The Importance of Brain Breaks

By Brittany Williamson, MS, LMHC and Catherine Baker, PhD, BCBA-D

I remember growing up with our old computer and unreliable dial-up internet (that my sister would constantly sabotage by picking up the phone to make a call. You can plainly see I’m on the computer, LINDSAY!) Whenever there was an issue with that old computer, I’d call out to my dad to fix it. His response was always the same, “unplug it, count to ten and plug it back in.”  Our brains are a lot like a computer, only significantly more valuable. If you want your students to be attentive, stay on task, and (more importantly) encode the information you are giving them into their memory, you have to give their brains regular breaks.

Much of what your children are doing at school requires the use of their prefrontal cortex (PFC,) the part of the brain responsible for “think-work”. It powers goal orientation, concentration, memory consolidation, logical thinking, executive functioning, AND impulse control. Whew! I’m so exhausted just listing its responsibilities, that I need a break. If left to run on overload, the PFC will fatigue. If this happens, all the work your students are powering through will be in vain as they struggle to retain new information and/or give a task their best effort. 

So when does this fatigue occur? Well, that depends on the age and PFC development of the student. For elementary school students, researchers suggest 10-15 concentrated minutes in a task warrants a 2-4-minute break. For middle and high school students, every 20—30 of a concentrated task earns a 5-minute break. These short breaks don’t just repower the brain, they are also beneficial to the physical and emotional health of children as well. It’s important to know when this fatigue occurs so we can determine the most appropriate times to take breaks to maximize learning. All our households are different, but they probably have one thing in common- afternoons and evenings are jammed packed with homework, reading requirements, and helping our kids study for the next big test. It’s important to note that short breaks here and there will lead to fewer arguments and less time spent corralling them back to the kitchen table to finish their work. 

Mental, Physical, and Emotional Benefits of Brain Breaks:

  • Increase productivity: Hitting pause long enough to give the PFC reprieve allows it to return to the task with renewed mental resources, increased creativity, and motivation to refocus attention.
  • Improved learning: It’s long been known that our bodies use sleep to consolidate memories. A 2009 study found that a simple rest period also allows for the hippocampus to review and ingrain recent knowledge to memory.
  • Movement is magic: Oxygen is vital to an active brain. 90% of the oxygen in our brain and body is stale until we take a deep breath or get up to move our bodies. 
  • Mood perks: Brain breaks promote stretching, laughing, listening to music, and meditation, all of which increase restorative neurotransmitters like dopamine (aka the happiness hormone).

Brain Breaks for Elementary School Students:

  • Animal Role Play: Have your kiddos pretend to be various animals complete with noises and body movements. Call out a few in sequence. 
  • Popular Movement Songs: Play a song with whole-body movements, such as, “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,” “Father Abraham,” and “Shake Your Sillies Out”. Here’s a link to a few different and fun ones! 

Brain Breaks for Middle School Students:

  • Would You Rather: Ask “would you rather” questions and explore the answer with them. Brain break and a communication skill tool all in one. Could be a quick and fun way to bond!
  • Find It Fast: Call out a color or other trait (e.g. something round, something yellow, something wooden) and students must find an object in the house and get to it as quickly as possible.

Brain Breaks for High School Students:

  • Yoga: this is a wonderful way to promote mind & body balance and decrease stress. Poses that are fun and challenging for high school students are core strength poses like airplane and eagle pose. 
  • Mindfulness Apps: Encourage your teen to download one of the various mindfulness meditations apps available these days. Smiling Mind and Calm are two of my favorites. Both have short 2 to 5-minute energizing, refreshing, and grounding-guided meditations that will reset their system and help them push through the homework blues. There are also great meditations available for sleep as well. Perfect to incorporate the night before an exam. 

Brain breaks are beginning to sound like a no-brainer, am I right? I’ve taken at least three while writing this blog. This brings me to my last point- and it’s an important one. It’s fair to say that many of you don’t take the breaks you need. Brain breaks are not just for the benefit of your kids; they give you those same perks. Implementing these breaks throughout the day will decrease stress, promote patience and greatly improve your mood! This can help create a positive and productive household for all!