Brittany Williamson

I remember growing up with our old computer and unreliable dial-up internet (that my sister would constantly sabotage by picking up the phone to make a call. You can plainly see I’m on the computer, Lindsay!) Whenever there was an issue with that computer, I’d call out for my dad to fix it. His response was always the same, “unplug it, count to ten and plug it back in.”

Our brains are a lot like computers, only significantly more valuable. If you want your students to be attentive, stay on task, and (most importantly) encode the information you are giving them into their memory, you have to give their brains regular breaks.

Why do our brains need breaks?

Much of what your students are doing in class requires the use of their prefrontal cortex (PFC,) the part of the brain responsible for “think-work”. It powers goal-orientation, concentration, memory consolidation, logical thinking, executive functioning, AND impulse control. Whew! I’m so exhausted just listing its responsibilities, that I need a break.

If left to run on overload, the PFC will fatigue. If this happens, all the work your students are powering through will be in vain as they struggle to retain new information and/or give a task their best effort.

So when does this fatigue occur?

That depends on the age and PFC development of the student. For elementary school students, researchers suggest 10-15 concentrated minutes in a task warrants a 2-4-minute break. For middle and high school students, every 20—30 minutes of a concentrated task earns a 5-minute break.

These short breaks don’t just repower the brain, they are also beneficial to the physical and emotional health of your students. All of our curricula are different, but they probably have one thing in common: they don’t allow for much flexibility in our schedule. It’s important to note that short breaks here and there will cost you less time than having to cover loads of information again.

What are the benefits of brain breaks?

  • Increase productivity: Hitting pause long enough to give the PFC reprieve allows it to return to the task with renewed mental resources, increased creativity and motivation to refocus attention.
  • Improved learning: It’s long been known that our bodies use sleep to consolidate memories. A 2009 study found that a simple rest period also allows for the hippocampus to review and ingrain recent knowledge to memory.
  • Movement is magic: Oxygen is vital to an active brain. 90% of the oxygen in our brain and body is stale until we take a deep breath or get up to move our bodies.
  • Mood perks: Brain breaks promote stretching, laughing, listening to music, meditation and positively interacting with peers, all of which increase restorative neurotransmitters like dopamine (a.k.a the happiness hormone).

Brain Break Ideas for Elementary School Students:

  • Animal Role Play: Have your kiddos pretend to be various animals complete with noises and body movements. Call out a few in sequence.
  • Popular Movement Songs: Play a song with whole-body movements, such as, “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,” “Father Abraham,” and “Shake Your Sillies Out”. Here’s a link to a few different and fun ones!
  • Simon Says: It’ll always be a classic.

Brain Break Ideas for Middle School Students:

  • Would You Rather: Ask “would you rather” questions and have students show their choice by moving to one end of the room or the other. Have a few kids share the reasoning behind their choice.
  • Find It Fast: Call out a color or other trait (e.g. something round, something yellow, something wooden) and students must find an object in the room and get to it as quickly as possible.
  • Tell a Story: Pick a student to start a story with one sentence, each student down the row adds an additional sentence to the story. The story ends with the last student. (Make sure to establish rules such as each student has 5-seconds to say a line or they are skipped and the stories must be school appropriate)

Brain Break Ideas for High School Students:

  • Yoga: this is a wonderful way to promote mind & body balance and decrease stress. Poses that are fun and challenging for high school students are core strength poses like airplane and eagle pose.
  • Keep It Up: Students must keep a beach ball from hitting the ground. Add two or three balls to make it even more fun
  • Human Knot Project: Class forms small circles of 8-10 people. Each student will put their left hand into the circle and grab the hand of another student. Then, they do the same with their right hand. Without letting go, they have to work together to untie the knot.

Brain breaks are beginning to sound like a no-brainer, am I right? I’ve taken at least three while writing this post.

Which brings me to my last point, and it’s an important one. It’s fair to say that many of you don’t take the breaks you need. Brain breaks are not just for the benefit of your students; they give you those same perks. Implementing these breaks throughout the school day will help you run a more efficient classroom as you reduce off-task behavior, increase engagement, and create a positive and productive learning environment. As you re-energize the minds of your students, you’ll see that your love of teaching is refreshed as well!

Brittany Williamson is a Mental Health Counselor at Florida Children’s Institute based in Jacksonville, Florida. She works closely with children and their families taking a Cognitive-Behavioral approach and is passionate about building emotional intelligence and teaching coping skills that will promote resilience throughout her client’s lives. She is also a certified yoga instructor who uses that knowledge to treat anxiety and depression and to model self-care within her practice. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, staying active, traveling, and spending time with her family and beloved yellow Lab, Reagan.

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