Imagine you’ve been working with your students on a difficult new concept. You’ve all been hard at work for around 15 minutes.
But as time goes by, you begin to spot the tell-tale signs: blank stares, wiggles and fidgeting, and sighs of frustration.
Your students are losing interest and focus by the minute.
How can you get your class back on track and ready to learn again? This is an important concept, but clearly you’ve all had enough, and recess is hours away.
Sounds like it might be time to try a brain break.
What Are Brain Breaks?
A “brain break” is an activity that takes you away from hard mental work and allows your brain and body to reset. Examples include:
- Movement breaks, which are physical activities like stretches, yoga poses, jumping jacks, push-ups, or a quick dance party.
- Mental breaks like deep breathing, mindfulness exercises, playing a game, or doing an art activity such as a printable coloring page.
These are meant to be quick and easy—a short break anywhere from three to five minutes can be enough to reset the mind and get students ready to learn.
Brain breaks, while often used for younger students, are useful for any age group (adults included!). When planning these breaks, a general rule to follow is that a three to five minute activity is appropriate for every 10 to 15 minutes of concentrated work time for elementary students, and every 20 to 30 minutes for middle and high school students.
Why Are Brain Breaks Important?
The brain is a powerful computer, and like any computer, it needs time to process. When we work intently on a project or focus on an activity, we need time to understand and synthesize that information. Just as you only have a certain amount of physical stamina to go for a run, you also have a limited amount of mental stamina to work on a project. Brain breaks are vital for helping our minds process what we’ve learned.
You might be wary to take time out of the day for a break, especially when students have so much material to learn. You may be concerned that a break would disrupt the entire class, and it would be hard to get students back on track.
However, many educators use brain breaks as a powerful classroom management tool. Research shows that brain breaks allow young minds to reset and recharge. They replenish the attention, motivation, and energy levels needed to keep learning. Students also learn better when lessons are broken up into smaller segments. This is especially true for younger children, whose attention spans are still developing.
Here are three brain break ideas from leading SEL organizations that you can use in your classroom to help your students refocus and be ready to learn.
1. Body Scan
Pro Tip: Through Panorama's Playbook, schools and districts that partner with Panorama can access research-backed lesson plans and interventions from leading social-emotional learning curriculum providers such as Breathe for Change, Open Circle, The Rooted School and many others!
3 Brain Break Activities For the Classroom
1. Body Scan
Courtesy of Breathe For Change
Overview: Deep breathing and focusing on our physical senses are great ways to take focus away from our minds, allowing us to reset. Use this Body Scan Guide to help students relax and explore their sensory awareness skills.
Instructions for Implementation:
Educators, use this script to guide your students in this exercise:
- Find a comfortable position. You can sit down, stand up, or (if possible) lie down on your back.
- Keep a soft gaze or close your eyes.
- Take a deep breath in and a smooth breath out. Continue to connect to your breath.
- We are going to do a body scan by moving our attention to different parts of our body and inviting them to relax.
- Start by paying attention to your feet. What do your feet feel like right now? Let your feet be heavy and relaxed. On the inhale, focus on your feet, and on the exhale, imagining they could sink a half-inch into the ground.
- Now, bring your attention to your legs. What do your legs feel like right now? Let your legs rest heavy on the inhale, and as you breathe out feel them sink into the ground.
- Bring your attention to your hips. How do they feel right now?
- Release tension and stress around your hips by sinking them heavy into the ground as you exhale.
- Now, bring your attention to your belly. Breathe in, breathe out. How does your belly feel right now? Let your belly feel heavy and relaxed.
- Next, pay attention to your shoulders. Move up to the back of your head, this powerful place full of thoughts. Give it a rest by gently rocking it side to side, and letting it sink a little bit deeper into the ground.
- Release your jaw, relax the muscles in your face, and let go of any tension you are holding around your eyes.
- Let your whole body feel completely heavy and relaxed. (Allow anywhere from 3-8 minutes of total relaxation.)
- Begin to deepen your breath. Gently wiggle your fingers and your toes, and reach your arms above your head for a full body stretch.
- How does it feel to focus your attention on various parts of your body?
- What was it like to let go of tension or stress and to feel supported by the ground beneath you?
- How do you feel after this relaxation?
- When might it be beneficial to practice this kind of relaxation technique in your life?
For pedagogical pointers, differentiation recommendations, and tips for trauma-informed practice, click here to download the Educator Guide.
Pro Tip: Record yourself reading the script and play it for your students to easily access this activity when you need it.
2. Calm Breathing Techniques
Courtesy of Open Circle
Overview: Help students understand what it feels like to be calm and to learn and practice several breathing techniques to help them calm down.
Instructions for Implementation:
Invite students to think about what makes them feel calm and relaxed (e.g. listening to music, reading a book, lying down). Share with students the following breathing techniques that they can use when they want to feel calm.
- Balloon Breathing: Sit in a relaxed, comfortable position. Breathe in slowly through your nose, filling your belly with air like a balloon. Breathe out slowly. Have students practice this technique a few times.
- Flower Breathing: Breathe in through your nose, imagining the fragrance of a sweet-smelling flower. Breathe out with an “ahhh” sound. Have students practice this technique a few times.
- Blowing Bubbles: Imagine that you have a jar of bubbles in front of you. Take off the lid. Dip the wand into the bubbles. Take a deep breath and fill your belly with air. Now take the wand out of the jar, breathe out very slowly in order to blow a large bubble, without popping it. Repeat these steps to blow more bubbles.
Ask students which technique they like best and suggest that they practice that method. Tell students that knowing and practicing calm-breathing techniques can help them be strong learners, helpful friends and successful problem-solvers.
Click here to access instructions for adapting this practice for virtual use/distance learning.
Join Jason Ernest Feldman, Professional Learning Manager at Panorama Education, in practicing Balloon Breathing:
Click here to watch more recordings from Panorama’s Virtual Summit: A Resilient Reopening.
Pro Tip: Deep, calm breathing sends oxygen throughout the body, and can be a helpful tool for resetting the brain when feeling stressed or overwhelmed. Create opportunities to practice breathing techniques and use them to help students during transitions or as a brain break.
3. Growth Mindset Musical Plates
Courtesy of The Rooted School
Overview: When faced with a frustrating challenge, it is a good idea to take a step back and make sure we are calm and ready to use our growth mindset skills. Sometimes we get “stuck” in our old mindset. Use this quick and easy physical brain break as a fun way to get students moving and help retrain brains for growth mindset thinking.
- Paper plates
- Something to write with
Instructions for Implementation:
Decorate the plates with positive self-talk phrases. Here are some ideas:
- Challenges help my brain grow
- Practice makes progress
- I can’t do it...YET!
- I can do hard things
- This is tough, but so am I
- I’m learning from this
- I’m doing my best
- My best is enough
- Challenges make me stronger
Place plates face down on the floor or ground in a circle. Play some inspirational music and walk around until the music stops. When it stops, stand on the plate and read it out loud. How can you apply it to the current challenge?
Keep repeating walking with music until the frustration has subsided and the growth mindset has kicked in. Then, return to the challenge and use those growth mindset ideas from the plates to help you look at your challenge differently than you did before.
Pro Tip: This activity does require some preparation ahead of time, but once the plates are made, you can bring them out again and again to help your students develop a growth mindset. Decorating the plates can also be a creative brain break activity!
Explore more SEL resources for educators: