Promoting Focused Attention; Teaching your Child the Essential Brain Break
“Uuuwwaaaahhhh” I heard from our dining room table and recognized immediately the telltale sign of my son getting frustrated with his homework. “He hasn’t been working that long,” was my first thought. My second was, “this is gonna be a long night.” Children of all ages will experience frustration during homework time. And because we want our children to succeed, our reaction to that frustration might be “oh, come on, you can do it” and also, “dig in, don’t give up, keep going!” But when a child is truly feeling stuck, they may begin to spin their mental wheels getting nowhere. This can lead to a long night of parent-child battles as a parent moves from encouragement to insistence. “You’ve got to get this done!” And the child moves from minor aggravation to giving up. “I just can’t figure it out!”
Research confirms that short breaks help a person’s brain refresh and process. Staring at the page may not produce any new thinking in your child and in fact, staying there when irritated can burn valuable fuel and decrease motivation to put in the hard work necessary to get through the learning process.
But if he walks away, gets some fresh air, or moves a bit, he might feel differently. This small change of scenery can boost thinking skills in powerful ways. He can think more clearly and become a better problem-solver when he returns. He may even gain some new ideas or solutions to his problem removed from the work setting. This functions in the same way that we experience the “shower effect.” Do you get your best ideas in the shower too? Or perhaps your most creative thoughts come when you are driving in the car with no laptop or notepad at the ready? Or maybe when you’ve laid down to go to sleep for the night, your brain starts firing off brilliant thoughts. In order to access our top thinking skills, we require a mental rest. Consider that a short brain break for your child is working with their natural thinking processes to facilitate them, not fight against them.
So although our intention to promote grit and “stick-to-attive-ness” in our children comes from a genuine hope to help them be successful, teaching and promoting brain breaks can help children learn to manage their emotions more effectively while working. And in addition, they may be able to extend their focused attention when they return to work with added motivation from the fuel they’ve gained.
Here are some simple ways to teach, practice, and promote the essential brain break.
Talk about the Brain Break during a regular (non-frustrating) homework time.
Or if homework is consistently frustrating, then pick a non-homework time to talk about how to take brain breaks.
See if you can come up with a few ideas together. What can your child do when taking a brain break? You might ask: “What makes you feel better or gives you comfort when you’re feeling frustrated?” You can share some restorative ideas like walking outside and breathing in the fresh air, doing some jumping jacks or a yoga pose, getting a drink of water, or visiting a favorite stuffed friend. For young children, imitate your favorite animal. Hop like a bunny or jump from limb to limb like a squirrel. For older children, listen to your favorite song or play on a musical instrument. Have your child write or draw their ideas. Keep that paper in your homework location so that when it’s needed, you can remind your child to take a look at what ideas she’s had and pick one. Daniel Goleman’s book entitled “Focus; The Hidden Driver of Excellence” recommends getting outside in nature as one of the most restorative (and just stepping outside your front door counts!). He also writes that checking email, surfing the web, or playing video games are not restorative so avoid those when you are generating brain break ideas.
Discuss school brain breaks.
Yes, brain breaks are key at school too. But does your child’s teacher offer them? Even if they do, they are likely structured breaks for all students and may not serve your own child’s needs at the moment she has them. Help her learn self-management skills by figuring out what she can do in the midst of frustrating moments when she is sitting at her desk completing a worksheet or taking a test. Because mindfulness simply means becoming aware of your body and your thoughts and feelings (and holding compassion for those feelings – not judgement), it can be done anywhere. Your child could count to ten slowly while breathing deeply. Your child could tap each finger on her page individually while breathing noticing the touching sensation. She could wiggle each toe in her shoes noticing how that feels. These pauses can help her bring her focus back to her work.
Set a timer.
Brain breaks should not be long. After all, your child has work to accomplish and especially on school nights, time is limited. So allow enough time to move away and change the perspective but not so much time that your child gets involved in another activity. One to three minutes could be enough to accomplish that goal. Also, put your child in charge of the timer. You don’t want to be the one managing this break. Give your child that responsibility.
Do a dry run.
Practice is important before using it. Include deep breathing in your practice. For young children, try out hot chocolate breathing or teddy bear breathing to practice this important part of the break. For older children, you can merely count to ten while breathing or exaggerate the sound of your deep breathing together. Call “brain break.” Move away from work, breathe deeply, and try out your child’s idea for one restorative practice. This practice will ensure that she is well-rehearsed and can call upon that memory when she’s feeling frustrated and taken over by her flight or fight survival brain.
Notice, remind, and reinforce through reflection.
After you’ve generated ideas and practiced, then notice when you see your child getting frustrated. You might say, “I notice you have a frustrated look on your face. Would a brain break help?” Then after she does a brain break and her homework is complete, reflect. “Did that help you and how did it help you?” in order to maximize her learning.
For parents, teaching and promoting brain breaks with your child can serve as a helpful reminder to us. Yes, we also require brain breaks as we deal with a myriad of responsibilities and attempt to use focused attention with our child, as well as our work, as well as our household and social responsibilities. If you notice you are feeling overloaded with it all, how can you incorporate brain breaks into your own day to help you become more effective? I think I’ll take one…right now.
For Educators, check out this great article on Edutopia on how to incorporate brain breaks and other focusing activities into your daily classroom routines.
Goleman, D. (2013). Focus; The hidden driven of excellence. NY: Harper Collins.
Kim et al. (2018). Daily micro-breaks and job performance: General work engagement as a cross-level moderator. Journal of Applied Psychology. 103 (7) 772-786.