Downtime in the Special Needs Classroom

I’m looking forward to the Thanksgiving break, friends.  It’s no exaggeration to say that by this time every school year I am fried.  I find myself short on sleep and heavy on responsibilities and commitments.  All I really want at the end of every work day is a nap.  I want to travel back in time and kick my younger self for fighting nap time at daycare all those years ago. It was a golden age in life when I had the perfect opportunity to disengage, relax, unwind, and just be and I wasted it like a fool! But even if I were a child in today’s world, I’d still be running on a deficit when it comes to real downtime.

“…our kids are not getting enough time to do nothing…”

Which brings me to my (actual) point: our kids are not getting enough time to do nothing…not at home, and not at school.  Today though, my focus is downtime at school and why it should be something you fight for in your classroom.  I want to take a moment to share my thoughts on students being allowed a structured downtime or rest time during the school day.  We carve out time for this daily after lunch and I have to tell you, it’s the absolute best.  It allows our entire room a short breather to reset for the rest of the day.  It definitely doesn’t fall under the umbrella of activities you might find in a typical middle school classroom…or even a special needs classroom for that matter.  But it’s been a critical component to student success in our world.

Our schedule looked quite different at the beginning of our first year.  We were allowing for a 5-10 minute break after lunch and then jumping straight back into intensive instruction.  The result was a disaster.  Students were tired, cranky, and worst of all, “unengaged”.  Initially, our approach was to change the type of activity that followed lunch, hoping that fun, hands-on Science lessons would spark their interest.  Since we are not provided a Science curriculum (outside of ULS which is neither appropriate nor engaging for students in my classroom) it meant that this took a lot of my personal time, money, and resources to implement.  I did it anyway, because it was what was best for my class. (Just like I’m currently writing curriculum for Science, Social Studies, and Social Skills in lieu of district-provided materials for these subjects…because that’s what my class needs me to do.)   Unfortunately, even our most fun and engaging Science activities were not able to keep them interested.  Why? They were tired.  Really tired.

 

Our instruction-intense mornings coupled with the after lunch-lull were wearing them out.  After reflection, analyzing data, and brainstorming with my paras, I decided the answer must be to build in more breaks in their mornings.  So the next week, we staggered instructional times, making sure that each student was given a 5 minute break after about 10 minutes of work was completed.  We were confident that these breaks would give them the needed energy to keep them working through the rest of the day.  It didn’t.  They were still exhausted after lunch, the afternoon hours dragged for them…and for us.

 

So we reassessed again.  And I researched and read everything I could get my hands on concerning downtime in the special education classroom.  And we decided to try something different.  We extended their after lunch break to between 20 and 30 minutes.  We let them rest on the beanbags or stretch out on mats; we gave them cozy blankets and turned the lights down.  We played soft, relaxing music.  We significantly cut down on sensory input, we taught them how to relax and rest in a way that would be restorative (sometimes even beginning or ending this rest period with yoga), we wrote and taught a procedure for downtime complete with how it was done, expectations, social norms, and embedded leisure skills.  We learned that some of our kids didn’t know HOW to relax or engage in meaningful and effective downtime without technology present, or being told it was bedtime.

 

It was life-changing for us as a class.  When rest time was over, they folded their blankets and put them away in their designated areas,  they completed a grooming routine similar to what might be completed at home in the mornings (which opened up a whole new area for us to provide instruction for them), but best of all…they felt great.

“Where once sat wilted, defeated children now sat empowered and engaged learners.”

They were happy, awake, excited to learn…they were thriving.  Where once sat wilted, defeated children now sat empowered and engaged learners.  You see, we are supposed to be teaching them LIFE skills, and it turns out that there are a lot of areas that encompasses, including how we rest, when we rest, and how we get up and get moving when that rest time is done.

Not only was the rest time meaningful, beneficial, and restorative…it was instructional.

 

I understand that someone who isn’t in our classroom all day, every day may harbor a variety of concerns about rest time.  This is an attempt to address those concerns.  Maybe you will see where we are coming from, maybe you won’t.  That’s ok.  I’m confident in my choices.  They are researched based, well-thought out, and they put the needs of my students first.  I don’t feel pressured to prove anything.  My students’ progress speaks for itself.  Anyone can walk into our room and look around and see that kids are learning here.  Sure, at times we take a different approach than what people are used to.  But it’s working for us.  I’m assuming that’s why our classroom has been used as a  model classroom in recent district trainings…because  what we’re doing here is working! And now I’ve shared our secret with you  WHY it’s working!

 

Thank you for taking time to read my thoughts on the matter.  I encourage you to take a deeper look at the benefits of downtime for children with special needs (and, actually, everyone).  It’s pretty good stuff.  We already know that our students are operating at a “younger” developmental level, one where they need more rest incorporated into their day.  We also know that students with special needs constantly combat fatigue and sensory overload.  The research on that is clear. I’ve included a link to an article better explaining the benefits of downtime for learners and expands on how information is better stored when allowed time to go “offline” and be “awake doing nothing”.  If you’re one who still struggles with allowing kids this kind of rest period during the school day  I would also encourage you to take a fresh look at this downtime and try to view it as both beneficial and instructional. Reframing our thought process when we learn new information and remaining willing to step outside the box a little bit every now and then are the ways we ensure that putting students’ needs first will always be our approach and our first priority.

 

http://www.scilearn.com/blog/benefits-of-downtime-why-learners-brains-need-a-break

 

 

Happy Thanksgiving!

(And now…we NAP!)

 

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