Students, like anyone else, can only pay attention to a given topic for a limited period of time. Whether it’s due to their interest level, stress level, mood, or a host of other factors, it’s natural for attention to fluctuate or decline. This is why, for example, the difference between active and passive learning is important to keep in mind.
So, what do you do to prevent disengagement and lack of focus in the classroom? Instead of seeing this as a discipline issue, it’s better to consider one simple strategy — brain breaks.
We recently had a chat with seventh grade teacher Tim Martin about this common classroom tool. His perspective revealed plenty of inspiring insights about what it means to have a brain break and why it can be especially awesome to use them in creative ways.
Brain breaks 101
First off, let’s establish what exactly brain breaks are.
When a student’s brain is engaging a particular set of neural networks to learn a concept or skill, their ability to absorb that information in a healthy and effective way will diminish if that part of the brain doesn’t have a chance to rest. The fundamental goal of a brain break is to do exactly that — give one actively-engaged part of the brain a moment to breathe by shifting activity to another.
Tim likes to see them as “any single thing you can do in a day that breaks up a regular class schedule, just to keep things fresh.” He adds that they “don’t necessarily have to be subject-related,” but can be connected to subject material, depending on the context.
This flexible definition of brain breaks has served him well in keeping his students focused and energized in class, making them a kind of Swiss Army knife for student attention, engagement, and motivation. From story-driven brain breaks that involve role playing and characters to physically-oriented ones that engage the body with games or exercise, the sky’s the limit.
Why not have fun?
This flexible definition of brain breaks comes with endless opportunities to get creative, and most importantly, to have fun. “Personally, if my class didn’t have those brain breaks, class wouldn’t be fun. School should be fun.”
Tim finds it pretty important to recognize that a student’s experience of education is very different from that of a teacher, but that these two perspectives can come together to create connection through a sense of play. “You can still create an intellectually rigorous, formally-structured environment … but also look at it from the students’ point of view. They’re sitting here for six and a half hours every day, if not longer. Why not have it be fun?”
This outlook can pay off in ways that go beyond just one lesson or day. “Having those brain breaks … it doesn’t just add to the fun of the students, it also adds to the culture,” Tim says. He’s found inspiration in the way that students develop their own ways of connecting with one another through classroom culture, and the role that brain breaks can play in stimulating and nurturing that process.
Fostering a strong and positive classroom culture is vital for learning, and when the same strategies that you use to support your students’ cognitive needs also happen to support their natural needs for peer connection, you have a winning combination.
The power of storytelling and worldbuilding
One of the more distinctive and creative aspects of Tim’s approach is his use of storytelling and characters. “I’ve noticed that brain breaks are so much more effective that way” he says. Since he’s a long-time user of Classcraft — which allows teachers to turn lesson plans into story-driven adventures with its Quests module — it’s no surprise that he loves to weave narrative threads into his brain breaks throughout the school year.
“At the start of the year, I introduced a story with two characters as part of a reading comprehension exercise … those two characters have come back all year long in other contexts like math problems. Their relationship has grown and developed, they’ve gone from dating to being married to being broken up to getting back together again.”
In the same way that storytelling gives people a sense of shared experience and anticipation, narrative brain breaks can give students a moment of mental rest while tapping into the world that their teacher is creating for them.
Once they shift their attention back to mathematical thinking, they’ll be more focused and engaged than they would’ve been if they’d become fatigued or bored with the material. Plus, their classroom culture becomes more rich, colorful, and even humorous along the way.
Extra support for the students who need it
Because brain breaks are designed to give students the mental space they need to get more out of their own learning, they’re also ideal for creating a more inclusive classroom. Not all students learn the same way, and each one will encounter their own set of challenges and setbacks. Allowing the brain to breathe for a bit and experience a sense of relief from academic pressure is an excellent way to account for that.
“For the students who [struggle academically] and go through a lesson where it’s more theory than hands-on … you can tell by their body language that they’re exhausted.” This is when Tim likes to mix things up a bit with Classcraft’s Random Events tool or make a callback to one of his narrative threads. “It gives them renewed energy, like, ‘oh, here’s something that I know and can commit to’.”
Since students who have difficulty with their academic performance will experience more discouragement and frustration, they’re at greater risk of reaching a point of mental fatigue and disengaging from lesson material. Pivoting their attention towards something that helps them feel competent, included, and enthusiastic is a fantastic strategy for preventing complete disengagement and giving them the support they need to reach their goals.
A naturally dynamic learning environment
At the heart of Tim’s brain break philosophy is a belief in the importance of fun and inclusivity, but also an adaptive and responsive approach to teaching and relating with students. This means both experimenting and empathizing with them as much as possible.
It also means recognizing that no brain break will work perfectly every time, and that the same strategy might be a hit for some kids and fall flat for others. “It all depends on the environment and on the teacher who’s administering them.” In his experience, the key is to respond to your students’ interests and needs, even potentially gathering ideas from them about what to try.
“You can either inject brain breaks into class specifically, or create an environment that is more conducive to them,” he adds, pointing out that when you’re intentional about nurturing creativity and spontaneity, effective strategies and ideas can produce themselves.
For Tim, the important part of keeping students engaged and motivated with brain breaks is not to depend on any one rigid tool, but to foster a naturally dynamic learning environment. “We need to keep our classrooms dynamic. They have to be ever-changing. [It should still be] solid in structure because they need that academically, but there’s nothing wrong with bringing the fun into it.”