I Need a Break Card Visual
Anger Management,  Anxiety,  Behavior,  Calming Down,  Coping Skills

(Printable) Break Cards: How to Use Break Card Visuals at Home, School and Special Education

Break Cards: In this post, we will learn what break cards are, check examples of break card visuals and share ideas on how to use an “I need a break” card at home, in the classroom, and in special education. You will also be able to download your free printable break card visuals at the end of this article.

What is a break card?

Break cards are a versatile visual cue that your kids can use to request a break from an activity or a situation when things are getting overwhelming for them.

A break card assists the child/student to self-regulate their emotions, actions, or bodies.  

Examples of Break Card Visuals

Not everyone’s “break card” will look the same.

Here are some examples and ideas of what an “I need a break” card may look like:

  • Some children may like their own face on their break card
  • Other children may like a little stick figure on theirs
  • Some break cards have an “I need a break” message
  • Others don’t actually have any words on them at all and are simply made out of colors
  • Sometimes, you may have a pre-agreed break activity, so the card may represent the activity (reading, a swing…)

You may download your free printable break card visuals at the end of this article.

Examples of Break Card Visuals that can be downloaded at the end of the post

Note: some of the cards in this document have been created using ARASAAC pictograms (Pictogram author: Sergio Palao. Origin: ARASAAC (http://www.arasaac.org). License: CC (BY-NC-SA). Owner: Government of Aragon (Spain))

Who may benefit from a break card?

 Everyone needs a “break” periodically, but many people don’t have the ability to communicate that need when their emotions are already heightened. 

A break card is designed for this very reason.

Break cards are often used to help emotional regulation in:

How to Use a Break Card (Home / Mainstream Classroom / Special Education)

How you use your break card will depend on a number of factors:

  • Your child’s specific needs, age and development level
    The implementation won’t be the same for a kid on the autism spectrum, a young neurotypical child or an anxious teenager, just to give some examples.
  • Environment or setting where you are using this tool.

In this section, we will review how we can use the “I need a break” card in three different contexts:

  • Special education / autism
  • Mainstream classrooms
  • Home

Regardless your child specific situation, the following advice is always helpful:

  • Find a time when your child or student is not upset or overwhelmed
  • Discuss and practice how you will use the break card.
  • Explore what works best for your child or student:
    • how long the break needs to be
    • what type of calming activity would work best
    • how to deal with their emotions afterwards (they may want to talk about their emotions, or not talk about them at all)

Using a Break Card at Home

These are some suggestions on how to use your “break card” at home if your young child or teenager is struggling with self-regulation:

1. Talk with them. Explain to them why you think it may benefit them to use this strategy to get their emotions under control.

2. Brainstorm with them things that they would like included in their “break area”. 
This area can include fidgets, a notebook, a puzzle, pictures of their favorite things, magazines, comic books, something they enjoy doing with their hands, a musical instrument or even an mp3 player to listen to music.

This is entirely up to the child. But be careful when choosing these items, because they should not be overly stimulating.

3. Pick out an area of your home that meets your kid´s needs.
For example, a child who hates the sun in their eyes should not be made to take their breaks in the sun room.

If your child enjoys small dark places, find a place that may fit that need. This can be done with curtains, or even cardboard.

4. Create your break card or download the break card visuals at the end of this post.I need a break card with a girl illustration

5. Discuss the details of the implementation:

  • Will your kid put it on their door if their break area will be in there?
  • Are they going to hand it to you without saying anything?
  • Will they put the break card somewhere specific and announce to the room that they need a break.

6. Practice what will be said.
These are just a few examples of things your child or teenager may say to get their much needed “break”:

  • “I need a break”
  • “Break, please”
  • “I’m feeling (insert their emotion), I need a break”

7. Discuss what they need from you after their break is done.
Most of us have a “go to” reaction for certain emotions.
You may play out different scenarios with your child:

  • If you’re hurt what do you want Mom to do?
  • If you’re sad, what should Mom help you with? 

Your child may need space if they are angry, hugs if they are hurt emotionally or talk about what happened if they are hurt physically.

This is done so your kid knows that you are extending your services to them, and it is up to them if they want to take you up on your offer. 

Another example.
If your teenager can tell you, “I need a break because I’m frustrated with my homework”, your response can be “what do you need from me after you’ve taken your break”?

Let your child/teenager tell you and you provide the support and guidance they are asking for:

  • Do they need you to back off for a time?
  • Do they need you to help them with a task?
  • Is talking about their frustrations something they’d be interested in?
  • Sometimes your kid may be too overwhelmed to even discuss this, and that is okay. The response to your (the parent) question of “what do you need from me”, can simply be “we can talk about it later, I don’t know yet” (teenager’s response).

8. Discuss timing. Do they want/need a timer?

  • Is it feasible to not have a timer at all?
  • When does the break end?

Ideally, the break ends when the kid doesn’t need it anymore.
This can’t always be the case if you’re doing this in a school setting, but that will be discussed in more detail below.

9. Let your kid practice before becoming truly upset or overwhelmed.
Plan to take at least 2 different breaks throughout the day, lasting 5 minutes each. See how it goes. Discuss what the pros and cons were and adjust accordingly. This can be done more or less often depending on the needs of your child.  

10. Guide your child to go through the necessary steps when they’re feeling the need to take a break.
Use language such as: “You seem to be overwhelmed by your homework, why don’t you take a break and see how you feel afterward”.

  • In some cases, your child or teenager may be able to hand you the card and say “I need a break”
  • If you are working at home with your child on the autism spectrum, you may role-play or practice the following: have your child hand you the card, point to the card, or flip over the card on the Velcro strip you’ve created.
    Continue to guide and continue to redirect to that card.
    Then guide them to their break area.
    Depending on independence levels, you may have to physically guide them to that area enough times for them to remember that the area exists.

11. Always be cognizant of the fact that this strategy can change to meet your child’s needs. Never let it stay the same simply because that’s what you’ve always done.

Notice if your child is still benefiting from the break card, and the break area. If they are not, change whatever needs to be changed. This is not a one-size-fits-all approach.

Using a Break Card in Autism Classrooms / Special Education

Break Card Visual with a ClockThe main difference with using a break card in a special education classroom versus at home is that there must be more structure to the strategy.

It’s best for special education teachers to take some preliminary baseline data to make the best out of this strategy:

  • Information on how long it takes for their student to calm down when they’re feeling overwhelmed.
    For example, if this data shows that the student takes roughly 9 minutes to calm down from something that has really affected them, it wouldn’t make sense to give them a 5-minute break.
    They’d still be in the middle of their meltdown. Realistically, the break should be 10 minutes.
  • What tools or activities their student enjoys or helps them calm down.
    You will end up with a selection of classroom appropriate activities (that are not too loud, too stimulating, or too distracting to other children)

These are some ideas to use your break card in your special education classroom:

1. Show / Familiarize your student with the break cards.
Explain “This is a break card. You can use this card when you need a break”

2. Show /Explain where the break card will be: “Your break card will be ….”

example of how to use a place card for a break card
Break Card / Place Card Format Example

Some examples:

  • Oftentimes, teachers laminate and Velcro the student’s “break card” to the corner of the student’s desk.
  • Other times children have a “break card” icon on the home page of their communication device.
  • Some students find it useful to keep the icon on their person for ease of use. For example in their pocket or clipped to their belt.
  • For students who cannot communicate in the moment, a place card with a break icon can be created, in which students can simply place it on their desk and independently walk to their designated break area without asking for a break or interrupting the classroom flow.

3. Role-play what the use of the card will be:

  1. You tell your student: “When you feel tired, frustrated, or can’t cope with something you can use this card”
  2. You can ask for a break like this”, and then you point to the card or ask or guide the child to touch it
  3. Ask the child to hand you the card (or physically guide them if required)
  4. Place the card on a board or a designated spot
  5. Walk them to the break area or the “calm down corner”.

Some additional tips:

  • Teach the student to identify triggering stimuli and guide them to point, hand over, or flip their break card. Walk them to the break area or the “calm down corner”.
  • Use a timer that is minimally distracting. Getting a watch timer that the child can use on their wrist can be beneficial or a timer that visually shows the time going down.
  • Often times in educational settings, students will try to “escape” a given task. If that is the case, a limit on how many “breaks” the student gets may be necessary.
    It is important to note, that using the break card strategy is not meant to have the children escape their intended tasks or responsibilities.

Break Cards in Mainstream Classrooms

Again, the most prominent difference when using a break card in a mainstream classroom versus a special education classroom is the level of flexibility.

Most commonly, mainstream classrooms have more students, with varying degrees of need and less flexibility when it comes to interrupting the classroom schedule.

The best practice for using the break card in this setting is to allow the student to quietly put the break card on their desk and go to the calm down corner that was created, using the steps we’ve already discussed.

Other alternatives:

  • The student can be allowed to put up a divider on their desk and take their break right where they are.
  • Some mainstream teachers opt to have a whole room “break time”, in which students take 5 to 10 minute breaks throughout the day to break up the monotony of their rigid schedule.
  • Each student is allowed a “break bin” with pre-approved items so that they can enjoy their time and regulate themselves as well as possible. This way, when one student is feeling overwhelmed, distraught or upset, it isn’t strange to see them taking a regulation break on their own.
    Depending on the structure of the classroom:

    • Some mainstream classrooms I’ve seen have around 5 large tables and the students sit in groups around the tables.
      In the middle of the table, they usually have a large bin, divided into sections for each student.
      Within those sections, students are allowed to put some little personal items that they want/need/.
    • In other settings, kids have little caddies attached to their seats that can hold things such as books, but some kids choose to put other things in there such as puzzles or fidgets.
    • In some classrooms, desks have storage inside and kids can keep there their “break time” items.
    • There are also some classrooms that have shelving all across the room.
      Some teachers get bins for each of the kids with their names on them and their essentials in there, so if the kids need something like a break card their stuff would be in there.

(Free) “I Need a Break” Card

If you are ready to try this helpful tool, you may download these free printable “I Need a Break” cards.

Alternatively, you can also choose calming activities from your calm down cards.



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