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Brain breaks make a big difference

Posted on Jan. 2, 2019

RIVERDALE GRADE SCHOOL – Have you ever wondered what is happening in your child’s brain when, for example, they have a temper tantrum or get stuck on a negative emotion? Well, they do, too. That’s why our young students are exploring their brains and learning to build more adaptive ways of handling big emotions. 

How my brain works 

Our 2nd graders just wrapped up their study of the human brain. "We sang, we researched, we made a model of the brain using clay," say job-share teachers Michelle Sager and Alison Barron. "We shared stories from our hippocampus, and heard from brain experts in the real world. All this work laid the foundation for students to understand what is happening in our bodies when we have an emotional response." 

Their studies prompted one student to tell her mom she could no longer have a nightlight in her room because it would diminish her brain’s production of melatonin, and led another student to say, "What you just said made me pull a file from my hippocampus, the place where I remember things." 

students make models of the brain out of clay

The Zones of Regulation 

Teachers are also introducing the Zones of Regulation to help children get in touch with their emotions and use self-control. It’s often hard for students to verbalize big feelings but they can use the colors to identify which of the four zones they are in: green – happy and calm; blue – sad; yellow – excited, nervous or frustrated; red – angry or “flipping your lid.” 

From kindergarten through 4th grade, students have been given a toolbox of strategies to bring their bodies into the green zone — the optimal zone for learning. These include brain break practices for using their prefrontal cortex to calm down their amygdala — such as yoga, meditation, square breathing and mindful coloring. Me Moves are exercises that get the left side of the brain talking to the right side of the body and vice versa. 

In 2nd grade classrooms, students falling out of the green zone can ask to spend three minutes at a brain break table where they choose a strategy — clay, stretches, breathing and more — to help them regain their focus and return to classwork. Mrs. Sager says that all students use the table and there is no judgment. In fact, she says the practice boosts self-awareness and empathy, as students are recognizing when to give friends space and when to check on them. 

What a difference 

Thanks to these efforts, teachers, students and parents are noticing a big difference — from better coping skills to a different tone at the dinner table. 

"Even my mom saw a difference. She said the first day I started meditation that I did not talk about the bad stuff in my day, only the good stuff in my day. It taught me to stay calm and be in the present," says 4th grader Cea B., who even started to meditate at home with her sister. 

Students are guided through child-friendly meditations using the Calm app, made free for teachers to use in class. Many grades make time for this practice after lunch, and teachers have been amazed at how tranquil and focused students are for the rest of the afternoon.

"Mrs. Hutchinson introduced me into the wonderful world of meditation," says 4th grader Harry S. "My experience with meditation started out rough but one day it just clicked. Now meditation awakens my soul. It’s super cool. When I am done with meditation it feels like a whole other day. The past is the past and there is nothing I can do about that. And the future is the future and there is nothing I can do about that. It has been a great helpful skill to have up my sleeve."

student meditating