Energy and Calm: Brain Breaks and Focused-Attention Practices
When confronted with new material, standards, and complicated topics, we must maintain our composure and remain focused as we approach our assignments. Brain breaks and focused attention practices can have a positive impact on our emotional states as well as our ability to learn. They refocus our neural circuitry with either stimulating or quieting practices that generate increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is where problem-solving and emotional regulation takes place, allowing us to be more productive.
A brain break is a brief period during which we break from the monotonous routine of incoming information that arrives via predictable, tedious, and well-worn roadways and instead does something different. Our brains are hardwired to seek out new experiences. To recognize these signals in our environment, we pay close attention to any stimulus that feels threatening or out of the ordinary. For a long time, this was a significant advantage. The development of this aspect of the brain was critical to our survival as a species.
It is beneficial to take a mental break because it allows us to re-energize our thinking and come up with another solution to a problem or look at a situation with fresh eyes. Learning, memorizing, and problem-solving are all put on hold for these few minutes as the brain shifts its focus. Taking a break from work can help you incubate and process new information. Consider implementing the following activities with your students:
This bag of household items contains markers, scrap paper, and anything else that one might find in a junk drawer—for example, a can opener or an extra pair of shoelaces—and I keep it in my car at all times for emergencies. Choose any object from the junk bag and ask students to come up with two different ways that this object could be repurposed for a different purpose. They have the option of writing or drawing their responses. Once students have created a drawing or written description of their invention, they can walk around the room for one-minute sharing and comparing their work.
Draw one squiggly line on a blank sheet of paper, whiteboard, or Promethean Board to tell the story of the squiggle. Set a time limit of one minute for students to stand and draw with their non-dominant hands, transforming the line into a picture or design of their choosing.
The importance of movement in learning cannot be overstated. Students should stand and blink with their right eye while snapping the fingers of their left hand, as shown in the video. This should be done with the left eye and right hand as well. As an alternative, students could face one another and tap the right foot once, the left foot twice, and the right foot three times, increasing the speed with which they alternate toe-tapping with their partner.
Symbolic Alphabet: Instead of singing the alphabet with the letters sing the alphabet with the names of objects.
Other Languages: Teach sign language or invent a new spoken language to communicate with. Students work in pairs and take turns speaking or interpreting this new language for a total of 30 seconds.
Mental math: Give a partner a set of three instructions and have them count the instructions in the sequence for 30 seconds. For example, count by two until you reach 20, then by three until you reach 50, and finally by seven until you reach 80. Change partners and assign a new set of numbers to the other partner to count.
Students should draw a picture in the air while their partner tries to guess what it is. Invisible Pictures: You could give them categories to guess from, such as foods or places, or you could use other methods to narrow the guesses.
Story starters: A student or a teacher begins a one-minute story, either individually or with a partner, by introducing the characters. After that, the students finish it or continue it with a humorous ending.
Math is the final call-out after the players have said “rock, paper, scissors.” Students respond by laying out one, two, three, or four fingers in the palm of their hand in response to the call. The winner is the first player to correctly guess the sum of both players’ fingers.
An exercise for the brain that helps us quiet the thousands of thoughts that distract and frustrate us throughout the day is focused attention practice. It is possible to be fully present with a specific sound, sight, or taste when the mind is quiet and focused.
Research has repeatedly shown that quieting our minds activates our parasympathetic nervous system, which lowers our heart rate and blood pressure while simultaneously improving our coping strategies, allowing us to more effectively deal with the challenges of everyday life. Our reasoning skills improve, and our emotions begin to regulate, allowing us to approach a situation with a variety of options available.
The goal for the following practices is, to begin with, 60 to 90 seconds and gradually increase the time to five minutes.
Breathing: Use your breath as a focal point for your meditation. Students should place one hand near, but not touching, their nose and the other hand on their stomachs to complete the exercise. Allow them to feel their bellies expand as they take a deep breath in. While exhaling, they can feel the warm air hitting the palm of their hand. Students will only be able to concentrate on this breath for one minute. Inform them that it is normal for thoughts to enter the mind when they are not invited to do so. Tell them to take a deep breath and let it go.
Colors: While keeping your attention on your breath, visualize different colors. Inhale a deep green and exhale a smoky grey as you take a deep breath. With each inhalation, instruct students to imagine the colors swirling and coming to life. Red is an excellent color to use to exhale when a student is de-escalating from an angry situation.
Movement: This is a movement activity for younger children. To begin, tell your students to stand up and, as they inhale, lift one arm or leg and wiggle it, returning it to its original position with their exhalation. When teaching younger grades about focused attention practices, it’s a good idea to incorporate an inhale and an exhale with any type of movement that they do.
The Deep-Dive Breath: Instruct students to inhale for four counts, hold for four counts, and exhale for four counts while performing this exercise. Once the students have gotten into the rhythm of the exercise, you can increase the time they spend holding their breath by a few seconds.
Breathing Exercise: Have students pant like a dog for 30 seconds with their mouths open and their tongues out, and then continue for another 30 seconds with their mouths closed, taking short breaths with one hand on their stomach. We typically take three energizing pant breaths per second to maintain our energy levels. After a full minute has passed, instruct students to take a deep breath.
Sound: The use of sound can be extremely effective in eliciting a calm response. Among the instruments, we use in the three classrooms where I teach are rainsticks, bells, chimes, and music. There are a plethora of websites that offer music for concentration, relaxation, and visualization purposes. Here’s one of my personal favorites.
Rise and Fall: While we take deep breaths in and out through our noses, we can lie down on the floor with an object on our stomachs, allowing us to improve our concentration by observing the rising and falling of our stomachs.
The ability to change our thoughts and feelings when we are focused and paying attention to our thoughts, feelings, and choices is significantly increased when we are focused and paying attention to our thoughts, feelings, and choices. When we come to terms with this awareness, we can see and feel the distinction.