In his book, Brain Compatible Strategies, Eric Jensen describes the importance of providing “brain breaks,” where the brain has a chance to consolidate, reflect, and integrate information. This “brain break” is different from active memory consolidation. That deliberate reflection process should occur towards the end of an instructional session in order to enhance student memory of what they’ve just learned. Students can talk to a partner, record a mnemonic strategy, draw or write a summary of the main ideas, sing a rhyme, or take a quiz. The idea is to strengthen student memory for what has been learned, and as noted above, it is a continuation of a lesson.
A “brain break” described by Jensen is a change of scenery or activity, allowing the brain to consolidate information without competition from an influx of new information. Sending kids on a bathroom break, walking down the hall, or moving around the room are all effective types of breaks. I experimented with this process a few years ago when I was literally teaching in a closet. It was a dusty, cramped, and stifling space, the very opposite of a brain-friendly physical environment. Since we were not allowed to leave our cramped learning space (don’t ask), we would all stand behind our chairs and complete some physical activity which required cross lateral stretching and movement (such as touching our right hands to our left feet, etc.). We also had short but vigorous gross motor activities to get our bodies alert (such as marching in place). During this time, there was no other instructional input; in fact, all the kids were focused on the clock. I found it interesting that they were not eager for brain breaks (and that’s putting it mildly). They were counting down the seconds until they could sit again. Yes, we were oxygen-deprived. Without those breaks, my group would lapse into a kind of stupor. (In retrospect, I should have purchased some oxygen tanks. Fans would have stirred up dust storms and we had to keep the door almost closed, anyway.)
Because I was teaching in such an undesirable space, I made a number of brain-friendly modifications so that kids were engaged with one another and the material. One of their favorite activities was being the “teacher” of the group while kids completed some form of game to practice a skill. The “teacher” would circle our table, giving students feedback on their performance, making positive comments, and providing helpful correction. At the end of each “teacher’s” session, they gave feedback on their own performance (including both positive aspects and difficulties), after which each member of the group provided affirming feedback (“I liked the way you….”). Kids learned a lot from each other in these sessions and I learned a lot about them, as well. Some of the brain-based strategies that were incorporated into this simple activity include: establishing a positive and engaging emotional environment, providing choice and novel activities, supporting intrinsic motivation, improving meta-cognition, and providing challenges that were not too difficult.
In my current instructional sessions, which are in fairly optimal environments, I give kids brain breaks by signalling a break from work with “off-task” chatting (often timed), bathroom breaks, tossing a ball, and other simple distractions. I find that kids are easily redirected to instruction after a brain break and make steady progress in memory and application of skills. It’s definitely worth the time to provide these breaks. Teachers benefit from them, too!