music, ask the children to sit in a circle and do some short breathing exercises with them, followed by a calming meditation (you can find meditations in the free resource section of my website).

Your meditations can cover a range of topics to help teach the children more about being purposeful with their thoughts. For example, you could do one on feeling happy/feeling connected to others/finding strength. The power of visualisation can have a great impact on their sense of self.

Offering relaxation time communicates to the children that self-regulation, self-reflection and mindfulness are important skills to develop. Through delivering these short sessions you are helping develop the children’s own skillset with regard to wellbeing as well as helping them to manage their internal state for that particular day.


This article was initially written for Head Teachers Update magazine 

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