Building Teamwork and Perseverance in Early Elementary Students with Breakouts

Students work on a Breakout station. (Courtesy Kristen Stern/Batavia Public Schools)

The first Breakout Angie Sutherland designed was in response to a teacher’s request for an activity to help her students improve their teamwork skills. The teacher was concerned that her students didn’t communicate well when they collaborated on projects and that they gave up too easily when an academic task became challenging. Sutherland immediately thought of Breakouts, activities based on the popular escape room experience where groups of people working together under time pressure solve a series of puzzles. As a technology integrationist for Batavia Public Schools, a district outside Chicago, Sutherland was excited to give the strategy a try.

“The growth for students when doing something like that goes beyond the curriculum,” Sutherland said. “I think it’s so important for us to encourage kids to have that productive struggle and how to handle that once you've encountered it. And this particular activity has so much value in helping kids overcome some fears for taking risks and failure.”

Students work together on a puzzle.
Students work together on a puzzle. (Courtesy Batavia Public Schools)

After the success of the first Breakout, more teachers starting asking Sutherland for help designing the experience around their content goals. At this point, she’s done them in almost every grade -- kindergarten through seniors in high school. This might feel like a natural fit for older kids, but not all teachers think their youngest learners can handle this much self direction. Sutherland says they can with thoughtful planning.

“Not surprisingly we need to scaffold some things a little bit for the younger children,” Sutherland said.

In early grade classrooms many children aren’t reading yet or still struggle with reading, so clues need to be visual or involve audio. While teachers of older students have designed digital Breakouts that can be reused, designing for younger kids requires more physical activities. When there’s a digital element, like a recording students listen to or a video to watch, Sutherland has found it works well to have that already pulled up and ready to go.

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“With little kids, maybe the biggest barrier is mindset in that they can’t do it. Or the feeling that they wouldn’t be able to be in charge of themselves,” she said.

The goal of a Breakout is for groups of students to work together to solve a series of puzzles. Each correct puzzle yields a part of the final code, which opens a locked box. If groups can complete all the puzzles and get the correct code in one hour, they successfully “breakout.”

Batavia schools don't give prizes for breaking out, instead students take a victory picture.
Batavia schools don't give prizes for breaking out, instead students snap a victory picture. (Courtesy Batavia Public Schools)

In Batavia, the tech integrationists have found that even kindergarteners like this self-directed learning experience -- and can be successful at it -- with the right preparation. They recommend having a conversation with kids before beginning so they both know what to expect from the Breakout experience and have talked through some strategies they can use if they get frustrated. What can they say when they don’t feel heard by the group? What strategies can they use to calm down if they get frustrated?

“In elementary classrooms where they can wander around and touch anything and anything could be a clue, this is not a model to use, unless you want someone to cry,” said Kristin Stern, another technology integrationist in the district during a session on Breakouts with younger children at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference.

Instead, they’ve found a station-rotation model to be the most effective. If there are five groups, make sure there are six stations so no group is waiting around with no puzzle to solve. Make the boundaries of the activity clear and straightforward. And let kids struggle through the activity -- that’s a big part of its value.

“It’s very hard to not prompt the students and support them through,” said Jennifer Duffy, another technology integrationist for the district. This is one of the hardest parts for teachers and other adults who may be helping in the room. She’ll often tell each group that they get two hints, but they have to agree on when to use them.

“The discussion among students figuring out if they want to use a hint or not, I feel like I could write a PhD on the thinking that goes into that,” Duffy said.

IDEAS FOR BUILDING BREAKOUTS FOR LITTLES

Jigsaw puzzles: Jigsaw planet allows users to upload an image and choose how many puzzle pieces to make. It works on any device or can be cut out and put together physically. In one Breakout, the puzzle was a math problem. Once they put the puzzle together, students had to solve the math problem and the answer was part of the code.

Teachers build Breakouts around their content standards.
Teachers build Breakouts around their content standards. (Courtesy Batavia Public Schools)

Twisted Wave is an app that allows users to combine sounds together. In one puzzle, the teacher matched picture cards to different sounds. Students listened to the sequence and had to put the picture cards in order. At the bottom of each card was a number and when the cards were lined up it gave a four digit code.

Teachers have used Google Forms set to auto-correct. Students can only move onto the next question if they got the previous one correct. At the end of a series of questions was a lock code.

The iPhone app Chatterpix lets teachers turn any image into a talking clue. This or other video clues are useful for younger students. Often the puzzles are a combination of physical activities and clues with a small digital component that’s easy to access.

One important element of a successful Breakout is not to give too many directions. Part of the fun, and the challenge, of Breakouts are figuring out the goal of each activity and where the clue or code is hidden.

HOW TO SET UP THE ROOM

There are two ways to set up a classroom Breakout activity:

  1. Put one box at the center of the room with a series of locks on it that represent the different activities spread around the room. Put a timer near this lockbox so students can come up and try out their answers for a set amount of time, but can’t camp out randomly trying combinations. “I don’t believe that design model works best for the younger kids,” Sutherland said. “It works better for older kids who have a bit more self control.”
  2. The station-rotation model is the other way. Each station is a self-contained lockbox with all the materials to figure out the clue. Students keep track of their codes on a lock tracking sheet and may have a final box to open at the end.
Teachers often help students decide who is going to open each lock ahead of time to prevent tears with younger students.
Teachers often help students decide who is going to open each lock ahead of time to prevent tears with younger students. (Courtesy Batavia Public Schools)

ACCESSIBILITY ISSUES

Duffy used to be a special education teacher and is particularly attuned to making sure all students in a classroom have access to the puzzles. She often meets with the social worker to talk about strategies for kids who have behavioral Individual Education Programs (IEPs). They might decide to let that student try a puzzle beforehand, for example, so he knows what to expect during the activity. They also never force students to participate, but even reluctant students will often jump in when they see that other students are having fun.

At one elementary school she supports, Duffy collaborated with the speech pathologist to design a Breakout that required general education students to use the communication tools that their non-verbal peers use daily. The two educators have been working to make the whole community more aware of the assistive technology being used in the school and this was a chance for students to engage with what can be complicated software in a purposeful way.

“It really opened their eyes to how much effort this requires for students who aren’t verbal,” Duffy said. “It was a great way to work on empathy.”

She also likes doing Breakouts with the sheltered classes because the experience helps students recognize the skills they already have, lifting their confidence. She remembers one girl who was still working on her English skills and whose family moved so often she rarely got to set down roots in a school. She didn’t participate in the first Breakout, but on the second one, themed around Dr. Seuss, she became the hero. One of the questions asked when Dr. Seuss was born; it was information that could be found on a poster she made earlier in the unit and that hung on the wall.

In the debrief after the activity, students reflected that they wouldn’t have been able to Breakout without the student’s poster. This reflection process is a crucial element of making sure the social and emotional learning from this activity transfers into other aspects of classwork. Students can reflect through a group conversation or make videos responding to prompts, but it’s important for them to think about what went well and what they would do differently next time.

“With a Breakout it doesn’t matter if you’re good at school or not good at school,” Duffy said. “It’s kind of a level playing field. If a student is a creative thinker but doesn’t know their sight words yet they can still do a good job.”

In Batavia schools, the technology integrationists are coaches. They often work with teachers to integrate a strategy the first time, then act as consultants, and finally just observe and give tips. After several years of doing Breakouts with all ages, many teachers are designing their own Breakouts, sharing templates and digital versions, and even asking students to create the Breakout experience.

And Breakouts aren’t just for fun here, they fit into an overall strategy in the district to help students become self-directed learners. Throughout everything they do, teachers reinforce what they call the RESET model, a set of strategies students can turn to when they’re unsure of what to do next. RESET stands for:

R - Review (What do you already know? Did you look at the directions?)
E - Evaluating the resources (What haven't you considered yet?)
S - Seek a peer (Who else besides the teacher might know the answer to my question?)
E - Enact the plan (How do I begin my task? What's my plan to move forward? Am I missing anything?)
T - Try again ( The process of iteration. If it didn’t work first time, try something different)

“Activities like [Breakouts] in combination with being aware of what those steps are really makes the most impact,” Sutherland said.

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She always reminds teachers that using technology in the classroom is about the learning goal first, the tool or strategy second. No activity is perfect for every learning goal, so balance is important. That goes for work on content, as well as social learning.

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