Brain Breaks to Stimulate Learning

By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., author of Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn
Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

Brain Breaks to Stimulate LearningI like to compare teaching to being a racecar driver. Trying to get the car (student) around the track (the school year), using the right gas (curriculum) and oil (pedagogy) to win the race (student success). However, throughout my racecar training (teacher school) I never learned how the engine (the brain) worked. Now I continually learn how to make teaching and learning more effective by learning more about how the brain learns.

According to neuroscience, our brain is programmed to solve problems in almost constant motion. Early humans traveled up to 12 miles a day in search of food, water, and shelter. Our brains still work that way today. Thinking is not a sedentary activity. It requires movement, which increases the amount of oxygen-rich blood that flows into the more advanced parts of the brain.

Have students purposefully move in the classroom every 10–15 minutes or any time you change things up the in the classroom—I call this a “brain break.” This will ensure that students’ blood is flowing and that they are actively thinking. Routinely have your students stand and talk to one another, do stretches, or walk the outer edge of your classroom to discuss a new idea or what was just learned. Keep the movement and other activities to less than two minutes. After that it becomes harder to regain students’ attention.

Other ideas for brain breaks:

  • To avoid students going into a “down shift,” sending blood energy into the survival (fight-or-flight) area of the brain, create a safe and welcoming learning space. Allow students to have their own personal space—even if your students rotate into your room, give them a bin, folder, shelf, cabinet, or desk assignment that is theirs. This will help them feel a sense of ownership and that they are not strangers in the room.
  • The brain is wired for novelty, wanting to make sense of everything around us. I often carry a “junk bag” when working with students. In the bag are all kinds of small, interesting-looking objects, such as a wooden spoon with slats or a funny-looking key chain. Any small items that can stir creativity will work (avoid sharp objects!). Share one of the items with your students, asking them to turn it into something that it’s not. For example, the cardboard tube from a paper towel roll may become Pinocchio’s nose or a musical instrument. Students can also draw pictures or create stories about the object.
  • As students enter the classroom, give them a blank sheet of scrap paper with a squiggly line drawn on it. Have them use that line to craft an object or create a scene. To make the task trickier, have students draw with their nondominant hand—this increases bilateral thinking (see below). Encourage them to turn the paper many different directions in order to find different ways to see the line.
  • Movement that requires using both sides of the brain (bilateral movement) is also important to the thinking process. Have students do stretches where they put their right hand on their left ear or touch their left hand to their right foot. Doing silly moves, such as rubbing your tummy and patting your head, also requires multiple areas of your brain to fire at once.
  • Our brain always pays attention to all five senses. Therefore, be sure to include varied teaching strategies that go beyond just talking at students. Students should visualize images, have access to artifacts, and engage in conversations with other students. It’s best if you have students see it, say it, and then do it.
  • Incorporate physical movement into conversations, discussions, and debate. Use the “four corners” idea: “Those who think the answer is A, go to the northeast corner. Those who think the answer is B, go to the southeast corner. Those who think the answer is C, go to the northwest corner. Those who think the answer is D, go to the southwest corner.” You can also use “two sides of the room,” where students go to one side of the room for one answer and the other side for another answer. Combine that activity with debate or persuasion by having each side defend their answer in hopes of convincing others to join their team.
  • Essential to learning is getting feedback in a timely manner. It is easier to change the way a student thinks or performs if we can provide accurate, efficient, relevant, and immediate information. Descriptive feedback should be focused on what the learner has done well, where they need to direct their attention, and what resources they may need to grow. Also, consider using a “coaching” method to help students increase their self-beliefs and self-efficacy. Keys to productive coaching are:
    • Listening carefully to what students are telling you
    • Responding thoughtfully by asking more questions that can draw out more ideas from students
    • Resisting making judgments or giving students the answer—coaching is about helping students change their ways of thinking

As we begin a new school year, this is the time to put into practice ways to make sure students’ brains are actively engaged in the learning. There are more ideas on how to engage your students’ brains in my book Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century. If you have brain break ideas you’d like to share, please leave a comment in the section below!

Bonus! For more brain break ideas, check out the “Brain Breaks” worksheet from Advancing Differentiation.

Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit Publishing. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.

Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Self-regulation Advancing Differentiation Revised and Updated Edition Differentiation for Gifted Learners


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About Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.

Writes the "Cash in on Learning" post series for Free Spirit Publishing.
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