Brain Breaks: Helping Students to Regulate Their Brains

I have been writing about ways to help students and children self-regulate. If you remember, brain regulation is a key factor in a child’s ability to participate in a relationship and have the maximum potential to reason and learn. I have been extremely pleased to see the positive results of these types of interventions in the lives of our students at Lakeside. Because of these interventions, many of our students have new opportunities to listen, learn and grow. As teachers teach with effective educational methods, these brain interventions add to the overall environment of the classroom.

One technique that we are proposing for students are brain breaks.

Students benefit from breathing exercises to calm their brains. (photo courtesy of
Brain Breaks: students benefit from breathing exercises to calm their brains. (photo courtesy of

Most of us really have a hard time listening and concentrating for a long period. In fact, research tells us the brain shifts about every 10 minutes; that is, it needs other points of focus.

So, it would make sense that students who are attempting to focus with a brain that is still developing would certainly need a break. Often, students take those breaks whether they are allowed or not. Unfortunately, their version of a brain break usually isn’t helpful to the classroom environment.

What is a brain break? 

It is a time where teachers are intentional to regulate the brains of students by intervening in the flow of the class with an intentional activity. 

Because students typically struggle to warm up to new issues in their classroom, and since teachers typically know their students, they should be able to anticipate responses to a brain break. Second, teachers should not use a brain break that they know will not go well. Third, they should be willing to get feedback from their students as to how well the brain break is working for them.

The brain break is intended to calm the student by allowing focus on a specific activity which is used solely to regulate the brain. Also, these brain breaks need to be carefully explained. Last, teachers or caregivers need to be patient, particularly when introducing a new brain break.

Sometimes it helps to have relaxing music in the background. The right music will keep students from being distracted (and can also be in and of itself a good exercise.).

Brain breaks can be as easy as a breathing exercise.

A breathing exercise is a no-cost break that can be done simply and within minutes.

  • One brain break is simply to be silent while concentrating on breathing in and out. Students can be asked how it feels to feel air going in and going out of their lungs while breathing. It is extremely calming to do so.
  • Another example is square breathing. Breathe in through your nose for a count of four then exhale through your mouth for a count of four. Repeat this for 2 to 4 minutes. This helps to regulate breathing and calms the student down.
  • Belly breathing occurs when a student focuses on breathing from the diaphragm.  It is accomplished by having the student put his/her hands either behind their back as far as they can or up and behind their head then just breathe. Doing this forces their breath down to their belly and subsequently re-trains their body to belly-breathe. It helps regulate their brain and improves their thought process.

There are other breathing techniques, but the ones above are popular and will offer students the break to calm and shift back to their neo-cortex so they can be more cognitive. What’s more, as they learn to self-regulate, students build resilience against distractions and potential learning problems—a good skill to have.

It seems both practical and logical that taking such breaks would improve learning, minimize behavior problems, and help students to think more dynamically in their classroom. Doesn’t it seem worthwhile to attempt these interventions to help our students in these ways? Certainly it is worth trying to see if rhythmic breathing can help our students focus.

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

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