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Written by Nolwenn Chesnaisa, Claudia Verretb and Geneviève Cabagnoa

a Université Rennes, Laboratoire VIPS2 (Values, Innovations, Policies, Socializations & Sports) EA 4636 - F- 35000 Rennes, France

b Université du Québec à Montréal, Département des sciences de l'activité physique, CP 8888, Montréal, Québec H3C 3P8, Canada

Student behavioural problems in schools can confront teachers with the daily challenge of classroom management and place them in situations that they experience as particularly complex and stressful (Bernier et al., 2021). These behavioural difficulties can also have a negative impact on student learning since they are associated in the scientific literature with greater academic and social difficulties (McClelland et al., 2007; Robson et al., 2020). In fact, they are manifestations of inappropriate behaviours that are unsuited to the school context, such as inattention, impulsivity, hyperactivity, etc. (Déry et al., 2002; Déry et al., 2007; Gaudreau, 2011) that disrupt classroom functioning and also prevent students from fully engaging in learning. The management of behavioural difficulties in the classroom, therefore, raises questions about the pedagogical modalities that teachers could propose to support better behaviours and thus facilitate the learning of these students.

Students with behavioural difficulties have been found to struggle with self-regulation, that is, controlling their thoughts, behaviours, and emotions (Vohs & Baumeister, 2016). Different types of interventions, such as curriculum-based interventions, mindfulness and yoga, physical activity and exercise, involving parents/families, or focusing on other social or individual skills (e.g., self-control, inattention, etc.), can be implemented to improve children's and adolescents' self-regulatory abilities, and thus more broadly academic success (Pandey et al., 2018). Thus, for example, the implementation of activities such as yoga, or, more broadly, physical activities can have beneficial effects on these dimensions. The specific interest of these interventions, for students with learning disabilities linked in particular to these behavioural problems, is noted with regard to the potential benefits on their learning (Popham et al., 2018).

Active breaks, characterized by short periods of physical activity that take place within the classroom, are one of the modalities proposed among different forms of physical activity in school settings to support students' self-regulation (Verret et al., 2020). More broadly, they seem to be able to support students' academic success through multidimensional effects on their academic performance (Donnelly & Lambourne, 2011), their motivation and enjoyment (Mullins et al., 2019), or their classroom behaviours, particularly related to their engagement in the task at hand (Daly-Smith et al., 2018). From then on, active breaks can support behaviours conducive to students' learning. More specifically, a few studies (e.g., see Ma et al., 2015) have looked at the effects of these breaks on students with the most off-task behaviours in the classroom and concluded that there are greater benefits on task engagement for this population. Given these multiple benefits, it is possible to assume that these active breaks could promote the academic success of students with learning disabilities. However, further research is needed to clarify the effects of active breaks on these students in particular.

Presenting Active breaks

Active breaks have attracted the interest of a number of researchers and practitioners because of their benefits, observed on students, as well as their feasibility. In fact, active breaks are a tool with a low cost in terms of time and materials, which greatly facilitates their use by teachers. They are characterized by short sessions of physical activity of moderate to sustained intensity, carried out within the classroom. They last between 5 and 15 minutes on average and are different from recess, which is outside the classroom and unstructured, and from physical education class, which has very specific educational purposes (Hivner et al., 2019). Therefore, active breaks should not be used to replace recess or physical education; instead, they aim to be complementary to these other times of physical activity.

Content of active breaks

Active breaks can take very different and varied forms (Table 1).

active breaks table 1

Table 1: The different contents of active breaks

Click here to view and download Table 1: The different contents of active breaks. 

Other active breaks can be imagined, invented by teachers or even by students! In addition, the integration of physical activity within the classroom may or may not be associated with academic content (Vazou et al., 2020). For example, the statements made in the active games can be linked to a lesson previously seen in the classroom, such as French, geography, etc.

Conduct during active breaks

In terms of structure, an active break often begins with a short initiation, followed by a time of more intense physical activity during which various structured movements are repeated. The break ends with a calming phase, with stretching movements, yoga-type exercises or breathing and relaxation exercises. These different phases are detailed in the following table, along with tips for implementation (Table 2).

Table 2: The different phases of the active break, recommendations for implementation

Click here to view and download Table 2: The different phases of the active break, recommendations for implementation

Implementing Active Breaks

A number of recommendations for implementing active breaks emerge from the literature and from discussions with teachers who use active breaks in their classrooms.

Choose the content:

The active break can be chosen by the teachers, by the students, or by lottery. The content may depend on the materials available in the classroom but also on the needs, desires, and preferences of the teachers and/or students. Taking into account the characteristics of the students (age, classroom atmosphere, student behaviours, students' attention and concentration capacities, level of excitement, perceived difficulties in a specific task, etc.) seems to be a central element in order to propose relevant content that will promote the appearance of beneficial effects on the students. The richness of the content of active breaks in terms of intensity, duration, supports and physical exercises performed greatly facilitates this adaptation.

Choosing the time:

Active breaks can be implemented spontaneously (when the students or the teacher feel the need) or in a ritualized manner (by integrating them into the class schedule). In the first case, the teacher can base his or her decisions on the behaviour of his or her students (inattention, irritation, fatigue, weariness, discouragement, the noise level in the classroom, etc.), or on the feelings of his or her students (the students can use a visual signal on their table, for example, to be placed on the side "I feel the need to take an active break"). This allows for an active break to be implemented at a time when students really need it. However, it can be difficult to interrupt a lesson or to remember to set up the active breaks, and implementation can be more complicated. In the case of ritualized active breaks, implementation is simplified in the sense that it is planned and systematized. Rituals are recommended in the literature on special needs students because they facilitate the management of these students by giving them a stable framework. In addition, the ritualization of these activities allows for more frequent and automatic use of active breaks, which can facilitate students' habituation to activity and thus help reduce students' excitement about novelty in particular. According to the teachers interviewed about the introduction of active breaks, the change of task is a good time to offer an active break, because it allows students who are engaged in a task not to be interrupted, and to offer a transition between two tasks. Active breaks can also be used as a morning or post-meal ritual when students arrive in class, as a routine time to prepare them to work and to put them in the right conditions for the day.

Choose the frequency:

Active breaks can be used on an ad hoc basis or more frequently, depending on the objectives and the needs of the students. According to scientific studies, the greatest benefits for students are obtained when active breaks are implemented in a ritualized manner, daily or even several times a day. However, teachers may find it difficult to maintain daily use of active breaks over the long term (Holt et al., 2013). Therefore, the frequency of active breaks should be adapted by teachers according to the expected effects and the needs of the students, taking into account their time constraints and the characteristics of their students.

Set up a clear framework for the break and provide clear rules:

Because of their playfulness and the pleasure they bring to children, active breaks can lead to a certain amount of excitement and excesses. To make it easier to get back to work, teachers who use this tool recommend setting up a clear framework and very precise rules, with a clear delimitation of the time dedicated to the active break.


Active breaks are accessible pedagogical tools that are appreciated by students and teachers alike (Bailey & DiPerna, 2015). Because of their benefits on students' behaviours, but also on the classroom atmosphere and the positive dynamic they create, they can be particularly interesting for teachers to support them in managing their classrooms, especially with students with learning difficulties. As with any pedagogical intervention, active breaks must nevertheless be appropriated and adapted by teachers if they hope to obtain benefits for their students. Particular attention should be paid to students with learning difficulties in order to identify their reactions and find the most appropriate ways of implementing them to avoid any excesses.