Today I want to talk to you about the importance of brain breaks in fostering academic success.
A parent was talking to me about two schools with very different approaches. She was trying to figure out which method would work for her child. Should they go with the school that had a more traditional system, or should they choose the one with new-fangled ideas like brain breaks? The other parent was firmly in favour of the conventional approach. “What is this brain break? Sounds like a waste of time to me! Instead of expecting children to sit down and finish the task at a stretch, they encourage them to get up and take a break. This is just a way to get more money from us.”
Education is rapidly changing in India right now. Parents have many choices for their children, especially if they can afford the expensive private schools. They go with the school that they feel gets it right with the philosophy, instruction, assessment, etc. Sometimes there is all the fluffy ‘promotion speak’ that schools use to set themselves up as offering the latest or most advanced know-how in education. Understandably, parents want to know if the ‘new-fangled ideas’ are evidence-based.
Let’s look at what brain breaks are and the evidence behind the use of this strategy in the classroom.
Brain breaks are short breaks from the task at hand. Typically, they involve activities that include movement. So if the child is preparing for a science test, asking the child to get a drink of water is a brain break. Parents can find this quite confusing—We’ve grown up being told that you must buckle down, sit still, and keep at it to learn something. “How can stepping away from the activity and moving around help learn? Isn’t it a waste of time?”
Brain breaks have science behind them. Traditionally, we think of breaks while studying or during instruction as relaxation or as a time to ‘charge our batteries.’ But there is more to breaks than just relaxation or getting ready for active learning. Brain activity shows that what appears to be a resting phase is an active phase.
A study in 2021 found that when participants spaced out the activities with short breaks in between, their brains did not relax during the breaks. On the other hand, the brain continued to process the activity and filed it away for future recall. Simply put, breaks are essential because that’s when what we learn sinks in.
The implication of this is significant, especially in the Indian education setting. Each period is 40-45 minutes long, even in the primary classes. We expect our students to attend for the entire period on the same topic or activity. This is counterproductive because the kids tune out. What do they do? They daydream or act out! Instead, teachers can plan for ten-minute cycles of instruction interspersed with two to three minutes of breaks. Research has shown that when children get short breaks from the instructional tasks, they are more productive and creative.
When the instructional time is structured with breaks, the classroom dynamics change. The kids are better behaved. Therefore, the teacher has more time to implement the instructional activities rather than manage disruptive behaviour. The students can stay on task for longer stretches of time and complete the tasks.
Children stuck with a problem can step away from it for a few minutes and tackle it when they come back. Their frustration and stress levels dip, and they show better self-regulation skills. When a classroom runs smoothly, there is better cohesion amongst the kids.
Brain breaks are not complicated activities. As I said earlier, they incorporate movement. Research shows that movement is good for attention. Our oxygen intake increases, leading to better learning. Children with ADHD, sensory processing disorder, and other learning needs can attend better when they move in the classroom. When we involve the whole class in brain breaks, we accommodate these students without singling them out.
Let’s see how brain breaks can help our schools.
Brain breaks can fix one of the most challenging expectations our students face, i.e., the length of time they must sit and attend to tasks. Teachers can plan for ten to twelve minute chunks of instructional time in the younger classes with two to three minutes of brain breaks in between. Older students can attend for twenty to thirty minute stretches at a time. The timing of brain breaks is essential. We often tell kids they can do something after completing a task. But what if the activity is tedious or frustrating? Brain breaks should be used before boredom or frustration sets. They should not be for more than five minutes. If they are longer, it can be challenging for kids to get back into the learning mode.
Brain breaks can also be used at home when your child is studying for exams or completing homework. Here are some suggestions on what you can do at home.
If you want to get your child more active, try these activities:
- Quick dance parties
- Jumping jacks
- Obstacle courses
If your child needs to calm themselves, try activities like:
- Colouring on the pavement outdoors
Some children may need sensory stimulation. In that case,
- Play hopscotch outdoors
- Have them move heavy objects in the room like pushing the sofa or putting away heavy books
- Try materials like clay, chapatti, or play dough so they get tactile feedback
- Go on a treasure hunt
When children need to shift their attention to a different task but need to work on their own, try
If you want to engage the children in interactive activities, try games like:
- Follow the leader
There are many movement activities on youtube. GoNoodle is a popular website for movement videos that kids can copy.
It takes a little bit of planning and time to implement brain breaks in the classroom. Don’t you agree that it’s worth incorporating them in our schools for the gains in children’s learning, mood, social skills, self-esteem, and self-regulation?