The importance of taking a break

April 20, 2016

high school girl daydreaming in classroom
high school girl daydreaming in classroom

When students engage in a task involving high concentration for an extended period of time, the brain’s messenger chemicals or neurotransmitters, like dopamine and serotonin, are depleted and they can experience ‘burnout’. As a result, new memories are unlikely to be stored effectively.

Observe your students whilst they are engaged in an activity for a prolonged period. Whilst some students may be able to quietly self regulate by wriggling a little on the seat, daydreaming, staring or rolling the pen in their fingertips for a moment or two, others will quickly hit ‘burnout’, and tune out or exhibit agitated and disruptive behaviour.

Taking a ‘brain break’ before ‘burnout’ occurs can:

  • Enable newly learned information ‘the opportunity to move from working memory to relational memory (although it will not become permanent memory until time and practice follow).’ [1] Willis, J. (2008). How Your Child Learns Best: Brain Friendly Strategies You Can Use to Ignite Your Child’s Learning and Increase School Success. … Continue reading
  • Reduce challenging classroom behaviour, as the break decreases feelings of being overloaded.

Regular ‘brain breaks’ will assist all students, but particularly those who have difficulty attending and processing information, including those with learning disabilities such as ADHD, Dyslexia, Working Memory difficulties; other disorders such as ASD or Anxiety; as well as those for whom English is a second language; and those experiencing other demands such as family issues, violence, or trauma.

It is optimal to give students a break BEFORE they hit synaptic overload or burnout. For some, this may occur after engaging in the same activity for 10 -15 minutes, for others it might be after 20 minutes or so. However, for most a 2 – 4 minute break is all that is needed to recharge before they are ready for new memory storage.

It can be helpful for teachers to warn students a few minutes before the break, so they can finish the part they are working on. They are less likely to then feel rushed or frustrated by the break in the activity.

The following are examples of 2-4 minute brain breaks:

  • Move – wiggle, stand and chat, stretch or practise a moment of yoga; anything to get the body moving for a few minutes. It does not have to be strenuous. Music can assist.
  • Stretch and strengthen – choose music that is compatible with a light exercise routine. Incorporate the plank, balancing on one leg, sitting like a chair with your back against the wall, pushing the palms of the hands against each other, and doing squats. Modify exercises to ensure all students can participate.
  • Draw or doodle – illustrate a creative writing piece, or colour a section of a worksheet. Others might like to doodle on a note pad or in a designated section of a workbook.
  • Use online tools – such as Go noodle, with younger students watch a short video or clip related or unrelated to the learning task!
  • Play a quick game – such as Charades, ‘Two truths, one lie’, ‘Around the World’, ‘Twenty Questions. Encourage students to take ‘time out’ and have a bit of fun, before refocusing on the learning task.
  • Chat to your neighbour about something of interest not related to the task at hand. After a couple of minutes, give students the option to restart work, when they feel ready

Ask your students what works best for them and negotiate the type of brain breaks that suit the class or individuals.

Share some of the brain break strategies that work best for your students in the comments section below.


Zoe Ganim and Murray Evely

Psych4Schools Psychologists