Priming the Brain! Brain Breaks and Focused Attention Practices… What is the Difference?

Priming the Brain! Breaks and Focused Attention Practices
What’s the Difference?

As another semester winds down, I am left with valuable time for desired reflection, consolidation of all the learning that my students and I have shared, and an excitement to question and wonder about the relationship of the mind, brain, emotions and learning. In this article I want to discuss the differences between brain breaks and focused attention practices and the benefits of these inside every classroom and school.

Our brains are neurobiologically wired to pay attention to everything! We ingest process and retrieve information from our environments in unique ways. What is the difference between the mind and the brain? There is much discussion and research being hypothesized over this topic and I am not aware of any definitive answer; but I have embraced the theories and practices, weaving these into a temporary definition from research and experiences.

The brain is our machinery and our tool for learning, survival and feeling emotion. It is a vehicle that pays attention to the thoughts and feelings that move in and out of our minds. The mind is the driver of the vehicle. The mind decides consciously or unconsciously what to think, choose, feel, say to itself, as it questions, replays and wonders 24 hours a day. There is so much more that we do not know or understand about the brain and mind, as the research is in its infancy. For the purpose of this article, our students need to know that “awareness of mind” is critical to positive emotion and learning. When we are focused and paying attention to our thoughts, feelings and choices, we have a much greater opportunity to change those thoughts and feelings that are not serving us well in life and in school. When we grasp this awareness with understanding, our brains mimic the thoughts feelings and behaviors of our minds with a rewiring of neural circuitry that creates a neural trait which becomes a brain state.
Our minds are the sculptors of our brains.

Where we rest our eyes is always what we will see and perceive… we see with our brains! We therefore need to change up the perception, moving away from the dilapidated view that keeps us spinning in an old story about ourselves and others.
A brain break is a short period of time when we change up the dull routine of incoming information and feeling filtering in predictable and tedious well-worn roadways. Our brains are wired for novelty because we pay attention to any and every stimulus in our environment that feels threatening or out of the ordinary. In our human history, this was a wonderful advantage because our survival depended on this aspect of brain development.

When we choose to take a brain break, it refreshes our thinking and helps us to discover another solution to a problem or to see a situation through a different lens. We need to give our brains an opportunity to think and feel from different vantage points and this happens when we change up our routines and the fixed ways we learn, memorize and retrieve information.

A focused attention practice is different than a brain break in that this brain exercise attempts to quiet all of the thousands of thoughts that distract, frustrate and can create anxiety each day. When the mind is quiet and focused on a stimulus, we are able to be present with a specific sound, sight, taste or “now experience.” Research repeatedly reports that when we quiet our minds we ignite our parasympathetic nervous system reducing heart rate, blood pressure while enhancing our coping strategies to effectively handle the day to day challenges that keep coming. Our thinking improves, and our emotions begin to regulate so that we can approach an experience with variable options and reflections. Focused attention practices clear away the neural trash that builds up like plaque on our teeth. When there is a removal of neural garbage, our minds are primed to respond with increased clarity, collaborate with others and empathize Focused Attention Practices enhance our immune system, lessen anxiety and depression while protecting our minds from the toxic stress of neural hormones secreted for extended periods of time. These extended periods of being “bathed in a stress response state” increasingly diminish our ability to memorize and transfer new information as we create connections to our innate and learned knowledge. Think this sounds dramatic? It is absolutely not. Dr. Richard Davidson Dr. Mark Greenburg CARE Study

Below are examples of brain breaks to engage your students and you when the learning and environment begins to turn dull, repetitive and we have lost our focus and curiosity. Change these up and modify according to your students’ developmental needs.

1. Pick any object out of a “junk bag” and ask students to come up with two ways this object could be reinvented for other uses. They can write or draw their responses. I always carry a bag of objects from around the house containing markers, scrap paper and anything that one would find in a junk drawer. An example might be a can opener or a pair of shoe laces. Once students have drawn or written down an invention then they can walk the room for one minute sharing and comparing.
2. Squiggle Story- on a blank sheet of paper, whiteboard or promethium board, draw one squiggly line and then give students one minute to stand and draw with their opposite hand, turning the line into a picture or design of their choice.
3. Movement is critical to learning. Have students stand and blink with the right eye and snap their left hand, repeating opposite instructions. Students could also face one another and tap the right foot one time, left foot two times and right foot three times building speed they alternate toe tapping with their partner.
4. Name that tune- One student hums five notes of a familiar song and the other partner guesses; then we switch.
5. Sing the alphabet with names of objects rather than the letters.
6. Teach sign language or make up a language, speaking to one another for 30 seconds and then switch as one speaks and the partner interprets the sign or made up language.
7. Name as many major cities in the US as you can in 30 seconds/ Name as many countries as you can in 30 seconds.
8. Mental Math- give a set of three instructions, counting the sequence to a partner for 30 seconds. Example: Count by 2’s until 20, then count by 3’s until 50, finishing with 7’s until 80. Switch and give the other partner another set of numbers to count.
9. Draw a picture in the air and the partner guesses what it is. Teacher could give students categories such as foods, places, or sport objects to narrow the guessing in a short period of time.
10. Story-starters- A student or teacher begins a story and for one minute either individually or with a partner. The students then complete or continue on with a silly (appropriate ending.) This could also be used in a circle much like the game of telephone.
11. Rock Scissors Paper Math- With the traditional game, the last call out is “Math” and with that call, students either lay out one, two, three or four fingers in the palm of their hand. The best of three wins.
12. This last brain break is a great transitional one that can “wow” the students for 10 minutes… Students may work in small groups and each group is given five items to create an invention for the 21st century! They can draw, discuss or write and then share with the group. Invention Breaks take us out of the normal thinking mode and allow us to create outside the lines!
13. Each student is given a piece of paper and is told they have 90 seconds to make connections to the paper…for example, paper is connected to tress, sunlight, pens, notebooks, stories, books and finally movies! You could use flashlights, pencils, erasers, a pair of socks, an almond, a piece of chewing gum, etc. Brain loves to make associations.
14. Pose a problem to the class. The students may work alone or with a partner to discuss a possible solution. These problems can be concrete or emotional and abstract.
A. The car won’t start, I have to be at school in 30 minutes and I have 10% battery on my cell phone…what are the options.
B. My homework is nowhere to be found! I did last night and put it on the kitchen table and now, no one knows where it is? If I do not turn this in, my grade in this class is severely affected. The bus comes in 5 minutes.
C. There are three puppies and a mother dog that show up in the field next to your house. They are hungry, cold and seem homeless. Everyone in your house is allergic to dogs and you have two cats. You cannot leave them here so what are a couple of options?
D. Math word problems using students’ names, relevant games, locations and interests.
15. Mirror Drill
1. Stand up.
2. Partners face one another.
3. Hold palms up in front of chest, facing partner.
4. The leader will move one hand at a time and the follower will mirror the movement.
5. Switch hands every minute.

16. Chair Action

Teacher will need to play music for this one!

1. Sit on the edge of your chair or desk while keeping your back straight.
2. As your teacher calls out actions, do them in time to the music.
A. Hiking: Swing your arms and reach left and right while tapping your toes and lifting your knees.
B. Swimming: Students move their arms as if doing the front or back crawl and kick their legs in a
flutter kick.
C. Cycling: Students hold on to the seat of their chairs and pedal their legs as if riding a bike.
D. Paddling: Students use an imaginary paddle to paddle a canoe (both sides).
E. Boxing: Students shadow box.

Chair Aerobics

Dr. Rick Duvall has trained a number of teachers in Jacksonville how to incorporate these simple dance moves that are performed while seated. The use of music increases brain activity. A Finnish study indicates wide networks in the brain, including areas responsible for motor actions, emotions, and creativity, are activated during music listening.

Focused Attention Practices (Our goal is begin with one minute to 90 second practices and build to five minute practices.)

1. Use the breath as a focus point as you begin. Have students place one hand close to the nose (not touching) and one hand on their bellies. As they breathe in have them feel their bellies expand and as they exhale, they can feel the warm air hit their hands. Students will focus on this breath for only one minute as they begin sharing that thoughts sometimes come into the mind uninvited and that is ok! When the thought comes in, exhale it away with the warm air hitting their hands.
2. With the focus on the breath, use colors. Inhale a deep green and exhale a smoky gray. Have the students imagine the colors as swirling and alive with each inhale. If a student is de-escalating from an angry moment, the color red is a great color to exhale.
3. For younger children, direct students to stand, and as they inhale, they can lift an arm or leg and wiggle it, exhaling it back to its original position. For younger grades as we begin these focused attention practices, it is good to use any type of movement with an inhale and exhale.
4. The Deep Dive Breath- this is an intentional breath when we inhale for four counts, hold for four and exhale slowly for four counts. You can increase the holding of breath by a few seconds once the students find the rhythm of the exercise.
5. Energizing Breath- we pant like a dog with our mouths open and our tongues out for 30 seconds and continue panting with our mouths closed for 30 more seconds as we take short belly breaths with one hand on the belly as we feel the belly expand quickly. We typically take three energizing pant breaths per second. After 30 seconds, the students return to four regular deep inhales and exhales.
6. The use of sound is very powerful for engaging a calm response. In the three classrooms I have been teaching, we use rain sticks, bells, chimes, and music. There are many websites that provide music for focus, relaxation and visualization. Here is one of my favorites.
7. As we breathe in and out through our noses, we can lie on the floor and place an object on our stomachs watching the rising and falling of our bellies as we deep breathe enhancing brain health.
8. Altoid mints are great for focused attention practices in that we focus on the taste, texture, and feel of the mint inside our mouths for one minute. As we experience this sensation, we always continue to breathe feeling our breath moving in and out.
9. A focused Attention Practice using the normal sounds in our classroom is another great way to hone in on attention. We close our eyes and focus on all the sounds that come into our mind, listing and sharing those sounds with one another.
10. Visualization is mind training at its best as athletes, artists and academicians have used this practice for thousands of years. The students love to create their “special place” in visualization. We take three minutes, close our eyes and get comfortable. The students are guided to create or go to a place that is their own! They can imagine a challenge or problem being solved in this space inviting family or friends. They may also choose to be alone of course. It is in this place, where their favorite colors, things, people and experiences are present assisting them in feeling capable, cared for and content.
When we place our attention on a stimulus in our environment and practice giving it our full attention, we are training the mind for focused rehearsal.

Relaxing our minds and creating time for a resting state of mind is critical to our social emotional and academic well-being. Dr. Matthew Leiberman, professor of psychiatry and psychology at UCLA has discovered a default network of brain circuitry that is activated when we rest. In this dorsomedial frontal lobe area, activation occurs when we step away from analytical thinking. Our brains automatically move into a social “theory of mind” reading. What these studies are revealing is that our resting brain is wired socially always working in the context of connections, relationships and reading the communication of others. To learn well is to be socially connected. To quiet the mind and rest is a tremendous practice for emotional, social and academic brain development. Our brains change structurally and functionally with every experience encountered and when we purposely create enhancing exercises and practices we create positive changes in our brain’s neural-circuitry. It is a lifelong skill and advantage.

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