If students are anxious, stressed, upset, or fatigued it is difficult for them to think clearly, to learn or to remember. In fact, Goodwin et al. (2916) found that the typical child’s on-task behavior declines as instructional duration increases from 10 to 30 minutes. However, research by Howie et al. (2014) found that exercise breaks significantly improved on-task behavior and it can also improve cognitive functioning (see Erickson et al., 2015).
To help students find a level of calmness and to refocus their attention, try some of the following activities.
To add in an extra element of fun, I used a rubber ‘yoga die’ I found at K-mart and glued a sticker over the top of the existing pictures to represent 12 different refocusing activities. When I can see students need a break, I ask them to throw the die and they do the activity showing on the top facing side.
Click here for picture cues. You can print, laminate, and then glue the pictures directly onto your die. Alternatively, you can glue each picture onto the back of the ‘hook’ side of a piece of Velcro and glue the back of the ‘loop’ side of a piece of Velcro directly onto the die. Each picture can then be connected to the die using the Velcro. In this way you can easily change the pictures on the die.
12 Refocusing Attention Activities
- Cross March: Students march on the spot with knees raised. As they raise their left knee, they touch it with their right hand. As they raise their right knee they touch it with their left hand. To increase the difficulty, have students raise their feet behind them. As each foot is raised, they reach behind their back and touch their left foot with their right hand and right foot with their left hand. Repeat 10x and then return to work.
- Simon Says: Play Simon Says for 30 seconds. If the instruction is prefaced with Simon Says, the students do the activity. If not, then they stand still. Keep it fast and include lots of physical activities (e.g., sit down, stand up, do one star jump, run on the spot, etc.).
- Plate Balancing: Give students a paper or plastic plate which they have to balance on their head. While balancing the plate they can do a variety of activities (e.g., balance on one leg, turn around, sit down and stand up, walk, etc.).
- Frog Jumps: Students start in a squatting position with their hands in front, heels touching, toes pointing outwards, and fingertips touching the floor. Begin by having students slowly stand while inhaling deeply and then return to the squat position while exhaling. After a couple of squats have students hop around the room for 30 seconds making sure that they fully extend for each jump and then return to a squat position.
- Stir the Pot: Students imagine they are standing in front of a huge cauldron filled with thick sticky caramel. Students pretend to plunge a large stirrer into the pot and then begin to slowly stir in a clockwise direction using their whole body. After 30 seconds, reverse the direction.
- Balloon Release: Give students a balloon to blow up. On the count of three, they release the balloon and try to catch it without moving.
- Caterpillar Walk: Students start on their knees with their hands shoulder length apart about 1 yard from their knees. They gradually straighten their legs so their body forms a triangle. Using tiny steps, students walk their feet up to their hands. They then walk their hands forward as far as possible before walking their feet up to their hands. Repeat for 30 seconds.
- Sword Fight: Use rolled up newspaper as swords. Try to hit each other’s ‘swords’ as hard as possible.
- Snow Angels: Students lie on their back on the floor, with legs together, and arms by their sides. Keeping their arms and legs on the floor, they move their legs apart and their arms out to the side and around until their hands meet over their head, then return to the starting position. Have students make 10 quick snow angels and then 5 slow ones, inhaling deeply as their arms and legs move outwards, and exhaling as their arms and legs return to the starting position. This also can be done as a standing activity with the feet shoulder length apart and not moving.
- Ruler Jump: You need two rulers for each student. The student stands with their feet together. Place one ruler at the back of the feet and one at the front so they are parallel to each other. Students then stand behind one of the rulers and attempt to jump over the front ruler. Without moving from their landing position, students reach behind and move the ruler jumped over so that it is now positioned in front of the toes in the new position. Students turn around and try to jump the new distance. Continue until students are no longer able to jump over the two rules.
- Dead Ant: Students lie on their back with arms and legs in the air moving backwards and forwards. When you say, ‘Dead Ants,” they have to stop moving and stay as still as possible.
- Helicopter: Stand with feet shoulder length apart, knees slightly bent, and arms loosely hanging from the side. Twist body from side to side from the hips. As the hips move, allow the arms to rotate from side to side at waist level and the head to turn.
A Few More Ideas
- Vision Change: Have students stand up straight with arms by their side and focus on a specific object in the room. Then they lift their arms in front (keeping them straight) and gradually widen them so they are fully extended as far back as they can go. As they move their arms apart they should inhale deeply and at the same time ‘open’ their vision so they can see as far around as possible (behind, in front, and on either side) of the object on which they originally focused. Gradually return to the original position, simultaneously exhaling and narrowing the focus back to the specific object. Repeat 2 or 3 times.
- Thunderstorm: Students create a thunderstorm by standing behind their desk and tapping with 1 finger on the desk, then 2 then 3, then 4, then their whole hand, creating the illusion of rain gradually building in intensity. Then work your way backwards as the storm ebbs away and all is quiet.
- 5, 4, 3, 2, 1: Call out an action holding up 5 fingers, for example, “Star jumps.” Students do 5 star jumps. Hold up 4 fingers and call out a new action, for example, “Squats,” and students do 4 squats. Continue until 1.
- Hot Hands: Students rub their hands together vigorously until they warm up. They then close their eyes and place their hands over their eyes while breathing deeply, holding and then exhaling slowly. Instruct them to focus on the warmth of their hands and on their breathing.
- Pattern Beat: Clap or beat a pattern for students to copy. Make sure students are standing.
- Skipping: Students mime skipping with a skipping rope, including a range of fancy moves and tricks.
- True or False: The teacher makes a statement. If true students do star jumps. If false, they run on the spot. This is also a good activity to revise concepts being learned.
- Vicarious Aquarium: Students lie on the floor and watch an aquarium video.
Erickson, K., Hillman, C., & Kramer, A. (2015). Physical activity, brain, and cognition,
Behavioral Sciences, 4, 27-32: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2015.01.005 .
Godwin, K., et al. (2016). Off-task behavior in elementary school children, Learning and Instruction, 44,128-143: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.learninstruc.2016.04.003 .
Howie, E., Beets, M., & Pate, R. (2914). Acute classroom exercise breaks improve on-task behavior in 4th and 5th grade students: A dose–response. Mental Health and Physical Activity, 7(2): https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mhpa.2014.05.002.