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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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John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Heather, For me, I use focused attention practices when I notice the noise level is getting higher than our typical somewhat noisy level. Typically I don't require a silent or even quiet class by any means but there are times when the noise level gets a bit too much for all students to learn effectively. So if my repeated attempts to get the class to bring it down a notch don't work, we take a focused break to calm our bodies and minds. There are days we come back from places where less structure or high movement is involved like recess or PE and sometimes students require this sort of break to calm the body and mind to refocus. There are also times we come from noisy environments like music, lunch, or our art room (which has bad acoustics) and students just require what I call a reset....some kind of a focused attention practice. When talking about brain breaks- I use them throughout our day just to keep the mind fresh. Sometimes it is to begin a class such as math and get the brain engaged....sometimes it is to take a break from an intense lesson or activity. Sometimes it is just because I found a really cool thing to try like those posted above. :) I hope this helps.

Tracy K's picture
Tracy K
7th grade ED/BD teacher in Plainfield, IL

I enjoy Go Noodle - middle school could use a little more grown up version - but I can still get kids to participate!

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Jacqueline Fiorentino's picture
Jacqueline Fiorentino
Teacher. Writer. Blogger.

I love so many of these ideas, especially the "junk bag." We enjoy using GoNoodle in our classroom for a few much-needed brain breaks throughout the day, but I appreciate how so many of your ideas ask the students to apply higher-order thinking skills. I look forward to using these in my second grade classroom. Thank you!

Marc K's picture
Marc K
Always looking for ideas to make teaching and learning a better experience for my students and colleagues.

Love the ideas here, thanks!

Wilhelm1st's picture

I have been an advocate for brain breaks for years now, so I a glad to see this post. I am a 1st grade teacher currently, but a former kindergarten teacher for 10 years previously, and brain breaks are a must in my classroom. I currently use GoNoodle for the majority of my brain break activities. Before I found the GoNoodle site, I would use youtube as a source, but with the ads, and time it would take to find the right activity, I was glad to have the GoNoodle site as an alternative.
My students love doing brain breaks, and ask for them every afternoon (we have a long afternoon (11:35-2:10) with no recess or special class breaks during that time).
I am excited to try some of the ideas you mentioned, specifically the focused-attention activities. I feel my students will like the change in brain break activities, and it will give them a different way to focus. I also appreciate that they can use these outside the classroom, because they are not dependent on having to look on the SMARTboard to see what they should be doing.

Evelyn R.'s picture

Your list of brain breaks is exactly what I was looking for. I teach in a high stakes testing state and during this time of year classroom learning is in overdrive. I can see and feel the stress that is happening in the testing levels. I try my best to find ways to make teaching fun and give my students a break throughout our day, without deviating from all the material that needs to be reviewed and covered. These brain breaks sound fun, refreshing, and engaging and I can't wait to try them out.

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Irazema's picture

Great article with awesome ideas. I agree that students need a brain break. In elementary level they take a couple of breaks during the day, either to stretch or to go to the restroom. Last month I read a book on teaching all types of learners, and one of the chapters mentioned brain breaks as a method to keep students engaged in learning.

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Omoruyi's picture

This is a fantastic article, it made me reflect on how I learned when I was younger and introduced ideas on how to increase my attention span. The list of brain breaks is so detailed and I find it beneficial, I definitely agree with 6 (Sound) in the Focus Attention list. I tend to lose attention really fast but I have noticed that when I listen to relaxing and calming music I pay attention longer and gives me a burst of energy when I am taking a break. It seems to make me very focus on the task ahead and I solve problems easier.

danilee511's picture

Great post and great ideas!

Like many have said before me, I really enjoyed the diverse techniques you suggested, especially for brain breaks, and I feel that many of these techniques could be rearranged and used for older students as well as younger students. As someone said above, I really liked the "junk bag" idea. In our modern world of technology, we often return to technology as a way to openly explore the world around us, and while that is great, it is also great to provide children with a tactile object that they can freely manipulate and explore with, which I think is so simple, yet often forgotten nowadays.

I am very excited to implement some of these strategies in my own classroom one day!

Nathan Rice's picture
Nathan Rice
Founder of Free The Numbum

Hi Tracy. Just noticed your comment here. I'm a grade 7/8 teacher myself. Myself and a few teachers have been creating video resources for older students. Would love for you to check them out. Let me know if you're interested.

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