August 10, 2018

By Gerard Dawson

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that school gets crazy before a break.


It may be the shopping- and baking-filled days before winter holidays. Or that long “no man’s land” leading up to spring break. And don’t forget that last month, slow as molasses, on the approach to summer vacation. Students and teachers both feel it, but not in the same way.

For students, there’s a whole set of complex emotions during this time. Of course, many students are excited about a break, looking forward to time off from school when they can have fun with friends and family. Their minds are off their school work and onto good times ahead. Other kids, though, experience a different set of feelings. They may be stressed to leave the predictable routine of school and return to unstable home lives. Moreover, the holidays can be a trigger for students prone to anxiety.


As if that isn’t enough, teachers carry our own emotions before a break. We, too, are excited to get away from work. We get tired as we try to keep up with the students, and we experience our own impatience as the finish line approaches. Classroom teacher Andrea Friend acknowledges the many emotional milestones that the end of the year brings for teachers. “I am finally seeing my 6th-graders as confident middle schoolers, sending my 8th-graders on to the high school, and crying tears of joy as my seniors leave and discover their futures,” she said.


Fortunately, there’s a silver lining during these challenging times. Let’s stop and consider the behaviors that we observe in students in the time leading up to a break:

  • More energy 
  • More sociability
  • More desire to move

Each of these can be channeled into positive activities that take advantage of the situation in an educationally meaningful way. Not only that, but teachers can proactively manage the time before breaks with a few positive teaching practices.


1) Build a resilient classroom culture.

One way to manage the class in the time before a break is to manage the class well in all the days that are not right before a break. By continuing to build on already-positive relationships, teachers can minimize misbehavior. When a student feels cared about, they are more likely to be their best self.


Classroom teacher Stacey Ryan noticed a close correlation between student-teacher relationships and student learning. “As a teacher, you have the potential to be the reason some of your kids want to attend school (or not!) that day. When a student feels cared about, they are more likely to be their best self,” she said.


2) Create meaningful work (and play) opportunities.

Even though teachers might be getting tired, “easing up” on the pace or rigor of class will only serve to make any pre-break classroom-management issues worse than they have to be. Instead, maintain the academic standards for class and daily lessons. Intentionally plan days with a “wow” factor. To help keep kids focused during this time of year, commit to planning at least one activity or project students will be excited about each week.


With that said, build some extra play time into the day, too, to take advantage of the extra energy that students may have. Take your students outside for a bonus short recess, relaxation, or socializing time. Spend five minutes of class time on a purely fun activity like a team-builder, dance party, or game.


Some may argue that these breaks are a “waste of time,” but the reality is closer to the opposite. When students take short breaks to play or rest, they will be able to spend more total time on-task and focused on learning.


Consider this study from 2012 that suggests that “students should be provided with frequent physical activity breaks that are developmentally appropriate.” and that “time in the school day dedicated to recess, physical education class, and physical activity in the classroom may also facilitate academic performance.” So, perhaps counterintuitively, more playing may lead to more learning.


Scheduling this positive time carries over into teachers’ attitudes, too, according to Stacey. She recommends that teachers “keep a sense of humor, have flexibility, stay positive, and remember that you make a difference!”


Andrea echoes Stacey’s suggestions about the importance of positive classroom experiences at the end of the year.


“Keep your students busy doing projects that are meaningful, go outside as often as you can, and try something new that won’t take tons of time to plan,” Andrea said.


3) Use it as a time to experiment.

One positive for teachers before a break is that it’s a bit of a free chance to try something new.  This is a good time to experiment with a new lesson, strategy, or classroom design. This can work especially well before summer break because if the experiment flops, then end of the school year is right around the corner. Teachers can learn from the experiment and course correct for the fall.


Andrea uses this time to try out a large-scale overhaul to the way she runs her classroom.


“I am using this time of the year to try out something new that shouldn’t take me a great deal of prep time. This year that something is: going completely paperless,” Andrea said.


Did you see the common thread running between the ideas?


They all involve accepting, channeling, and flowing with the circumstances that teachers find themselves in before a break. Resisting students’ energy and excitement, or trying to clamp down on compliance or quiet in the classroom will likely backfire and make behavior worse. Of course, this does not mean that rules go out with the window. It just means that the unique time before a break requires a unique approach for the teacher who wants to manage the class well and get to the break with a smile on her (and her students’) face.

Gerard Dawson

Gerard Dawson

Gerard Dawson is an English and journalism teacher at Hightstown (NJ) High School, the author of Hacking Literacy: 5 Ways to Turn Any Classroom into a Culture of Readers, and a contributor to The Best Lesson Series: Literature. Follow him on Twitter: @GerardDawson3.

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