How to Use Breaks to Help Students Refocus

The average person’s attention span is around 15 minutes, but couple that with hours of intense learning, and it is no wonder that we lose the attention of our students. You know this is happening when you see their eyes glaze over and their faces get that hazy look.

Brain breaks allow students to rest and refresh their brains. Eric Jensen in Moving with the Brain in Mind states, “Brain research confirms that physical activity—moving, stretching, walking—can actually enhance the learning process.” He goes on to say:

  • Movement increases circulation, which increases performance.
  • Requiring students to switch sides the room for seating halfway through class gives a new spatial reference for the mind.
  • Movement gives students’ brains the time to digest what they have learned before taking in more information. He cites that Asian students actually spend longer at school during the day, but with scheduled breaks, they spend less time learning new material than American students.
  • The nervous system, including the brain, does not mature until between ages 15-20. Because of this, the brain needs a cognitive mapping rest periodically.
  • Certain kinds of movement stimulate the release of good chemicals.

Suggestions for Brain Breaks can be:

  1. 1-3 minutes in the middle of instruction for deep breathing exercises.
  2. Solve a riddle at the halfway point to reorient the brain.
  3. Play part of a song and see if the students can guess it.
  4. Bat a beach ball around the room, keeping it from reaching the floor for 3 minutes.
  5. Have students quickly line up alphabetically by middle name.
  6. Draw a squiggly line on a piece of paper and have students draw a picture including the line, but with the less dominant hand.

Taking Brain Breaks further, Dr. John Ratey wrote a book, Spark, about a high school in Napierville, Ohio, that conducted an experiment on the connection of exercising directly before an important class like English or Math, analyzing the potential impact to test scores and grades. Before class, students had the option to take Zero Hour P.E. on treadmills and other fitness equipment that required no assistance. Basically, the students were competing against themselves. Over the course of the experiment, 19,000 students participated. The result was that eighth-grade students test scores on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study test soared above the Asian students’ scores, which are typically the highest. Despite spending less money per student than any other high school in their district, Napierville High is among the top 10 schools in the district.

Dr. Ratey went on to say that“exercise increases the concentration of both dopamine and norepinephrine, as well as other brain chemicals.” He continued with the premise that exercise functions in a similar way to a long-acting stimulant, producing endorphins that allow focus and growth of the mind. In other words, the more fit you are, the faster the neurotransmitters of the brain work. This has clear, positive implications for academic performance.  

A planned Brain Break connects perfectly to the research on learning and exercise. As a teacher, you know when your students become restless or distracted during class, and a small change can reap huge dividends for learning.


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