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The Importance of “Brain Breaks”


When was the last time you were a student? Do you recall how exhausting it was? Being a student is so much more than just sitting there in a desk and passively taking in knowledge. As teachers, we must remember that our students sit through seven hours of learning of numerous and varied subjects every day. So no wonder they get to a point where they have “brain overload” and feel as though they can’t possibly fit more information into their heads! It’s not because students don’t want to learn more but because we have not provided them the time to digest all the information we’ve thrown at them. One way to combat this brain overload is by instituting “brain breaks” during your instruction. These breaks from learning should become a regular part of every lesson.

What’s a “brain break?”

A “brain break” is a short break, either scheduled or spontaneous, from learning or taking in new information. It’s pausing instruction and giving students the chance to do an alternate activity that gives their brains the opportunity to digest information. It’s also an opportunity for students to expend some of their energy that’s been building up since they’ve been sitting in their desks most of the day, and it helps lower their overall level of stress.

Why do students need brain breaks?

Students, especially younger students, have shorter attention spans than adults. Because of this, long lessons tend to cause an outbreak in fidgeting, restlessness, and being easily distracted. Studies have shown that when students are given instruction in smaller chunks–say 10 minutes or so– they are more focused in class and exhibit fewer distracted behaviors.

Brain breaks not only improve focus during instruction, but they increase students’ retention of the material. When a student’s working memory starts to get overloaded, that part of the brain shuts down and will not allow a person to take in any more new information. That is, when a student is overwhelmed with new material, their brain will literally stop learning. By giving students a break, they are able to take the new information that is stored in their short-term working memory and transfer it to the long-term memory part of the brain. And they can make connections and memories that will help them retrieve this information later. Furthermore, students’ overall levels of stress are reduced because they don’t feel so overwhelmed.

So when you notice your students’ eyes glossing over, showing off-task behaviors, and getting restless, it may be time to stop for a couple of minutes and call a “brain break.”

What are some examples of brain breaks?

Most often, brain breaks include physical activities or focused attention activities, but the activity should be quick, simple, and easy.

Physical activities relieve stress and pent-up energy while releasing dopamine. Some of the more physical activities might include some basic stretching, dancing to GoNoodle videos, practicing yoga, walking around the room or to a new part of the room, singing a song, telling jokes, allowing unstructured play time, tossing a plush ball around, letting them play quick games of tic-tac-toe, or simply giving them chat time with friends.

Focused attention activities are great for relaxing the mind, redirecting focus, and practicing self-regulation. This could include taking them on a guided meditation, leading breathing exercises, holding moments of silence, letting them color or doodle, reading aloud a book while students listen, playing some music, or allowing students to simply lay their heads down.

Brain breaks do not have to be complicated, and they can even be content-related — try having them move about the room to find a new partner for Think/Pair/Share or having them doodle or color in diagrams in their notebooks. You could also choose a break activity that reviews or practices concepts such as having students act out a historical figure, play Four Corners with argumentative prompts, play hot potato while reviewing vocabulary, or do jumping jacks to practice counting.

Take a break!

As you plan your lessons, note places where you could easily stop and take brain breaks. This might be after learning a particularly difficult concept, in the middle of a longer lesson, or when students typically get distracted or fidgety. Yes, you may have a lot of information you need to squeeze into a lesson, but it’s just as important to squeeze in some brain breaks if you want students to learn and retain that information. Your students will thank you. And let’s face it, teachers deserve a break, too!

For more great resources and ideas on enhancing the education experience for you and your students, make sure you check out Credits for Teachers. In addition to helpful tips and information, you can also enroll in Professional Development courses that are entirely online and self-paced. Completion of these courses can provide you with graduate credits from Credit for Teachers’ university partner. These credits are valuable, as you can utilize them for salary advancements and internal promotions.

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(NOTE: Credits for Teachers provides self-paced online Professional Development courses for K12 teachers.  Teachers who take our courses receive graduate credit from our university partner that can be used for salary advancement or license renewal – Learn More Now)

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