As we have discussed in our blog and newsletter numerous times, adequate break time is essential to staving off burnout and maintaining a sustainable output level throughout the semester. However, after reviewing the handful of blog posts on the importance of taking breaks, we realized there might be more pressing issues than scheduling break time. Students are getting better at taking breaks, whether by habit, coaching, or sheer exhaustion. But how helpful are these breaks? That’s the question we want to answer in this blog post.
If I ask a student to take a break every hour on hour during final exam preparation, most of them can handle that. Frankly, during these three to four hours of studying before a marathon of cumulative exams, most students don’t need to be told that break time is essential. The problem lies in how these students take breaks.
The timer goes off. One more hour of studying and a handful of to-do list items are checked off the list. It’s break time. Alex, our fictional student for today, instinctively grabs the cell phone in his pocket. Without pondering the cause of his actions, Alex plows through notification after notification, responding to text messages, snapchats, and Instagram comments. After the “urgent stuff” is taken care of, Alex turns to the infinity pool apps: Twitter & TikTok. He soaks in the endless source of dopamine until his mother pops into his room to check his progress. Alex explains he is taking a break; his mother furrows her brow. Seeing that he’s been “on break” for thirty minutes, Alex jumps back into AP U.S. History.
When Alex returns to studying, he’s likely to struggle. That study guide is about as entertaining as watching paint dry compared to the entertainment behemoth in his pocket. He struggles on for another hour before calling it a day. So much for using breaks to maintain productivity in a study session!
I typed that fictional account with an extra dose of keyboard slamming. It’s irritating because I have seen it happen six million times. The next day when Alex talks to his academic coach about his exam preparation progress, he’ll criticize the efficacy of the segmented break approach with impunity. The only issue is that Alex did not follow through on the productive break plan he was taught. Breaks need to be restful, novel, and time-restricted to be helpful.
Breaks Should be Restful
This isn’t a novel concept, but it is often ignored. During a study session, students nearing the end of their rope need to recharge their batteries… social media does not do that. Social media provides an endless stream of dopamine powered by some of the most advanced distraction technology in human history. To make matters worse, these apps feel restful when they are really sending the brain into hyper-consumption mode. Instead of giving the brain the space and peace it needs to recover, students like Alex rev up the engines. When Alex returns to study, he feels less focused than before his break because he never actually took a rest.
Breaks Should be Novel
Students who reach for the phone the second the timer indicates break time also make the mistake of stillness. During breaks, it is absolutely vital to change the environment for a few minutes. Not only does this get the student up and moving (the studies linking movement to better academic performance are indisputable), but it also helps the mind separate the work from rest. Scientists were blown away by the mental health effects of working from home caused by the conflation of the work zone and the rest zone. The brain struggles to turn off without a stimulus, like changing the environment. Alex will perform much better when he returns to work if he steps away from his desk for a few minutes.
Breaks Should be Time-Restricted
The third crucial part of breaks is to keep them time-restricted. Just as students have a timer for work time, they should also set a timer for break time, especially if they ignore the advice about avoiding social media. The Twitter or TikTok doom scroll keeps the mind occupied for as long as possible. In the worst cases, students can scroll away hours without realizing it. Adding a timer to boost awareness is a great way to keep the break from spiraling out of control.
At Staying Ahead of the Game, we firmly believe that habits and systems driven by executive functioning skill research can help any student thrive in the modern-day classroom. As the new semester gets tougher with inevitable February absences, remind your child that organization, time management, study skills, and impression management form the foundation for every stellar school year.
Beyond the core four EF skills listed above, there is one more way you can help your student succeed this semester: academic coaching. Our flagship academic coaching program provides students with a one-on-one EF mentor who can provide accountability and guidance throughout the academic year. To learn more about this service, please view our free resources or reach out to us today.