What Is the Break Card Strategy?
Many learners with disabilities struggle to communicate their wants and needs in a socially appropriate manner, especially when feeling frustrated, upset or anxious. The Break Card Strategy is an intervention tool used to decrease problem behavior by teaching a Learner to request a break to escape from tasks, demands or situations that are difficult or overwhelming. Learners are taught to touch a break card on the screen which then initiates a break for a designated amount of time. When the break time is completed, the strategy provides an individual reminder to the Learner that it is time to get back to the scheduled event.
While using Positivity, the break cards are visible to the Learner at all times. While using Unique Learning System or News-2-You the break cards can be moved to different locations on the screen. Break cards are assigned to specific events in the schedule. Users have the option of linking the break cards to single events or to multiple events across the day.
Why Is the Break Card Strategy Important?
Problem behavior is one of the most common concerns reported by educators for children with disabilities in the school setting. According to Lohrmann & Bambara (2006), in addition to the fact that some behaviors are potentially harmful and disruptive, they may also prevent students from being accepted by others and from participating in the inclusive environment. Research in the field of applied behavior analysis has demonstrated that procedures can be used to decrease the presence of challenging behavior if the team can determine the function of the behavior or why it occurs and then implement an intervention that matches the function (Carr & Durand, 1985; Durand, V.M. & Moskowitz, L. 2015; Durand, V.M. 1999; Horner et al., 1991; Radstaake, M et al., 2013; Tiger, J.H., Hanley, G.P. & Bruzek, J. 2008).
In a review of intervention practices, Functional Communication Training (FCT) was found to be an effective practice to replace problem behavior with more appropriate and effective skills and communicative behaviors (Franzone, E. 2009). In FCT, a Learner is taught an alternative response (positive behavior) that results in the same reinforcement as the original problem behavior. The new alternative response is a form of communication that may be verbal or nonverbal (sign, picture card). In a comparison study of the long-term effects of functional communication training, students who receive Functional Communication Training as an intervention for challenging behavior are more likely to maintain the long-term effects of the intervention as compared to students who are exposed to common behavioral reduction procedures without functional communication training (Durand, V.M. & Carr, E.G., 1992).
FCT should only be implemented after a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) has been conducted to determine the function of the Learner’s problem behavior. The team must determine the reason why the student is engaging in the behavior in order to identify an appropriate replacement behavior that will get the same need met more efficiently. The function of behavior will most likely be one of the following:
- To escape/avoid tasks or situations (e.g., Learner screams when teacher presents a worksheet)
- To gain attention (e.g., Learner interrupts to gain the teacher’s attention)
- To gain access to tangible items or activities (e.g., Learner hits another student to get a toy)
- Automatic sensory input (e.g., Learner flaps his or her hands while in class)
In a review of practices related to Functional Communication Training in children and young adults with disabilities, the problem behaviors of the children were found to be maintained by escaping from demands in 43% of the cases and escaping from other aversive events (e.g., loud noises and social interaction) in 4% of the cases (Franzone, E. 2009). The intervention chosen must match the function of the problem behavior. The Break Card Strategy is an intervention designed to address behaviors that serve an escape function. The Break Card Strategy is unlikely to be successful for other functions.
Setting Up the Break Card Strategy in Positivity
- Once you are in Positivity, select “Strategies”(1) from the menu on the left-hand corner of the screen.
- Click on “+ New Strategy” (2) on the upper right-hand corner of the screen. Then select “Break Card” (3) and Name the strategy (4). Click “Next” to set up the Break Cards for the learner (5).
- Select the duration of the break(6). This can be done based on minutes and/or seconds.
- If desired, choose a thumbnail image to be used as the Break Card (7). You may upload a photo from your computer using the “Images” section or use a symbol from SymbolStix PRIME in the Symbol area (8).
- Determine the auditory cue used when the Learner initiates the Break Strategy (9). Examples may include: “Break,” “Break please,” or “I need a Break.” Remember to keep the language simple and appropriate to the level of the Learner. Determine the auditory cue that will be stated upon completion of the break as well.
- Select “SAVE & CLOSE” to save the strategy setup (10).
Note: To use the Break Strategy, add it to an event, and select the number of Break Cards available for the Learner during the event. If the student initiates a break, customized auditory cue and visual of time will display. Once the break is complete, the used card is removed.
Implementing the Break Card Intervention:
Step 1: Identify the interfering problem behavior and determine the function
The team should identify the interfering problem behavior that is serving some type of communicative function and is being reinforced somehow throughout the day.
Conduct informal and formal assessments through a FBA to determine the function of the Learner’s problem behavior before using the Break Card Strategy to ensure that the intervention matches the function of the behavior. Ensure that there is a member on the team who has knowledge and experience in understanding behavior and implementing behavioral intervention plans and procedures when conducting the assessment and creating the plan.
Collect baseline data on the problem behavior before implementing the Break Card Strategy.
Step 2: Identify a replacement behavior (“Break Card”) to use instead of the problem behavior
This strategy is an intervention that is effective in replacing problem behaviors ONLY in cases where the function of the Learner’s problem behavior is to escape/avoid tasks, demands and/or situations. Use of this strategy for other functions is unlikely to be successful.
The new replacement behavior to be taught is “asking for a break.” In order for the strategy to be effective, the new skill of asking for a break needs to be more efficient for the Learner to escape or avoid than the problem behavior. When teaching the Learner to ask for a break:
Define what a “Break” represents to ensure that the Learner and all members on the team are on the same page.
- Identify length of Break: Identify the length of time that the Learner will be able to engage in break activities–this amount of time may vary based on individual needs. In general, keep the timeframe limited to less than 5-10 minutes as it can be difficult to redirect Learners back to the task at hand if the break is too long.
- Define activity within the Break: Define what it is that the Learner is able to do while on break. In order to teach the Learner that the replacement skill of asking for a break is more effective than engaging in problem behavior, ensure that the Learner has access to activities or tools that are motivating at first. This ensures that the Learner will be reinforced positively by requesting a break.
Step 3: Directly teach the Learner HOW to ask for a break
- Model how to use the Break Card with the Learner when calm. For example, “Megan, if you want to stop and take a break, touch ‘break’.” Then state “Let’s practice…touch break.” Have the Learner then take a break once he or she touches the card. Practice this multiple times to help reinforce the skill.
- The Learner may initially need prompting from an adult to use the strategy. If you see initial precursor signs that the problem behavior is about to occur, prompt the Learner immediately to touch the Break Card. It is key in this stage of the intervention that the Learner is prompted as quickly as possible.
- If the Learner engages in problem behavior, prompt him or her to request a break. Deliver the break if the Learner follows the prompt. If the Learner does not request a break, it may be necessary to alternate between prompting the Break Card or repeating the demand so the Learner understands that he or she will not be able to escape the task unless a break is requested. **It is important to note that sometimes the problem behavior may increase before it decreases when starting a new intervention.
- Create a generalization plan to gradually increase the Learner’s ability to wait to take a break and increase his or her engagement in tasks and situations that he or she previously used the problem behavior to escape.
Step 4: Collect and analyze intervention data
How do you know if it is working? Once the Break Card intervention has been introduced, begin collecting data on the success of the intervention. Positivity collects data on the frequency of use of the Break Card as well as the events that the Card’s use was associated with. Users may also consider collecting data on the level of independence with which the Learner requests the break in some cases. Additional data can be captured in the Notes section of the Learner’s data report.
If the intervention is working, the Learner is likely to be requesting breaks independently and his or her problem behavior has decreased. The team should begin to increase the level of task demands asked of the Learner with the availability of the Break Card present during such activities in case the Learner needs a break.
If the Learner continues to require prompting to take a break, attempt to fade prompts systematically to build towards independence. Team members may need to document the level of prompting to assist in this process. The goal is for the Learner to request a break independently.
If after 3-4 data points, the team does not see a positive trend in the Learner’s request for breaks and a decrease in problem behavior, review the implementation procedures to identify possible elements to change or ways to intensify the intervention. Modifications to the Break Card Strategy may be made to the number of Break Cards provided, the length of the break and/or the card image or icon used to represent the break. In addition, users may consider if the Break Card Strategy is available for use at the necessary scheduled events.
A minimum of 10 data points are needed to establish a reliable trendline to make significant decisions regarding the intervention (Gall, M.D., & Gall, J.P, 2007). In such cases, the team will want to revisit the intervention to make more intensive changes or consider adjusting the type of intervention as a whole. When making changes, focus only on one variable at a time.
Some common questions to ask or possible adjustments to consider:
- Is the intervention being implemented with fidelity?
- Is enough reinforcement provided to the Learner for requesting a break?
- What prompting strategies are being used?
- Do the task demands need to be modified more to help the Learner be successful?
- Has the team identified the correct function of the behavior?
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Radstaake, M., Didden, R., Lang, R., O’Reilly, M., Sigafoos, J., Lancioni, G.E., & Curfs, L.M.G. (2013). Functional analysis and functional communication training in the classroom for three children with angelman syndrome. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, 25, 49-63.
Tiger J. H., Hanley G. P., Bruzek J. (2008). Functional communication training: A review and practical guide. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 1, 16–23.