Energising Brain Breaks to Ignite Learning in the Classroom!

by | Nov 29, 2018

Brain Breaks are mental breaks designed to help students stay focused and attend. The Brain Breaks get students moving to carry blood and oxygen to the brain, providing a pause in the instructional flow and processing time for students to solidify their learning (Jensen, 2008).

Research has shown that Brain Breaks increase students’ on-task behaviour AND the amount of physical activity they get every day.

Brain Breaks are brief, planned learning activity shifts that helps students focus and retain information by shifting the output of information that is being delivered or the input that is required by the student. These shifts allow regions of the brain that may be blocked by stress or “information overload” to revitalise. Brain Breaks, by switching activity to different brain networks, help restore attention, focus and foster greater memory (Willis, 2016). Research has shown that Brain Breaks increase students’ on-task behaviour and they are easy to implement for all ages and abilities.


Brain Break Strategies

Brain Breaks do not require disruption in the flow of learning, just a willingness to pause.  The following strategies can be implemented at a moment’s notice and integrated into any lesson.  For instance, stretching, moving to a different part of the room or singing a song can revitalise the brain. Use your own learning goals, and students’ needs and responses to guide you in selecting the best type of brain break to utilise.

The most frequent challenge that I hear from educators in all year levels (including higher education) is “How do I create and sustain engagement?” When we engage our students from the onset, and throughout the lesson, we reduce negative behaviours while creating experiences that are emotion-packed, drive curiosity and deliver brain states of anticipation and intrigue.

This is time well spent and helps to boost mood and student engagement, as well as restore the brain’s peak performance.

When we pause for 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 brief minutes, the brain moves away from rote learning, memorising and static listening. The Brain Break actually helps to process new information and set the tone for positive, productive learning.


Consider trying these activities with your students:

Headlines:  Invite the students to write a headline (limited to 10 words) on a specific topic that you’re teaching, or have students write a 10-word story describing their strengths and expertise. Another option is creating an infographic.


3-2-1:  During the lesson, have students jot down 3 ideas they have learned, 2 ideas they want to find out more about and 1 question they still have.


Symbolic Summary:  After the students have read a story or a chapter in a book, they do a quick sketch that symbolises what they remember as meaningful from the reading or the lesson.  They share their sketches with a learning partner.


Sticky Note Discussion:  Can be used as an “activator” at the beginning of a lesson or a “summariser” at the end of a lesson. The teacher poses an open-ended question and gives the student a sticky note to respond.  After providing “think time”, students jot their responses down in words or images, share them with a learning partner and then post their responses on the board for all to see.


Play Games:  Teaching lessons as active games also enhances attention and memory. How about a kinesthetic spelling bee in which teams of students spell vocabulary words by positioning their bodies in the shapes of letters?


Alphabox Summary:  Provide the students with a grid of the alphabet.  They work in teams to come up with words related to the topic they are studying that begin with each letter of the alphabet and put it in the grid.


Talk Moves:  Lead a class discussion with a koosh ball, frisbee or other object to toss and catch when a student responds.  This motivates the students to become more actively involved in the discussion and provides hand-on, minds-on learning for active student engagement.


Popcorn Discussion:  Have students do a quick-write activity so that they are prepared with responses to an open-ended prompt.  Invite the students to “pop up” and do a shout out of their response as if the class was a bag of sizzling popcorn ready to burst.


Stoplight Method:  Place a “stop sign” graphic on a bulletin board by the exit door.  Students have sticky notes and as they leave, they put what they learned on a sticky note and place it on the green light, what they are wondering about and put that on the yellow light, and what stopped their learning and put it on the red light. This is a very powerful formative assessment tool.


Snowball Toss:  At the end of a lesson, have the students write down three new ideas they remembered on a sheet of paper.  They crumple the paper, the teacher counts to three and students toss their “snowball” in the air and catch someone else’s snowball.  Other alternative prompts:  write down three new words you learned today; write down three questions for homework; write down three successes you had today.


Break Chant:  Students stand and a do a cross-lateral sweep with their left hand raised as right hand crosses over to reach it in the air as they chant a refrain from the lesson. 


Mindstreaming:  Students stand and find a partner and decide who is “A” and who is “B.” “B” goes first and pretends that “A” just got to class and missed the whole lesson.  “B” has 32 seconds to share with “A” what they found memorable.  Then reverse roles.


Postcard Connections:  Collect a variety of postcards or picture cards and distribute them to the students.  Have them select a card that best symbolises what you are studying and to describe the analogy.


Pass the Motion:  Play a lively tune and have one student do a motion to the music, and everyone else mirrors that motion as it is passed around the room and changes with each student.


Carousel Cruising:  Post large sheets of chart paper around the room each with a different subtopic or question.  Divide students into small groups.  Choose a reporter and recorder for each group. Each group has a limited amount of time to respond to the question.  When a signal is given, they “cruise” to the next chart to read the responses previously given and add their own ideas.  Rotation continues until each group returns to their original chart.


Outcome Sentences:  Provide students with a series of open-ended prompts that they can choose from to respond to.  This can be done verbally as an “idea wave” or in writing as an “exit ticket”.  Some possible prompts can include: “I now understand”, “I am beginning to wonder”, “I was surprised that”, “I want to know more about…”


Mix and Mingle to the Music:  Play a lively tune after the students have completed a quick-write activity so that they have some ideas prepared.  When the music stops, they share an idea with someone near them until the music starts up again.


Vote with Your Feet:  Provide the students with an Anticipation Guide related to the lesson in the form of statements.  They code their response sheets with an “A” for “agree” or a “D” for “disagree” and then physically go to the corner that depicts their opinion and share with others who are there.


For many of students, attending school is an adverse experience because school hasn’t been a place where they’ve felt emotionally safe or academically successful. As educators, we can start counteracting that negative experience the moment they enter our classrooms. I hope that these Brain Break activities will inspire your students and set their brains in a positive state for feeling capable and engaged throughout the day.


Want more ideas???

Check out my books and attend my sessions at the 2019 Hawker Brownlow Thinking and Learning Conference!


References:  Kathy Perez

Perez, K. (2012). The Co-Teaching Book of Lists. San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Perez, K. (2014). The New Inclusion:  Differentiated Strategies to Engage ALL StudentsAustralia, Hawker Brownlow Education.

Perez, K. (2017). 200+ Proven Strategies for Teaching Reading. Australia, Hawker Brownlow Education.


Kathy Perez Kathy Perez has over three decades of teaching experience from the early childhood level through to graduate school. She is a professor of education, educational consultant, author and motivational speaker, specialising in instructional strategies and creative approaches to literacy and professional development. Read more articles by Kathy Perez

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