Brain Breaks: What You Need to Know

By Amanda Morin
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At a Glance

  • Taking brain breaks can make homework less frustrating for kids with learning and thinking differences.

  • Brain breaks can include physical activities or relaxing, quiet activities.

  • It’s important to pre-plan brain breaks and set ground rules with your child.

Homework struggles are something most parents and kids can relate to. But many kids with learning and thinking differences have these struggles every day. Their issues can make homework extra frustrating and harder to get through.

Brain breaks during homework or lengthy chores can help relieve that frustration. They can also help kids learn to self-regulate and self-monitor when they’re getting fed up or losing track of what they’re doing.

That’s especially helpful for kids with executive functioning issues. But it’s good for all kids to know how to refresh and refocus when homework gets tough.

Learn more about brain break activities and what might work for your child.

What Is a Brain Break?

A brain break is just what it sounds like—a break from whatever kids are focusing on. Short brain breaks during work time have been shown to have real benefits. They reduce stress and frustration and increase attention and productivity.

The key is to take them before fatigue, distraction or lack of focus set in. For grade-schoolers, that’s typically after 10 to 15 minutes of work. At that point, they may need a three- to five-minute break. Middle- and high-schoolers can work for longer—up to 20 to 30 minutes before a break.

The goal of brain breaks for kids is to help their brains shift focus. Sometimes that means getting up and moving, especially if your child has been sitting for a while. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, which helps with focus and staying alert. It also reduces stress and anxiety, making it easier to focus on important tasks.

Research has also shown that kids learn more quickly after they’ve exercised. In one study, kids were 20 percent faster at learning vocabulary words after they’d exercised than when they hadn’t.

But brain breaks don’t always have to be active. Relaxing, quiet activities can have similar benefits. They may also be a better option for kids who can get overstimulated by a physical brain break. Active breaks may make it tougher for these kids to settle back down to do homework.

Asking kids to do a short, guided meditation exercise, directed drawing, doodling or quiet stretching can work, too. Just a few minutes can be enough time to give the overworked area of the brain time to recharge.

What Successful Brain Breaks Look Like

To make a brain break effective for your child, there are a few things to consider. First, you’ll want to make sure it’s an actual break. Moving from homework to an activity that feels like more work won’t help your child stay focused.

For kids who need quiet and relaxation, a brain break can be as simple as actively sitting still. While they do that, kids can also take a minute to feel their heartbeat.

For kids who need activity, taking a “dance break” is a fun way to refocus and refresh. Classroom teachers who work with kids with learning and thinking differences often use this technique. Kids leave their seats to dance to a favorite song or two before getting back to work.

Here are some examples of typical physical activities:

  • Stretching breaks that include yoga poses (dog, cat, cow, bug, rock) and animal walks (walk like a bear, hop like a frog, stand like a flamingo, fly like a bird)

  • Wall push-ups

  • Regular push-ups

  • Yoga ball activities

  • Sit-ups

  • Jumping jacks

  • Running in place as fast as possible

  • Cross crawls (touch hand to opposite knee)

  • Rocket ship jumps (bending down, touching toes and bouncing while counting down from 10, then blastoff)

  • Snow angels on the floor

Your child may also benefit from activities often used as part of a sensory diet. These might be oral-motor activities like chewing on a crunchy snack or doing tactile activities, like using Silly Putty. (See a sample sensory diet with over 50 activity suggestions.)

How to Plan Brain Breaks

Whatever activities you use, it’s important to do some pre-planning with your child. That includes setting ground rules around the purpose of a brain break.

For some kids, a brain break may need to happen when they’re getting frustrated or distracted.

For others, it may be a reward for staying on task for a certain amount of time. Or, it may be a step on the way to accomplishing a larger goal. (For example, taking a break after 10 minutes of silent reading to make sure your child is able to finish 30 minutes of reading.)

You’ll also need to figure out how to schedule brain breaks. There are two ways to schedule breaks: by intervals of time or by ratio of behaviors (number of tasks completed).

  • Interval breaks: Younger kids tend to benefit from taking breaks at timed intervals. For instance, your child might work for five minutes and then take a two-minute break. You can use a timer to help your child understand how much time is passing. It helps kids learn what they can do in a set amount of time. Give specific instructions about how long the break will last, and explain the activity. Then start the timer. The timer provides a built-in warning that the break is winding down. You can also use verbal reminders like, “Wasn’t that fun? Now it’s time to get back to your homework!”

  • Ratio breaks: Older kids tend to benefit from taking breaks that are tied to a certain number of behaviors. For instance, once the math homework is complete, your child might take a five- or 10-minute brain break before moving on to English homework. Or after completing five out of 10 math problems.

Other Benefits of Brain Breaks

Knowing how to take a brain break can help kids in ways that go beyond recharging and getting through work.

Brain breaks can help reduce anxiety, which is common in kids with learning and thinking differences. And being able to return to a task and get it done can build self-confidence and self-esteem. It can also show kids that there are lots of ways to work on challenges and stay motivated.

Key Takeaways

  • Brain breaks can help your child reduce stress and build self-esteem.

  • Make sure your child takes brain breaks before fatigue and distraction set in.

  • You can schedule brain breaks based on timed intervals or on when your child completes specific tasks.

About the Author

About the Author

Amanda Morin 

worked as a classroom teacher and as an early intervention specialist for 10 years. She is the author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education. Two of her children have learning differences.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Ellen Braaten, PhD 

is the director of LEAP and codirector of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, both at Massachusetts General Hospital.

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