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Energy and Calm: Brain Breaks and Focused-Attention Practices

Dr. Lori Desautels

Assistant Professor in the College of Education Butler University
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When presented with new material, standards, and complicated topics, we need to be focused and calm as we approach our assignments. We can use brain breaks and focused-attention practices to positively impact our emotional states and learning. They refocus our neural circuitry with either stimulating or quieting practices that generate increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, where problem solving and emotional regulation occur.

Brain Breaks

A brain break is a short period of time when we change up the dull routine of incoming information that arrives via predictable, tedious, well-worn roadways. Our brains are wired for novelty. We know this because we pay attention to every stimulus in our environment that feels threatening or out of the ordinary. This has always been a wonderful advantage. In fact, our survival as a species depended on this aspect of brain development.

When we take a brain break, it refreshes our thinking and helps us discover another solution to a problem or see a situation through a different lens. During these few minutes, the brain moves away from learning, memorizing, and problem solving. The brain break actually helps to incubate and process new information. Consider trying these activities with your class:

1. The Junk Bag

I always carry a bag of household objects containing markers, scrap paper, and anything that one would find in a junk drawer -- for example, a can opener or a pair of shoelaces. Pick any object out of the junk bag and ask students to come up with two ways this object could be reinvented for other uses. They can write or draw their responses. Once students have drawn or written about an invention, they can walk the room for one minute sharing and comparing.

2. Squiggle Story

On a blank sheet of paper, whiteboard, or Promethean Board, draw one squiggly line. Give students one minute to stand and draw with their opposite hand, turning the line into a picture or design of their choice.

3. Opposite Sides

Movement is critical to learning. Have students stand and blink with the right eye while snapping the fingers of their left hand. Repeat this with the left eye and right hand. Students could also face one another and tap the right foot once, left foot twice, and right foot three times, building speed they alternate toe tapping with their partner.

4. Symbolic Alphabet

Sing the alphabet with names of objects rather than the letters.

5. Other Languages

Teach sign language or make up a spoken language. In pairs, students take turns speaking or interpreting this new language for 30 seconds each.

6. Mental Math

Give a set of three instructions, counting the sequence to a partner for 30 seconds. Example: Count by two until 20, then count by three until 50, finishing with seven until 80. Switch and give the other partner another set of numbers to count.

7. Invisible Pictures

Have a student draw a picture in the air while their partner guesses what it is. You could give them categories such as foods, places, or other ways to narrow the guessing.

8. Story Starters

A student or teacher begins a story for one minute, either individually or with a partner. The students then complete or continue it with a silly ending.

9. Rock Scissors Paper Math

With the traditional game, the last call-out is "math." With that call, students lay out one, two, three, or four fingers in the palm of their hand. The best of three wins.

Focused-Attention Practices

A focused-attention practice is a brain exercise for quieting the thousands of thoughts that distract and frustrate us each day. When the mind is quiet and focused, we are able to be present with a specific sound, sight, or taste. Research repeatedly shows that quieting our minds ignites our parasympathetic nervous system, reducing heart rate and blood pressure while enhancing our coping strategies to effectively handle the day-to-day challenges that keep coming. Our thinking improves and our emotions begin to regulate so that we can approach an experience with variable options.

For the following practices, the goal is to start with 60 to 90 seconds and build to five minutes:

1. Breathing

Use the breath as a focus point. Have students place one hand close to their nose (not touching) and one hand on their belly. As they breathe in, have them feel their bellies expand. As they exhale, they can feel the warm air hit their hand. Students will focus on this breath for only one minute. Let them know that it's OK when thoughts sometimes come into the mind uninvited. Tell them to exhale that thought away.

2. Colors

Visualize colors while focusing on the breath. Inhale a deep green, and exhale a smoky gray. Have the students imagine the colors as swirling and alive with each inhale. If a student is de-escalating from an angry moment, the color red is a great color to exhale.

3. Movement

For younger children, direct students to stand and, as they inhale, lift an arm or leg and wiggle it, exhaling it back to its original position. For younger grades beginning these focused-attention practices, it's good to include an inhale and exhale with any type of movement.

4. The Deep-Dive Breath

We inhale for four counts, hold for four, and exhale slowly for four counts. You can increase the holding of breath by a few seconds once the students find the rhythm of the exercise.

5. Energizing Breath

We pant like a dog with our mouths open and our tongues out for 30 seconds, continuing for another 30 seconds with our mouths closed as we take short belly breaths with one hand on the belly. We typically take three energizing pant breaths per second. After a full minute, the students return to four regular deep inhales and exhales.

6. Sound

The use of sound is very powerful for engaging a calm response. In the three classrooms where I teach, we use rain sticks, bells, chimes, and music. There are many websites that provide music for focus, relaxation, and visualization. Here is one of my favorites.

7. Rise and Fall

As we breathe in and out through our noses, we can lie on the floor and place an object on our stomachs, enhancing our focus by watching the rising and falling of our bellies.

When we are focused and paying attention to our thoughts, feelings and choices, we have a much greater opportunity to change those thoughts and feelings that are not serving us well in life and in school. When we grasp this awareness, we see and feel the difference!

How do you stimulate or quiet your students?

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Christi's picture

This gives me more wonderful ideas to use with my awesome first graders. I have found that brain breaks make a true difference in the classroom.

Audrey McKay's picture

Brain breaks are something I feel very passionately about and believe we must include in our daily routine as teachers. By breaking up the material we teach, our students are more likely to stay focused and retain the small segments of information we teach. Mainly I focus on movement-related brain breaks. Using movement in the classroom incorporates novelty, while positively impacting a student's blood flow, emotions, and cognitive performance. The increase in oxygen and blood flow provided by the brain break helps student's neurons fire.

I enjoy watching Youtube videos and doing stretches as brain breaks, but I'm glad to read there are so many more options available; the students will never tire of them. I was pleasantly surprised to read all of the amazing brain breaks that were not focused solely on movement. I especially love the junk bag, squiggle story, and focused attention on colors. I teach language intervention K-6, and something I love to do with my younger students is give them a sequence of events to follow. I usually give them 3 movements or actions to remember, and they must repeat them back to me. They have so much fun with it and they are practicing following directions and sequencing events without even realizing :)

spacheco's picture

The end of the blog ends with a question "how do you stimulate or quiet your students?" Well, I have taught mostly primary grades thus far in my teaching career so I know how important it is to keep lessons to about 20-30 minutes followed by a break in instruction before moving onto further instruction. I have always allowed my students to have a "break" after direct instruction. I would usually set a timer and the students could get up talk to peers, get water, etc. However, about 2 years I was introduced to "Go Noodle." I love using this resource for "brain breaks" versus just taking a break. I am very excited to now incorporate some of the great brain breaks in this blog. In particular, I can't wait to try: squiggle story, invisible pictures, and the junk bag. Now back to the question that was posed in the blog "how do you stimulate or quiet your students?" I have definitely focused on stimulating my students. After reading this blog I know realize how it is equally as important to quiet my students' brain so they can continue to learn throughout the day. I can not wait to try some new stimulating brain breaks and to start to incorporate calming/quieting brain breaks. Thanks so much for sharing these awesome brain break activities!

MNUGLOBAL's picture
Online Business Course Platform

What an exciting article. I really like many of the ideas. Starting with the junk bag, what a creative way to engage with a manipulative that can stimulate motor skills and thought process in one simple yet creative way. My next favorite is invisible pictures, this makes for an entertaining interplay that can aid in learning and so fantastic. I like to watch a television that is off and describe and create stories of what is happening on the television while off and let other people add there input and string the stories together into one masterpiece and lots of giggling. In online education I am not sure how we can create "Brain Breaks" I am sure with gamification or like an online etch a sketch we can figure out good ways to do it.

Soma Cassady's picture

For older students: my eighth graders love when we play a variation of the junk bag activity. Instead of one item, I give them two items that are completely different and ask them to write as many similarities as they can between the two. This is a perfect lead-in to teaching metaphor and it enables them to see how imaginative they can be with their comparisons, but it also teaches students to look at things in a new and fresh way.

Susie Pretsky's picture

This is a wonderful list of brain breaks and focused attention practices. These are useful tools not only for classroom teachers, but also for educational therapists. A principle of educational therapy is neuroplasticity, and the brain can only fire and wire new neural connections when it's tended to with rest intervals such as these. Educational therapists also teach their clients self-regulation and and self-monitoring strategies. Students can learn to use many of your suggestions on their own. Educational therapists are attuned and attentive to their clients' attitudes, and the breathing exercises and relaxing music playlist are great ways to produce positive emotional responses in struggling students. Thank you so much.

TK's picture

I really appreciated this colourful assortment of brain breaks to lift the spirits of students when they are starting to lag. As I am currently a relief teacher, I am sure the addition of brain breaks throughout the day will assist in keeping students focused and on task and could also help with behaviour management as students are engaged with these short fun activities that keep learning fun. Students will not even realise they are strengthening learning in creativity, memory, left - right coordination and following instructions.

Heather's picture

What are some behaviors teachers should look for when deciding if they should use a focused attention practice or a brain break?

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