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Brain Breaks: An Evidence-Based Behavior Strategy

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Brain Breaks: An Evidence-Based Behavior Strategy

Brain breaks are quick, structured breaks using physical movement, mindfulness exercises, or sensory activities. Learn how to use this strategy andwhy it works, and see it in action. A printable “brain break” bank is also provided.

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When you’re creating a lesson plan or reviewing student work, do you often need a break? Do you take a walk or listen to your favorite song to get your mind refocused? Your students need these “brain breaks,” too.

In the classroom, brain breaks are quick, structured breaks using physical movement, mindfulness exercises, or sensory activities. Brain breaks can be done individually (like deep breathing) or as a whole class (like a round of Simon Says). No matter what the form, brain breaks take only a few minutes of instructional time. They give your students a brief rest from what they’re doing to help their brains shift focus and return ready to work and learn.

Watch: See brain breaks in action

You can use different types of brain breaks depending on what a student needs at a given time. Remember that different brains need different kinds of breaks. For example, although it may seem counterintuitive, students who struggle with focus, attention, and hyperactivity may need more energizing breaks. Other students may need to quiet their minds. Here’s a look at three examples of brain breaks.

Energizing brain break

Take a dance break with this video from Koo Koo Kanga Roo.

Mindfulness brain break

Watch how students at the Momentous School take a break with “flower and candle” breathing. (If students are wearing masks in school, this brain break can be a good one to try at home.)

Sensory brain break

See the sensory path (opens in a new window) special education teacher Holly Barker Clay created to provide her students with a self-directed brain break.

“Brain breaks” bank

Looking for brain break ideas? Check out this printable list of brain breaks (opens in a new window) organized by type and time of day. It was created by Understood Teacher Fellow TJ Thornton.

How to use this strategy

Objective: After taking a one- to five-minute teacher-directed or self-directed break, students will be ready to refocus on what they’re supposed to be doing.

Grade levels (with standards): K–5 (CASEL Core SEL Competencies: Self-management)

Best used for instruction with:

  • Whole class
  • Individuals

How to prepare

Create a list of brain breaks. Make sure to include independent, whole class, and self-directed breaks. Collect tools students can use for these breaks, like stress balls. 

Plan your breaks. As you plan your lesson — especially one with a lot of teacher talk or complex material — build in time for a brain break from your list. You’ll want to take a brain break before fatigue, distraction, or lack of focus sets in. Depending on your students’ age and ability to focus, you may need to plan a break after 10 to 25 minutes of intensive work time.

How to use

1. Start the brain break. Set a timer and begin the break. Remember, the break should only be one to five minutes long. Try using a visual timer so students can see the time remaining. 

2. Read the room. As students start their breaks, be prepared to provide support and adjust the brain break as necessary. For example:

  • You may have planned for an energizing break. But if your students are overly energetic, you may switch to a calming break instead.
  • If a few students are having trouble with the brain break, use a prompt to get them back on track or model the activity by doing it near the students.
  • Some students will need modifications. For instance, students who have motor skills challenges may not be able to hop on one foot. Instead, have them jump on two feet, working their way toward hopping.
  • Some students might feel uncomfortable participating in group brain breaks. Decide on a nonverbal signal that students can use to subtly let you know they’re opting out.

3. Wrap up the break. Give verbal reminders of how much time remains for a break: “We’ll be going back to work in two minutes.” A calm, 10-second countdown at the end of the break can be helpful to students as well. The timer can also help signal the end of a break so students can transition back to the lesson.

4. Talk about the experience. If this is the first time your students used a brain break, encourage them to talk about how the break helped. Explain that you’ll introduce different kinds of brain breaks over time so they can learn the types of breaks that are most helpful for them. You can also talk about how students might take these breaks on their own, like when they’re getting frustrated or distracted. Have self-directed activities available, such as sensory tools and a timer, so students can take individual breaks without disturbing others. You can even make self-directed brain break activity cards (opens in a new window).

Why this strategy works

Students who learn and think differently sometimes get tired easily, have a low tolerance for frustration, or have trouble figuring out how to approach their work. Switching up what they’re doing for a few minutes can help break those patterns. Research shows that brain breaks can serve that purpose and help refresh the mind.

For many students, movement is an ideal brain break. That’s because exercise increases blood flow to the brain, which helps with focus and attention. In fact, research has shown that students learn more quickly after they’ve exercised. In one study, students learned vocabulary words 20 percent faster after exercising. Exercise also reduces stress and anxiety, making it easier to focus on important tasks.

Relaxing brain breaks have similar benefits. They help calm students and allow their minds to settle enough to shift focus. For students who get overexcited or who have a hard time self-regulating, relaxing brain breaks may be more beneficial than energizing ones. After these quieter breaks, students are able to return to work because they’ve given the overworked areas of the brain time to recharge.

Brain breaks benefit not only students but teachers, too. They help improve the pacing of your lesson while keeping you and your students refreshed, focused, and engaged.

Link school to home

Brain breaks can help engage kids during homework time or lengthy chores. Share with families more information about the benefits of brain breaks and how to use them at home: How brain breaks can help kids with homework frustration (opens in a new window).

Use for distance learning

  • Build brain breaks into your distance learning lesson plans, including your synchronous online lessons. For example, breathing exercises may help students who are anxious about live video lessons.
  • Brain breaks can give students a chance to socialize during distance learning. You can use a fun discussion-based brain break in the middle of the lesson to get students engaged.
  • Encourage families to have their kids take breaks while they learn at home. To do this, you can add brain breaks to assignment directions. Give families the printable list of brain breaks or links to your students’ favorite breaks on sites like GoNoodle. (opens in a new window)

This resource originally appeared on (opens in a new window). Reprinted courtesy of © 2022 Understood for All, Inc. All rights reserved.

About the author

Amanda Morin (opens in a new window) is a parent advocate, a former teacher and the author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.

For any reprint requests, please contact the author or publisher listed.