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Use brain breaks for improved academic performance

How can brain breaks help you and your children improve academic performance?

While reading about improving teaching habits, I came across the powerful research on Brain breaks, an idea pioneered by Eric Jensen almost two decades back. The research talks about creating a synergy between moving regularly and learning effectively. It was Jensen who concluded that brain breaks boost circulation and brain activity. So what are these brain breaks I am talking about with you today? These are physical breaks that allow moving away from cognitive instruction in the classroom, towards a structured activity. It involves collaboration and fun that provide a five-minute break from sitting down and formal learning regime.

Classroom teaching, watching TV, reading, writing on a laptop (as I am doing right now), sitting at a table or desk in the office are behaviours which involve little movement but require extreme level of focus. Children and people of all ages can benefit greatly from regular ‘brain breaks’ during class time. According to the research study conducted, physical movement is beneficial to improve cognition and focus, such short activity breaks help improve student behaviour and ability to stay on task and concentrate better.

Do brain breaks improve student behaviour and focus?

The concept of brain breaks is gaining momentum recently though this idea has been around for years’. There has been scepticism in teachers to incorporate this in their regular class schedule as they may not have time to disrupt the class with a game of Chinese whisper or a Rose, Thorn, Bud game but if you have embraced brain breaks in your class, you will be struck by positive changes as this brings in the least proficient to the proficient child of our class to work and build a synergy in the classroom. However with the growing research showing its benefits, it is being increasingly incorporated by teachers for long term advantage which also is a powerful tool for classroom management.

Eggers says that these brain breaks provide schools with another opportunity to increase physical activity without extending the school day and help enhance cognitive outcomes. The goal of a brain break is to help students transition from one learning activity or lesson to another. While some teachers love them, there are others who say the longer refocus time from brain break reduces instructional time for student engagement.

How can you incorporate brain breaks in your classroom?

Brain breaks are brief 10-to-15-minute physical activity breaks that take place during the school day. These brain breaks can be integrated into lessons using movement (e.g. role play method) or be completely separate from anything academic. They can take place in any amount of space, indoor or outdoor. Benefits of brain breaks include, but are not limited to, increase of productivity, increased attention, the ability to learn new social skills, and boosted brain function when academically integrated.

These are short and simple opportunities to have a fun and creative space for improved student engagement and enhanced learning outcomes. Thus by simply understanding the dynamics of play and creativity one can improve both teaching and learning experiences.

The ingredients of play as perceived by children are based on two main aspects, control and choice. This understanding is based on an interesting study conducted by Karen McInnes and his team in Scotland. Thus it gives us a useful insight in making play a part of brain breaks as the teacher increases the amount of choice and reduces the dimension of control, while expanding the control students’ have over their learning. The greater the choice the students have over their learning, the more ownership they feel and thereby they are more motivated and engaged.

A teacher can ask the students’ to choose the days’ brain break activity. This will help the teacher lower the refocus time back to classroom structured and instructional teaching after the brain break.

How can you remove the hindrance by incorporating brain break as a part of your classroom instruction?

Research conducted has reiterated that students need downtime throughout the day in the form of brain break to allow for refocusing the brain on learning concepts and retention of factual information (Jensen, 2008). Brain break helps you to manage the physiology and attention of the class and to keep children in the most receptive state for learning. Educational Kinesiology also called Brain Gym was coined by an educationist, Paul Dennison, who through the research conducted by him stated that learning through movement increases the flow of oxygen in the bloodstream which as a corollary leads to improved concentration, thus enhancing readiness in children towards learning.

If a teacher thus incorporates a structured movement then it brings the complete body system in symphony towards learning as the neurotransmitters emit positive synapses across the nervous system. This facilitates opportunities for students to relax, breathe, recharge and refocus. Students need to be attentive and focus and concentrate during learning which increases physical and emotional tension but brain break can reduce this tension by allowing students to refocus on the classroom learning.

Research by Greany and Rodd reiterates that exercise and movements in the form of Brain Gym has proven to have a positive effect on students’ enjoyment during learning, their motivation for learning and their focus. It is conducive for children to receive information in smaller quantities and at regular intervals as this approach keeps the brain active and alert. This will positively impact dopamine production which in turn may increase attentiveness and alertness and could be used to the advantage of children who have attention deficit disorder.

Which type of brain break activity would you like to use with children in your classroom?

There are largely three types of brain breaks identified by educators: those based on breathing or relaxation; those which focus on mental activity and those which focus on vigorous mental activity.

Type 1

Deep breathing and visualization in the classroom to maintain focus and enhance student wellbeing. You can also add neck rolls to relieve stress and relax students.

Type 2

Mental breaks can help induce and refine the fine motor skills. These may or may not involve movement and may take the form of a learning game or any such similar activity. In Mathematics lessons, one can incorporate this type of brain break since the cognitive load is higher for students while learning mathematics. So a mathematics lesson can be broken into smaller chunks so that children can refocus and refresh to excel in the subject.

Research conducted so far has shown that the use of subject content related brain breaks involving moderate activity level proved to be the best option as it took less time for students to refocus on classroom instruction and it also led to increased engagement by most students in the class.

Type 3

Movement can rejuvenate students immensely and help them also develop fine and gross motor skills. However you may face a challenge as this may increase the refocus time of students. Thus even integrating standing up, stretching exercise can accentuate learning.

It is recommended that as an adult or a teacher you must explore the brain break which works best for you keeping in mind the age appropriateness of the activity. Before implementing the brain break you must calculate the time you can allot to brain break activity from your total classroom teaching slot and lastly you need to establish a routine of brain breaks before concluding their effectiveness or the need to exercise discretion in its use.

About the Author

Richa Prakash

Richa Prakash is an educator, learner, and a quester. She believes that we can learn a little each day and grow a little each day. Richa was the Founder-Principal of G. D Goenka Public School in Firozabad and has spent over 18 years in the school education space. She is presently the Principal of Allenhouse Public School, Panki, Kanpur. She believes in leading with empathy and distributive leadership to empower other educators and students to ideate and collaborate at different levels to leverage the possibilities of a better tomorrow. You can connect with Richa here and read more about her work here.

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