Breaks vs Rewards

Throughout a day, teachers are constantly giving students sensory breaks and providing rewards when earned.  However, many times teachers use this language and these periods of time interchangeably.  Breaks and rewards both have a significant place and value in your classroom, but must be used in specific ways to be sure students have their needs met.

Let’s start of by clearly defining the difference between breaks and rewards.



A break is something that the student needs.  It helps their body and mind prepare for learning.  It can be something as simple as a walk to remove themselves from the stimulation from the classroom, or it could be riding on a scooter to get some input. 

It is important to note that breaks are almost never contingent on behavior.  The goal for breaks are to have set times throughout the day so the students get their sensory needs met before a problem behavior ever even occurs.

Now, if a student is engaging in problem behavior because they cannot regulate themselves and they need a break to help calm them and get them back to learning- that is another time to use a break.

If a student has a visual schedule, it is helpful to put their breaks on there as well.  This can show them when they are able to go or times that it is most appropriate.

However, it is important that breaks be preplanned and viewed as something that is necessary for the student to be successful.


Rewards are different from breaks in the fact that they are contingent on behavior.  They should be given following appropriate behavior that the student demonstrates.  

Another difference with rewards is that if a student is engaging in a problem behavior, even if it is sensory seeking, they do not earn their reward.  They can get a break, but not a reward.  This is why it is important to make the distinction between a break and a reward.  If they are viewed as the same thing then you could reinforce a problem behavior and then cause it to occur more in the future.

Rewards do not have to be tangible or even cost you money.  Click here to read 21 free classroom reward ideas.

Rewards are typically not something that is put on a student’s schedule.  (Now there are always unique cases but this is for the majority).  


Helpful Tips and Reminders for Break and Rewards

  1. What is a break for one student may be a reward for another. One student may need to use a swing for the input to help calm their body.  However, this may just be fun for another student.  Even though it still provides sensory input for both students- only one is needed to regulate their body to come back to the classroom to learn.
  2. Talk to your occupational therapist or your physical therapist about students’ specific sensory needs always helps to determine the most effective breaks.  It also helps to be sure you are not using a break as a reward.
  3. Limit choices.  Sometimes students can tell you what they need for their break- maybe they need to jump on the trampoline instead of going to the sensory room.  This could be a good time to include visuals so students have a visual representation of their choices.  Providing visuals also helps to eliminate options if they are not available. For example, if the swing is broken, you can show the student the other break visuals instead.  Using choice and visuals can work for both rewards and breaks.
  4. Create a list for each student determining what are breaks and what are rewards.  Be sure the entire team knows which is which so one person does not mistakenly use them incorrectly.
  5. Use consistent language.  Every time your student takes a break, be sure you are using the language, “Let’s take a break.” Having the same language helps the student understand what you are asking them to do and decreases confusion.  Sometimes students will be told, “Let’s take a break,” “Let’s go to the small room,” “Let’s go get calm,” “Let’s go for a walk.” Having all of this different language can be very confusing to a student who struggles to process language.

Breaks and rewards should be used in every classroom, whether there are problem behaviors or not.  Clearly defining the difference in these can eliminate the potential for future problem behaviors. 

Want 50 ideas for free rewards? Check out this blog post from The Big Ideas Educator!

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